6 Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies for the Workplace

You’ve entered the office, ready to seize the day. There’s a knock at the door.

Two employees, Alex and Jamie—are refusing to work together. 

  • Alex feels that funding for a new marketing campaign is top priority
  • Jamie has their own ideas on how to allocate financial resources. Jamie isn’t exactly receptive to compromise

Both Alex and Jamie are clearly frustrated, and quarterly budgeting can’t go on until both employees agree.

Do you:

A) Decide on the budget allocation yourself without considering either Alex or Jamie’s reasoning, or resource needs?

B) Act as a mediator and encourage Alex and Jamie to reach a no-brainer compromise: splitting the budget down the middle?

C) Guide Alex and Jamie to identify the project’s core objectives while expressing empathy, encourage them to express their perspectives, and explore options that best align with the company’s collective mission?

Psst. The answer is C.

If you’ve run into scenarios like this before—you know just how challenging it can be to solve conflicts.

One wrong step and you can jeopardize the project, weaken collaboration, and possibly leave an employee unhappy.

The truth is, you’re not alone. A Gitnux report states that managers spend roughly six hours a week (around 15% of their time) solving workplace conflicts.

Plus, over 85% of employees have experienced some level of conflict at work.

Here, we’re covering the six best expert-led strategies for solving workplace conflict and keeping them from getting in the way of team collaboration and business goals. 

So, what exactly constitutes a workplace conflict? We thought you’d never ask.

What is workplace conflict?

workplace conflict definition

Workplace conflict refers to any workplace situation involving disagreement, tension, and discord among employees. 

While a natural part of any organization, conflicts can vary in scale, severity, and underlying reasons.

When left unresolved, conflicts can weaken a team’s ability to collaborate effectively, undermine projects, or even lead to harassment and bullying in worst-case scenarios. 

Some common types of workplace conflict include:

  • Task-based conflicts: when employees disagree on how to complete tasks or projects (like our Alex and Jamie example above).
  • Personality conflicts: when employees have personal differences that may take the form of general incompatibility.
  • Value conflicts: when employees with altogether opposing beliefs and values clash, resulting in tension and even emotional disputes.
  • Authority conflicts: characterized by disputes over decision-making and struggles for control within a team.

What causes workplace conflict?

Wherever people get together and strive towards a predetermined goal—such as an organization’s mission—conflicts are bound to arise.

Each company is different, with a unique culture, infrastructure, and workforce.

The conflicts that ensue? Just as varied. 

Some common causes of workplace conflict include:

  • Communication issues
  • Incompatibility
  • Role ambiguity
  • Poor management
  • Poor training and processes
  • Lack of power skills from managers 
  • Resource constraints
  • Differing interests
  • Stress and pressure 
  • Cultural differences

We could go on, but there are about as many reasons behind conflicts as there are tasks to check off at your end-of-quarter close.

Instead, let’s learn how to solve conflicts and get your people and projects back on track.

6 Ways to resolve conflict in your workplace

Before solving conflicts in the workplace, it pays to have a game plan. The strategies below allow you to facilitate effective solutions.

They help you keep company objectives intact while fostering collaboration and even strengthening cohesion for future challenges

To support and guide this article, we’ve asked Karen Feeley, corporate training provider and CEO of Comprehensive Learning Solutions to weigh in with her expert insights on solving even the toughest workplace conflicts. 

Here are six sure-fire ways to resolve conflict in the workplace.

Get to know your team better

Every employee is different. We don’t just mean their skillset either. When working in teams, differences in communication styles, personalities, and outlook all come to the surface. 

While these differences form a kaleidoscope of valuable opinions, they can also be a source of friction.

To better prepare yourself for conflicts—knowing what makes the individuals in your team tick, and learning to speak their language, goes a long way. 

Karen Feeley, our Workplace Training Specialist, emphasizes different working styles—one of the biggest of these differences.

She explains: In general, people are usually either task-focused or people-focused. 

Task-  focused people give priority to finishing the work on time. They tend to want to make sure everything is done, and everyone is treated equally and fairly.  

People-focused people give priority to human emotions and relationships. They tend to focus more on the emotional consequences of actions and consider everyone’s special circumstances and doing what is most merciful or compassionate, even if it means that not everyone receives the exact same thing.

By getting a grasp on your team’s differences, you’ll be able to identify points of possible conflict and friction between them.

This sets the stage for better understanding perspectives and opposing communication styles.

To wrap up: prevention is the best medicine. Knowing your team’s personality types and psyche better up front will help you understand which employees may not be the best fit for working together or fulfilling objectives.

Identify the source of conflict quickly

The source of a conflict might look obvious on the surface, but you’ll probably need to get your hands dirty and dig deeper before you reach the root problem. 

A disproportionately loud dispute may seem to have started because of a misunderstanding.

But, after getting to the nitty gritty, you may realize that an employee is dealing with high levels of stress due to their large workload.    

Karen emphasizes the power of keeping stories external for identifying root causes:

“We all tell ourselves stories about why something happened. Typically, for example, if ‘I’ miss a deadline, the story is external: ‘My computer kept crashing.

My boss gave me higher-priority work.’ But, if ‘Bob’ misses the deadline, the story turns internal: ‘He is lazy. He doesn’t know how to prioritize. He doesn’t care.’ 

Ask yourself: ‘What other reason would a rational, sane person have for doing X?’”

Once you have the root cause of an issue, you can move on with effective strategies for solving the dispute.

