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How to manage conflict in the workplace

A conflict in the workplace arises when there is a disagreement or clash of personalities or interests between people in the workplace or between the people and the organisation. Conflict in the workplace is not necessarily bad, in fact, the diversity of experience within a team can spark creative solutions and innovation.

Equally, different backgrounds and working styles when brought together can be the source of misunderstanding and trigger disputes or heated arguments over what is “right” or “wrong” or over gossips and stereotypes.

Conflict management in the workplace is the way disagreements, clashes and conflicting interests are managed in the workplace to reduce the negative impact they can have on individuals and the organisation.

Group of business people in conflict

Types of conflict in the workplace

Although there are several types of conflicts that could arise in the workplace, the main ones are interpersonal conflicts and conflicts of interest.

Interpersonal conflict

Due to individual differences, including different personalities, work preferences, backgrounds and sets of beliefs, each individual reacts in a unique way to situations at work impacting the relationships with others differently.

Interpersonal conflict in the workplace exists when people working for the same organisation cannot agree on what approach to take to achieve a certain outcome. Interpersonal conflicts can exist at all levels and between different levels in the organisation.

The Health and Safety Executive has identified relationships in the workplace as one of the key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, is associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates.

Conflict of interest 

Conflict of interest in the workplace exists when the personal or financial interest of an employee clashes with their professional duties towards the company they work for.

Why is conflict management important in the workplace?

Managing conflict at work is key in order to reduce the potential negative impacts that disputes and conflicting interest can have on the individuals and on the workplace.

Impact on the individual

According to CIPD report on managing conflict in the modern workplace from 2020,the impacts of conflict on the individuals include:

  • Stress, anxiety or depression.
  • Reduction in motivation and commitment.
  • Loss of self-confidence.
  • Unworkable relationships.
  • Decline in productivity.
  • Sickness absence.
  • Changed job roles, dismissal or resignation.
  • Legal dispute.
  • Formal disciplinary.

Impact on the organisation

  • Staff turnover.
  • Handling workplace conflict cost.
  • Employee productivity.
  • Reputation.
  • Employee morale.

In May 2021, workplace expert Acas published a report which shows that nearly half a million employees resign every year as a result of workplace conflict. It is estimated that workplace conflict costs UK employers £28.5 billion every year, an average of just over £1,000 for every employee.

This includes informal, formal and legal processes as well as the cost of sickness absences and resignations. The report identifies effective conflict management as critical in maximising productivity and efficiency in organisations.

A man struggling with stress

Why should a manager deal with conflict in the workplace?

Managers, supervisors and team leaders are usually responsible for bringing conflict out into the open to be resolved because if the conflict is not address at an early stage it is likely to escalate.

Confidently challenging any inappropriate behaviour sends a clear message to the team of what is acceptable and what is not within the premises.

However, anyone in the team who feels that an issue is not being addressed should feel comfortable enough to report it to the management team.

Managing interpersonal conflict in the workplace

An interpersonal conflict can be obvious, like a heated argument, or less visible, like exclusion. It can take the form of a disagreement between people due to personality clashes or a more serious type of unfair treatment like violence, bullying or harassment.

Sources of interpersonal conflict in the workplace

According to CIPD report on Managing conflict in the modern workplace from 2020 , the main issues prompting conflict in the workplace have not significantly changed since the previous survey carried out in 2015.

They include the seven main factors:

  • Differences in personality styles or working.
  • Individual competence or performance.
  • Level of support or resources.
  • Agreeing deliverables or setting targets.
  • Contracts of employment/terms and conditions.
  • Absence or absence management.
  • Promotion.

Additional common causes leading to workplace interpersonal conflict can be found on:

  • Interdependence of roles.
  • Not valuing other people’s point of view, ignoring and excluding others.
  • Blaming others.
  • Language barriers.
  • Poor time keeping.
  • Unacceptable behaviour or language.
  • Taking credit for someone else’s work.

There are also sources of friction that can lead to a more serious type of conflict, and these are:

  • Any type of discrimination.
  • Bullying or harassment and violence.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Theft.
Woman being bullied at work

The company’s responsibility

Interpersonal conflict in the workplace is inevitable when employees with different personalities, backgrounds and work styles are brought together for a shared business goal.

