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How to Manage Conflict at Work

A knot forms in your stomach, and you feel momentarily speechless. Across from you, a colleague's words activate a mix of feelings in you—anger, frustration, confusion. This is a familiar experience for anyone who has worked with other humans. What happens next can either lead to the deterioration of the relationship or be a bridge for connection and trust. 

Let’s start with a fundamental truth: conflict is normal. It’s what happens when a diverse group of people with varying ideas, personalities, and backgrounds collaborate toward a shared goal. Not only inevitable, but conflict can also be beneficial, driving teams towards innovation and achieving ambitious goals. However, not all conflicts are productive; many can (and should) be avoided. 

There is also a great cost to conflict at work—one study focusing on American employees estimated that employees spent around 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, costing American companies $359 Billion.

Recent research further highlights the growing challenges organizations face when it comes to conflict: a Meyers-Briggs study on Conflict at Work from 2022 found that conflict at work has doubled since 2008, and managers now spend, on average, over 4 hours a week dealing with conflict. Further, about 1 in 4 workers believe their managers handle conflict poorly, and individual employee time spent dealing with conflict at work correlates with lower job satisfaction.

Conflict itself often isn’t the problem; it’s how it unfolds and how we relate to it. This article aims to equip you with strategies to be able to skillfully manage the essential conflicts that, when approached with care, can strengthen team bonds and unlock creativity and innovation

The importance of self-awareness for conflict at work

If you have worked, lived, or interacted with other humans, you already know what conflict is (and how it feels); however, it can be helpful to become aware of some of the layers of what influences individuals involved in conflict at work. Whether the conflict is about working processes, an assigned task or role, or even differences in leadership style or strategic opinions, there are often many influencing factors present on both sides of any conflict.

Conflicts in the workplace are rarely one-dimensional. A disagreement that appears to be about a momentary strategic decision may actually stem from unresolved emotions from past interactions between teammates or misconceptions about a colleague's motives.    

An image displaying many words that are involved in conflicts on both sides.

Self-awareness is an essential emotional intelligence skill here—it helps you evaluate the way you are relating to and interpreting the conflict, and it guides you in determining the most skillful approach. 

Growing your self-awareness (through practices we'll share below) will help you identify your historical relationship to conflict and the unconscious biases that may be influencing you. Research by Dr Prital Shah and colleagues observed a correlation between self-awareness and productive conflict management styles showing that individuals with high emotional intelligence are able to navigate conflicts more effectively.

How does psychological safety play a role in managing conflict at work?

Teams that avoid conflict might, on the surface, appear to be collaborative, effective, and happy. However, as we see from the example above, these teams may have underlying resentments and lack full collaboration by all team members who might be adjusting their behavior or witholding their creative input out of fear. 

Psychological safety is the foundational pillar of high-performing teams, a team “norm” where members feel safe expressing their opinions (even dissenting ones) without retaliation. This creates the container for innovation and productive conflict that leads to positive outcomes and deeper trust. Teams with high psychological safety demonstrate not only 57% more collaboration and 50% more productivity but also experience 74% less stress. 

Managers can establish a norm of productive and respectful dissent so that employees do not mistake it for conflict by using prompts such as, “What am I missing here?” or “Does anyone have any differing opinions on this?”

Below, we will offer some tips on how to create a healthier way to address conflict that results in growth, learning, and deeper trust, leading to more innovative and connected teams. You can learn more about how to create psychological safety in our article, How to create Psychological Safety at Work.

How can you better manage conflict at work?

Establishing psychological safety within your team sets the foundation for productive conflict. To further promote healthy conflict management and serve as a model for your team, here are a few additional emotional intelligence strategies you can try:

Reflect on your relationship with conflict

Reflect on how you deal with conflict in your life and at work. Is your tendency to do everything you can to avoid conflict? Are you more likely to get into situations where you need to defend yourself and your work? Knowing how we orient towards conflict is an important step to building the self-awareness needed to engage in healthy conflict at work.

Practice this: Try insight writing by answering a prompt that begins with “My relationship with conflict is…”, “Conflict makes me feel…”, "When conflict happens, I..." Give yourself a time limit and see what comes up as you write. 

Learn to manage your emotions

When we experience difficult emotions during conflict, sometimes our brain can go into the fight/flight/freeze response. When this happens, and we don’t intervene, it can lead to what’s known as an amygdala hijack–which is why you say things you regret and may find it hard to make decisions when you’re stressed.

Practice this: A body scan will help you increase your awareness of emotions by noticing how you feel them in your body. You might try recalling a (safe) memory of a conflict you’ve experienced and observe the sensations and emotions with curiosity.

Practice this: To support yourself in the moment when difficult emotions arise, you can try a practice called STOP, a helpful acronym you can follow:

S = Stop. Just pause in the moment you feel the difficult emotions and give yourself space before your react.

T = Take a breath. This allows your parasympathetic nervous system to help calm you and builds a connection between your executive functioning and your amygdala so you can think rationally and make clear decisions even in the midst of challenging emotions. 

O = Observe. Become aware of the sensations in your body, your emotions, thoughts in your mind, and the environment around you.

P = Proceed. Determine the wisest and perhaps most compassionate response or course of action.

Connect with empathy

Empathy is the gateway to trust and trust is the gateway to psychological safety and belonging. So in order to have healthy and productive conflict, it is essential to cultivate a sense of empathy for your colleague.

Practice this: A quick exercise in empathy is to simply notice something you have in common with your colleague. It could be recognizing the simple truth that you both desire professional success and personal happiness. 

Disagree but commit

This practice comes from our CEO, Rich Fernandez, who considers the challenges of incorporating many diverse voices into strategic thinking and project planning. We won't always get it "our way" (even if we're convinced it's the right way!). As long as there has been space for you to present your case, it will be extremely useful for the team for you to engage in this practice. 

Practice this: When the decision a leader or a colleague makes opposes your recommended course of action, try the practice of "disagree but commit."  This means that although you disagree with the choice, you fully comitt to doing everything in your power to make sure it's as successful as possible. Notice any (human) tendency to want their way to fail so you can say "I told you so," and remember that you are on the same team and be willing to give their way a shot. 

Reframe conflict as an opportunity

Once you’ve reflected on your relationship to conflict, you have an opportunity to reframe it in your mind as an opportunity to learn about yourself and others and grow together. 

Practice this: Before engaging in conflict, ask, “What can I learn from this experience?” “How might this conflict help me grow?” “How might this conflict help me better understand myself, and my colleague?”

 

Growing from Conflict at Work

Have you ever had the experience of conflict leading to deeper understanding, better relating, etc. Perhaps you’ve felt this in a relationship with a friend or a partner. The same is possible in relationships at work. We spend one-third of our adult lives at work, so we might as well apply the same care to our relationships with our colleagues outside of work. By engaging in practices like perspective-taking, cultivating empathy, and emotional regulation, we not only minimize unnecessary conflicts but also have a greater ability to engage constructively in those that arise, turning them into opportunities for growth and connection. Engaging in these practices lays the groundwork for greater collaboration, where conflicts serve as catalysts for innovation and deeper team bonds. 

We can help you manage conflict at your workplace.

Are you looking to learn strategies for conflict management on your team but not sure where to start? Check out our Bridging Conflict program, which leverages neuroscience-based techniques to manage conflict with emotional intelligence.