Conflict In The Workplace: Can't We Just Put Everyone Into Time Out?

Dealing with dueling employees is never easy. While it be great if we could just put everyone in their separate corners to cool off, there are more direct and effective steps to take.

Whenever groups of people are pulled together there is bound to be conflict. That’s not necessarily such a bad thing, since life would be dull if everyone went along with everything you said. Besides, conflict can bring about positive change. Differences of opinion encourage creativity, change, and progress.

However, all too often conflict in the workplace leads to dysfunction. So much so that owners have told me that if things don’t get better, they will leave very the companies they’ve started! Your workplace doesn’t have to turn into a marriage gone bad, however, if you take the time to address issues when they surface. It’s when conflict is ignored that we end up with problems that seem insurmountable.

Sources of conflict
When situations spiral out of control, they can be difficult to address. Familiarizing yourself with the following common sources of conflict will help you to diffuse situations before they occur:

  • Lack of clarity. Employees wind up in turf wars when boundaries aren't clearly defined. A well-written job description, along with clearly defined reporting relationships can help prevent this situation.
  • Limited resources. In today's environment where people are asked to do more with less, there is often conflict over time, money, supplies, and even space. When you observe conflict in the workplace, determine if employees have adequate resources to do their work. Whenever possible, include employees in the resource-allocation process. This will provide them with a better understanding of how allocation decisions are made in your organization.
  • Conflicts of interest. Individuals fighting for personal goals and losing sight of organizational goals can create quite a ripple in the organization. Continually remind employees how their personal goals and efforts fit with the organization's strategic business goals.
  • Poor communication. Poor communication leads to misunderstanding and discord among employees. For instance, disputes can occur if the manager asks one employee to relay important instructions to the other employees, but the employee fails to provide all the information. Lack of information can lead to projects being incorrectly done and to employees blaming each other for the end result.
  • Power struggles. The need to control is at the root of many workplace conflicts. Who should have that information? Who should be involved on that project? Who has the corner office? Recognize that power struggles exist. Teach employees how to manage relationships in the organization so they can effectively navigate political mine fields.

Tips for dealing with workplace conflict
A strong leader gives employees the tools needed to resolve conflict situations on their own, rather than continuously playing the role of referee. Here are some suggestions to help you transition from referee to coach:

Deal with the conflict. Hoping and praying the conflict will resolve on its own is never a good idea. It usually gets worse, while you lose credibility. It’s best to handle the situation before small matters turn into an explosion that cannot be contained.

Be a mediator, not a judge. While it's preferable to allow people to resolve their own disputes, if that doesn't happen or if the conflict is affecting their performance or the business itself, then you will have to become involved. You will need to set aside time to meet privately with each person involved in the conflict.

To gain insight into the situation, ask each of them to describe:

  • What’s been said and done
  • The ideal outcome they’d like to see occur
  • How they would suggest the situation be handled

The next step is to bring the participants together to discuss the situation. Summarize their respective positions and work towards helping them meet in the middle. Point out where the parties have seen things the same way and work towards building conceptual agreement.

Since disagreement is inevitable, it makes good business sense to train employees and management on how to recognize and effectively deal with conflict in the workplace. Your investment will reap immediate dividends. Employees will spend less time battling one another and more time on business growth. And you can rest at night knowing that peace has returned to your organization.

—Author Roberta Chinsky Matuson is the President of Human Resource Solutions ( and author of Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around, a Washington Post Top-5 Leadership pick. Sign up to receive a complimentary subscription to Roberta's monthly newsletter, HR Matters. Register today for Roberta’s free Profitability Accelerator Teleconference Series.

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[Image: Flickr user Jacob Johan]

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  • Millie Campbell

    Some really interesting points raised, especially one of your first being that without conflict, the world may be a dull place. People own differing opinions and views on things, that's life. I believe the way in which we choose to address conflict is where the issue really lies. I am also writing a blog about conflict at work, if you are interested in having a read you can find my blogs here:, thanks for the read!

  • Henrik Josefsson

    I agree. And the lack of clarity when it comes to boundaries and job descriptions is (in my experience as a conflict analyst) the hole that brings the entire ship down.

    A problem many managers and supervisors encounter though, is that taking the mediator part instead of judging is sometimes not possible, because in many cases the boss is per definition not neutral. For many clients, having a backup system with independent external mediators has proven effective in being a fast an cheap way to deal with conflicts before they escalate. Much more so than when the manager is doing it by himself/herself. It takes some knowledge though, to know when to bring in the help and when to mediate in house.

  • Cara-Leigh Heasman

    Great post Roberta,

    Conflict at work is unfortunately inevitable, with so many different personalities, cultures and views coming together. This article is helpful not only to managers but in everyday life.
    I personally think the biggest cause of arguments at work is conflict avoidance. When people don’t deal with an issue straight away the problem and anger builds up into you finally boil over and lose your cool.
    I recently wrote a post on my blog about conflict at work, I suggested the S-TLC system to deal with conflict, have you heard of this? If so, do you find it effective?
    Please feel free to visit my blog http://thebloggingroom.wordpre... and share your advice and tips

  • Adam Wilson

    Excellent article and comments.  I'd just add that, for some workplace conflicts, it can make sense to have an outside mediator / ombudsperson come in to help resolve the issues.  It can save time and money, and preserve morale and productivity -- especially if the conflict appears to be heading towards expensive and distracting litigation.

    Adam Wilson

  • Roberta Matuson

    Great question Ruby. I guess if you can't take away his or her toys, then you have to make a choice. That choice may very well be refusing to play with the boss and taking your marbles elsewhere.


  • Dianne Crampton

    I agree with your comments and believe this article is valuable for leaders to read. So I intend to forward it widely.

    I would add some additional thoughts.

    Often organizations and their leaders lack driving principles that underscore and support cooperative efforts form which communication clarity and reductions in competitive practices spring. In our work empirical research to identify behaviors that build high levels of cooperation in organizations and on teams we have discovered that when trust, interdependence, genuineness, empathy, risk and success (TIGERS) exist on teams and are demonstrated by behavior that workers recognize daily and have endorsed,  the "todders" tend to grow up or leave to play in some other sandbox.

    This is extremely important as our company reviews the research on employee engagement and retention. Worker relationships rank very high when it comes to employement satisfaction.

    Good article.
    Dianne Crampton

  • Cedricj

    One time when I was asked to mediate a conflict between two employees I mentioned to the HR partner at the end of the investigative stage

    "We need to bring in a kindergarten teacher to deal with this one". 

    The reason, the conflict was personal and the participants had regressed to 6 year old states.

    Your method helps people behave like adults. I  find that most conflict can be broken into 3 types.

    1. Personal. My hot buttons versus your hot buttons

    2. Political: Who's ego or terrain is involved?

    3. Issue oriented where there is a vibrant exchange of diverse opinions.

    #3 is to be encouraged and managed. #1 and #2 - Bring in the kindergarten teacher, mediator, or teach conflict management skills before lawyers get called in.
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others