For this reason employers should:

  • Develop a conflict management policy and establish how to deal with unacceptable behaviour like bullying and harassment.
  • Promote a positive work environment that values teamwork, relationships, inclusivity, openness and fairness.
  • Train managers on how to address conflict and unacceptable behaviours in the workplace. People management is a skill and does not always come naturally, especially to those managers with great technical skills but limited experience with people.
  • Train employees on the company standards ensuring they are aware of the boundaries and how to raise a concern or report unacceptable behaviour.
  • Implement a regular review process that measures the effectiveness of the control measures in place and identifies opportunities for improvement.

Reducing conflicts at work contributes to a positive workplace culture that boosts team morale, helps retain valuable skills and talents, and reduces sickness absence.

Line managers, supervisors and team leaders play a vital role in determining the culture within their team, influencing the employees’ working experience.

There is so much the management team can do to prevent conflict, but it is also important to consider that different management styles can impact individuals differently. It is therefore essential that managers always reflect on their own potential contribution to the conflict before seeking to handle it.

How do managers prevent interpersonal conflict in the workplace?

  • Give new staff a comprehensive induction, introduce them to the team and offer support.
  • Encourage people to develop positive relationships from an early stage, as there is a level of interdependence within roles in each organisation which increases the chances of conflicts.
  • Get to know their team members preferred working style, as well as their personalities, as this can assist in determining how they will interact and therefore sharpen the manager’s ability to handle potential conflict.
  • Build an authentic relationship with the team in order to understand dynamics and monitor relationships.
  • Be clear on setting expectations and responsibilities and always be willing for open conversation and discussion. Show empathy.
  • Lead the way in fostering a culture based on dignity and respect. According to the CIPD report on Managing conflict in the modern workplace from 2020, in UK workplaces there is room for improvement on leading the way, as just 49% of the employees participating in the survey agree that ‘good behaviour is role-modelled by senior leaders in my organisation’, and 26% disagree.
  • Talk about diversity, inclusion and handling conflict constructively during team meetings and training sessions.
  • Be confident to challenge any hint of inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour immediately (e.g. a discriminatory remark). This will send a clear message of what is the standard to follow and what is not tolerated.
  • Have regular one-to-ones and try to create an environment in which people feel comfortable to share their concerns. Discuss performance and areas of concern that could potentially raise a conflict with others.
  • Acknowledge when a team member is causing stress to others and the impact this can have on the team dynamic.
  • Praise positive behaviour, as what gets celebrated usually gets repeated.
  • Encourage discussion and debate and discourage personal attacks.
Angry business man yelling at employees during conflict

How do managers resolve interpersonal conflict in the workplace?

Conflict can still arise in the workplace despite implementing preventative measures. At this stage it is vital that line managers are trained and confident in handling the situation.

There are several studies on addressing conflict in the workplace, and the majority suggest that the role of the manager is to understand what the conflict is about and to concentrate on the issue, not the personalities of those involved, removing emotions and opinions from the situation.

Possibly, depending on the type of conflict and intensity, it is always preferable to handle a conflict informally rather than through disciplinary and grievance procedures. Having an open relationship with the team members and a good knowledge of the team dynamic is very helpful at this stage to support an informal resolution.

  • Address the conflict as soon as possible. Do not expect people involved to straighten things out on their own. The truth is that sometimes what seems only a communication problem between individual has got its root causes in the organisational structure or work design. On her TED talk ‘Why there is so much conflict at work and what you can do to fix it’ Liz Kislik, a management consultant and business coach, discussed this topic and shared her experience in managing conflict in the workplace.
  • Rule out that the reason for the conflict is a behaviour that is not tolerated and which must be dealt with formally, for example when there is a serious allegation of bullying, harassment or discrimination.
  • Actively listen to the parties involved by showing genuine interest in what is going on without judgement.
  • Maintain a calm and professional attitude to help the parties involved to calm themselves down.
  • You might need to invite both parties to take a break and speak to them individually, asking relevant questions to understand the issue. You want to let them vent but still want to set boundaries.
  • You might need to speak to other team members to gain a broad view of the situation, and identify patterns of what is the root cause of the conflict.
  • Seek compromise, suggest a win-win resolution, if possible.
  • Get support from an external mediator if required.
  • Reflect of the episode, and how to prevent this from happening again in the future.

