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Managing conflict in the workplace

Every business leader will encounter conflict in their team at some point, but this isn’t always a bad thing. Managed effectively, conflict can end up being a force for good.


As much as we all like to think we can act ‘professionally’, conflict is an inevitable aspect of working life. Personality clashes happen, managers get carried away on a power trip, workers have gripes about their workload compared to that of other employees. The CIPD estimates that over a third of employees have been involved in an interpersonal conflict at work during the past year. Realistically that percentage is only likely to increase as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic takes its toll on all of us.

If we leave conflict unresolved it can be extremely damaging to our business long-term. Motivation can dip, absences can increase, and productivity nose-dives. We may even lose some employees altogether as they seek to move into an organisation with a less toxic atmosphere.


So how can business leaders deal with conflict before it spirals out of control?


  1. Nip it in the bud

Never ignore conflict in the hope that it will resolve itself. At some point in life we’ve all realised that we can’t remember why we started arguing with someone in the first place; we just know that we hate them and it was definitely their fault! Learn to spot the warning signs of a conflict brewing – these can be new cliques forming, employees gossiping about each other, workers taking stress-related leave – and act fast to intervene. Most conflicts can be resolved through careful mediation, where you can steer people from their black-and-white views of a situation to appreciate the other person’s perspective.


  1. Have clear ground rules

In schools, behaviour policies are used not to ‘punish’ wrongdoers, but to help children ‘feel safe’. The theory is that if children know what the boundaries and sanctions for behaviour are, they are more likely to behave well, and call out others’ behaviour before it becomes a problem. We can mirror this approach in our businesses (don’t worry, we’re not suggesting that you hand out stickers for good work!) By having a clear policy of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in the workplace, and a documented process for how any interpersonal conflicts will be managed, employees will be encouraged to come forward in the early stages of conflict so that they can resolve the situation. This avoids letting it build up to a point where the organisation has to ‘punish’ the other person.


  1. Give your employees some autonomy

Conflict often arises because employees feel excluded from decisions, and that their opinion isn’t valued or listened to. Create a culture where even the ‘lowliest’ employees can make suggestions about how to improve or develop the way the business is run. If their suggestions aren’t taken on board, have the courtesy to explain why, and thank them for their contribution anyway.


  1. Remember that all conflict isn’t inherently bad

The creative process often relies on ‘conflict’ in the sense that healthy debate and problematising can lead to new, innovative ideas. This is different from people ‘playing devil’s advocate’ just to be difficult! Instead, the process is a deliberate and collaborative one, where a team works together to look at a problem from all possible angles before making a final decision on how to deal with it.


Unfortunately, not all conflict can be dealt with informally. If conflict boils over into or is rooted in bullying, racism, sexism and so on, then you have legal responsibilities to protect your staff, and should consult an HR expert on how to proceed.