But, to do either of those things, you’ll first need to stretch those empathy muscles and tune into employees’ stories—what’s going on behind the scenes?

Use the power skill: active listening

Not all great communicators are managers—but greatest managers are excellent communicators.

Exercising empathy and actively listening to employees is a superpower when it comes to solving workplace disputes.

When talking to employees about conflicts, give each of them the opportunity to address their concerns and perspectives. 

In fact, listening is considered one of the seven core power skills needed for the 5th Industrial Revolution. Atholl Murray, educational consultant, notes:

“As teamwork and collaboration become more important, individuals who can clearly express their ideas, actively listen, and collaborate effectively with others will thrive.”

active listening skills

With active listening and empathy, you should be able to understand and acknowledge any frustrations with your immediate answer.

To get you on the right foot, consider starting sentences with:

  • “If I’ve understood correctly, you’re feeling… because of…”
  • “So what you’re saying is…”
  • “From your perspective, it seems that…, is that correct?”
  • “It’s clear that this is important to you because…”

Beyond making your employees feel heard, you’re also evolving a deeper understanding of the issue at hand.

A complete picture of the conflict gives you the information you need to start working towards a solution while ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

Provide workplace training for masterful communication

Much in the same way employees may need training to close technical skill gaps, power skill training in communication can foster better team cohesion.

Besides helping with conflict resolution, programs may help you minimize the chances of conflicts evolving in the first place—everyone’s happy from the get-go!

Karen emphasizes how workplace training can help you develop an in-depth understanding of different communication types:

“Workplace training programs can help teams understand what are the different behavioral types and the clues and cues that help to identify that. 

They can take teams through self-assessments, explain the strengths and weaknesses of each type, clarify the group’s composition by type, and do activities that help bring understanding of how best to interact with each type and how best to leverage their skills at work.”

With a training program in place, you’ll have the groundwork for facilitating effective communication between employees.

To ensure effectiveness, you should also implement the training program across all seniority levels.

All that’s left is to put it into practice.

Address workplace conflicts with the perfect P.O.I.S.E

Even with a set of effective strategies in the back of your head, you may feel at a loss when real-world conflicts arise.

Not to worry, all you need is—poise. We’re not just referring to calm and confidence here. Although, that’s exactly what using this framework will result in.

Karen coined the P.O.I.S.E model for a structured approach to conflict resolution.

She explains:

I like Comprehensive Learning Solution’s POISE model for helping to manage difficult conversations, and resolving conflict: 

  • Prepare one’s self
  • Open the discussion safely
  • Identify root causes of the problem
  • Search for alternatives to solve the issue
  • Evolve a plan

Taking this calm and collaborative approach gives all parties a choice in the resolution and fosters mutual respect and trust.

P.O.I.S.E is all about having a working framework for mapping out your way toward resolution.

But you don’t need us to tell you that things don’t always go as planned.

Workplace conflicts are unpredictable, you may need to de-escalate before you put your plan in place.

De-escalate hot conflicts with a cool head

Conflicts are tricky because they carry the additional risk of engulfing others in their wake.

What starts as a disagreement between two employees can pan out to dissatisfaction and tension between others. 

Next thing you know, you’re up to your ears in complaints, sour relationships, and low productivity.

As a manager, it’s best to nip these situations in the bud ASAP. When conflicts go too far, they can escalate into bullying and harassment.

Anybody who feels that their workplace has grown hostile, intimidating, or abusive has grounds to take legal action.

But that’s not all. Failure to quickly defuse accounts of bullying can make managers liable for harassment; even if they didn’t cause it.

It’s absolutely crucial to make sure you’re going into conflicts with a cool head and de-escalating before they turn into cases of harassment or bullying.

Otherwise, you may end up with a company lawsuit for employee neglect knocking at your door. 

Taking a few moments to cool off and not responding immediately when conflicts do arise can make all the difference.

Karen notes just how difficult (yet rewarding) this tip is: 

“The probably most difficult piece of advice is to get hold of one’s own emotions.

Taking a little time to cool off before responding usually helps to de-escalate situations immensely.”

With a calm approach, you’ll have one of the most valuable tools you need to keep tensions low enough to address issues, make a plan, and carry it through.

Ray Slater Berry

“I advise managers I train that when someone explains a conflict to you, and things are getting heated, to use the two-chair imagery. 

Imagine you’re sitting on one chair while someone explains the situation. When they’ve finished talking, imagine standing up from that chair, stepping to the side, and sitting on the chair next to you before responding.

The silence will give you enough time to compose your thoughts and de-escalate a fiery topic with reason and empathy.”

Ray Slater Berry, Founder at dslx

Start fostering a healthy team with these top conflict resolution strategies

Workplace conflicts are bound to arise in one form or another as you build a business.

When they do, you want to be prepared with the right strategies for swift and smooth resolution. 

Strategies like the P.O.I.S.E framework can help you masterfully solve conflicts with calm confidence.

You can then move on to identifying the root problem, exercising empathy, and de-escalating with a cool head.

Place the cherry on top by proactively introducing workplace training or getting to know your team’s communication style up front.

With these strategies under wing, you’re not only becoming a master of conflict resolution but you’re also preparing your work environment for less friction when they do appear. 

Remember, conflict resolution is an essential skill for any manager or entrepreneur, whether you’ve built up your reputation as a seasoned leader or you’re just starting out to do so.

Make the time to invest in yourself, before you can invest in others.

Armin Tanovic has worked as a simultaneous translator, copywriter, content writer, and editor for various companies in Europe and the US.