When was the last time you disagreed with someone at work and it led to a major conflict? And do you know the best strategies for dealing with conflict at work?

Do you have heated and difficult conversations on a daily basis, or do you consider yourself someone who never has any conflict or disagreement?

If the answer’s never, then you might want to hold off from patting yourself on the back just yet, because it’s possible that the reason for this isn’t that you’re super awesome and never have any disagreements or conflict, but rather that your strategy for dealing with conflict is avoidance. This doesn’t mean to say that the conflict isn’t there, but that you just avoid dealing with it head-on.

Common Causes of Conflict At Work

So what are some of the most common causes of conflict that you can experience in the workplace?

Unclear job roles

Lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities can cause friction amongst team members. Where people are unclear about where their role ends and another team member’s role begins, this can lead to unnecessary confusion, frustration, and ultimately work and performance suffering. Having clearly defined roles means team members can work well independently and can more easily pull together when teamwork is required. What’s more, too much time isn’t wasted on discussions around who should be doing what.

Different work styles

There is a myriad of personality assessments which you can take to help you understand your preferred working style.

But whether you’re familiar with the Red, Yellow, Green and Blue colors of Insights Discovery, or you speak in terms of the Dominance (D), Influence (I), Steadiness(S), and Conscientiousness (C) traits as described by DISC, or even if you see yourself as an INTJ as described by MBTI, whatever tool you might be aware of, one thing that’s clear is that everyone’s different.

Different preferences in working style can lead to conflict, so knowing your own style is something that will definitely come in handy when dealing with conflict at work.

Let’s say you prefer to work in silence, while your colleague prefers to think out loud. You can see how working in close proximity on a daily basis could quickly lead to some challenges if you’re both not aware of your own or your colleagues preferred way of working.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t feel comfortable being yourself. What it does mean is that you should be aware of the fact that just because you like to work in a certain way, it doesn’t mean everyone else does and you need to be mindful and considerate of your colleagues’ approaches.

[Related:10 Things You Can Do That Will Improve Your Relationship With Your Boss]

Personality clashes

Just as different personality traits mean different working styles, it also means the potential for personality clashes.

Like the colleague whose always picking at your work, who always seems to spot the problems with any idea or plan.

If you’re working closely with this type of individual, you may have started to feel that they have a negative attitude or you may even think they’re trying to show you up- but perhaps the real reason is that their personality is just much more detail-oriented than yours. Therefore, you both have very different ways of seeing things.

Without this awareness, things can feel very difficult, leading to conflict.

[Related: 7 Essential Steps For Building Good Relationships At Work]

Unhealthy competition

A bit of healthy competition can definitely be a good thing. It can motivate you to be more innovative, work harder and smarter, and can increase camaraderie within and between teams. Unhealthy competition is a different animal.

According to the Harvard Business Review, unhealthy competition can lead to fear and anxiety and can even cause people to do things that are highly unethical to win. Not only this, where there is unhealthy competition individuals and teams may work in silos, avoid sharing information, and avoid collaboration leading to a toxic work environment and increased workplace conflict as well as poor overall performance.

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together

Unfair treatment

Unfair treatment comes in many forms. This includes:

  • Unequal pay
  • Bullying
  • Harassment
  • Discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, sexual orientation, disability, and discrimination against women returning to work after being on maternity leave.

Unfair treatment lowers team morale and makes people feel unappreciated.

It can have a damaging psychological impact, can make you feel isolated, and can lead to stress and even depression.

Dealing with unfair treatment can be challenging and can lead to significant conflict.

Poor management

The impact of poor management can be highly significant and can last far beyond that job alone. If you’ve ever experienced bad management, you’re one of many. 80% of people have experienced bad management according to HR Magazine. With issues ranging from micromanagement to aggressive and even threatening behavior.

Poor management can also encompass a lack of support, lack of feedback, and poor communication and interpersonal skills, all of which can make it very difficult to perform in your role and succeed.

Lack of training

Where adequate training isn’t provided, challenges and conflict can occur down the line. This could be due to mistakes being made or due to the fact that the team feels that someone isn’t pulling their weight. Because even though this could be down to a lack of training, colleagues might not know.

Training and Development are important when you’re starting a new role in a new company and when you’re moving to a new or different role internally.