Formal methods of conflict resolution should only be used if absolutely necessary (like in the case of bullying, harassment, discrimination or violence), and in those cases where informal problem-solving has been unsuccessful.

It is key that managers are trained in handling these situations carefully. HR departments can usually provide useful advice you can learn more about conducting a disciplinary meeting in our knowledge base.

CIPD has also produced a detailed guide to dealing with conflict for line managers.

Managing conflict of interest in the workplace

Conflict of interest in the workplace exists when the personal or financial interest of an employee clashes with their professional duties towards the company they work for.

Some examples of conflicting interests are:

  • Accepting bribes from a client that wants favourable treatment.
  • Using the company car, tools and equipment to offer paid services during time off.
  • Working for a competitor during time off, and sharing confidential information.
  • Failing to report or investigate a gross misconduct of a colleague because of friendship.
  • Making a business decision to accommodate personal or financial needs rather than for the organisation’s benefit.
  • Hiring a friend or family member despite being unqualified.
  • Offering the same service the company is offering during time off.

Conflict of interest in the workplace can impact negatively both the organisation and the individual involved affecting:

  • The company reputation.
  • The company finances.
  • The level of productivity.
  • Staff turnover / job termination.
  • Compliance with the law.
A business problem at work being disputed in a meeting

How to prevent conflict of interest in the workplace

Every company should develop a company policy on conflict of interest that clearly establishes what is unacceptable and the consequences of the breach.

Most companies have one but, unfortunately, it is often printed on the employee’s handbook issued at the beginning of the employment, together with all the other policies, and is never mentioned again until there is a breach.

Employees are not always able to recognise that something is against the code of conduct and sometimes even line managers do not receive sufficient training on how to deal with a situation of conflicting interests.

In order to prevent conflict of interest and its consequences, businesses have the responsibility to train managers and equip them with the knowledge required to educate their team members on company codes of conduct and business ethics.

Regular refresher training has to be scheduled and designed in a way that makes it easier for employees to understand what constitutes a conflict of interest (with real life examples) and how to approach these situations.

Employees should be encouraged to report any conflicting interest as the first step to resolving the conflict.

How do managers resolve conflict of interest in the workplace?

Despite raising awareness and educating employees, a conflict of interest could still arise in the workplace.

If a line manager discovers that an employee is engaging in a conflict of interest, the first step should be to discourage this activity by making the employee aware of the breach or potential breach.

There are different variables that could affect the way a manger handles a situation of conflicting interests in line with the company policy, and these are:

  • The type of conflict.
  • The way the employee has handled the situation: did the worker get caught or was the potential of conflicting interest proactively reported by the individual involved? Was the activity that caused a conflict of interest performed maliciously or innocently?
  • The impact or the potential ramification of the impact on the business.

Depending on the above and the policy standards, the conflict of interest management procedure could lead to:

  • Informal resolution with the employee ending the conflicting activity.
  • Formal request issued by the employer to stop the conflict as a condition to continue to work for the company.
  • Termination of employment.
  • In the worst-case scenario, legal proceedings.
Man lost his job due to conflict in the workplace

Conclusions

Where there are people and interests involved there will always be circumstances where conflict arises from time to time. What is important is how its managed.

Companies must take responsibility and:

  • Set clear standards and policies on how to manage conflict at work and how to prevent it.
  • Train managers.
  • Implement a system of regular review to measure the effectiveness of the control measures in place and to identify opportunities for improvement.

Conflict in the workplace can be detrimental to individuals and organisations. However, if managed well, conflict can produce extremely positive results in terms of creative solutions that lead to innovation.

It is up to organisations to invest in people and workplace culture to monetise on the opportunities that a diverse workforce can bring.

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About the author

Evie Lee

Evie Lee

Evie has worked at CPD Online College since August 2021. She is currently doing an apprenticeship in Level 3 Business Administration. Evie's main roles are to upload blog articles and courses to the website. Outside of work, Evie loves horse riding and spending time with her family.



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