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]


About the author

For more than 25 years, Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting, has helped leaders in Fortune 500 companies, including Best Buy, New Balance, The Boston Beer Company and small to medium-size businesses, achieve dramatic growth and market leadership through the maximization of talent. She is known world-wide as “The Talent Maximizer®.” Roberta, a leading authority on leadership and the skills and strategies required to earn employee commitment and client loyalty, is the author of the top-selling book, Suddenly In Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around (Nicholas Brealey, 2011), a Washington Post Top 5 Business Book For Leaders