When starting a new role, the need for training is often recognized. While it’s not always successfully done, companies will often try to give new starters training on the systems and processes necessary to succeed in their role.

When moving internally however, training can sometimes be neglected because others think you already have the knowledge of the company systems and processes making things much easier for you. However, this might not necessarily be the case and a level of support and training is still required in order for you to succeed in the new role.

Poor communication

When it comes to conflict of any kind, there is one commonality. Regardless of the reason for it, whether it’s someone barking orders, or someone not communicating at all and not sharing information, poor communication will always lead to a level of conflict. Making good communication skills critical to resolving conflict effectively.

[Related:5 Simple Tips For Improving Communication At Work]

So what are the most effective ways to resolve conflict at work?

Dealing With Conflict In The Workplace

What Are The Best Conflict Resolution Strategies For Dealing With Conflict At Work?

According to Dr. Kenneth W. Thomas and Dr. Ralph H. Kilmann who created the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, there are 5 strategies for handling conflict which we all use to varying degrees.

According to the model, there are two underlying dimensions of human behavior (assertiveness and cooperativeness) which can then be used to define five different modes for responding to conflict situations:

Competing Assertive Uncooperative – Possible win-lose or no resolution

When two people compete – they don’t back down. Competing also known as forcing involves pushing your agenda or concerns despite any push back from the other person.

In some cases such as a life-threatening emergency, this approach may be necessary. The advantage is that it can help get to a resolution fast. But while this approach might increase your self-esteem there lots of downsides.

Not only can relationships suffer or be damaged long term but you might find that you’ve met with the same forceful approach by the other party which could mean a long conflict standoff which means things not getting resolved.

Finally, not everyone can employ this type of approach and for some, it requires way too much energy!


Image: Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument from psychometrics.com

Avoidance – Unassertive uncooperative – no resolution

Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative. If you are an avoider of conflict, then you prefer to sidestep conflict altogether. While it may seem that avoiding conflict is a positive solution, no real solution can be found or progress made. Therefore avoidance is best avoided when it comes to conflict resolution in any setting.

Accommodating – unassertive and cooperative/ Win-Lose

Do you find yourself always letting others have their way just to keep the peace? If this is you then you are an accommodator. This means your preferred way to deal with conflict is through unassertive cooperation.  Again, this is not the best approach. It can lead to other more assertive people taking advantage/ taking over and dominating and in the long run, can also lead to unresolved issues, resentment, and frustration.

Compromising – medium level of assertiveness and cooperation/ Lose-lose

Compromising looks for a speedy and mutually acceptable solution for both parties. The benefit of compromising is that it means you can reach a solution quickly avoiding too much conflict, even if the solution is only a temporary one.

However, there are some drawbacks. Since both parties need to give something up in this instance you might end up feeling that it’s a lose-lose and what’s more it could be difficult to ensure that everyone sticks to their end of the compromise.

Collaborating  – assertive and cooperative/ Win-Win

Collaboration means working with the other party to come to a solution that everyone agrees with. Unlike compromising, when you’re collaborating, it is more than likely that the solution is a completely new idea that both of you have co-created meaning that no one feels they’ve had to give up or lose anything.

Collaborating has many benefits. It’s the most win-win solution and you and your colleagues will be more likely to go away feeling equally committed to what’s been agreed. The drawback is that it can take more time to generate new ideas and agree on a new approach

What Approach Will You Take Next Time You’re Dealing With Conflict At Work?

Armed with these 5 conflict resolution strategies, can you see which approach you’d prefer to take? And do you think that you could do with improving your skills in this area?

The approach you take doesn’t need to be rigid. It’s completely possible to shift approach depending on the specific situation and circumstances plus whose involved in the conflict.

For example, if you have some unresolved conflict with a client or customer, you might decide that in this case, the best solution would be to resolve the issue by accommodating their requests to build the relationship long term.

On the other hand, if you often find yourself being more accommodating than most, at some point, an issue might come up where you feel that you’re not prepared to accommodate and you’ll find yourself standing your ground.

Now you know the Thomas Kilmann conflict resolution strategies next time you enter a conflict situation at work,  you’ll at least know what options are available to you and what approach is likely to be most suitable or realistic under the circumstances. Better yet, you’ll have a better chance of diffusing the situation and dealing with conflict at work more effectively.