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Six tips to managing workplace conflict

  • Story Highlights
  • Human resource managers spend 24 to 60 percent on employee disputes
  • Conflict can cost a company productivity, money and employee satisfaction
  • Early intervention is the key to managing conflicts before they become crises
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By Rachel Zupek
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Ever held a differing opinion from your boss? Boasted dissimilar ideas than your co-worker? Been knocked out by a colleague over a disagreement about a project? (OK, so the last one might be a stretch, but it's happened before...)


Join the club.

Human resource managers report spending 24 to 60 percent of their time dealing with employee disputes.

The number of violent incidents in the workplace has been increasing steadily, according to a study by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). Nearly 60 percent of respondents said violence had occurred in their organization during the past three years, and they identified "personality conflicts" as the leading cause.

Like birth, death, choice and change, conflict is a constant fact of life. It's also a fact of the workplace, especially when you deal or interact with people. While disagreements and differing opinions are normal, even healthy, in work relationships, conflict can cost your company productivity, money and employee satisfaction.

Fifty-three percent of workers said they lost time at work worrying about a past or future confrontation with a co-worker, according to a recent survey by researchers at the University of North Carolina.

Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed said they lost work time because they avoided the confrontational colleague, and 37 percent said a hostile altercation caused them to reduce their commitment to the organization. Twenty-two percent said they put less effort into their work because of bad blood at the office.

"Co-worker conflicts can be one of the most difficult forms of workplace stress," says Gus Stieber, national director of sales for Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, a professional services company. "Understanding the nature of conflict, examining myths, and learning simple conflict-resolution skills can reduce friction and their negative toll on job satisfaction and productivity."

Reasons for animosity at work run the gamut from weak communication to personality clashes to poor leadership. Whatever the reason, early intervention is the key to managing conflicts before they become crises, Stieber says.

Make use of the following tips to resolve conflict at work:

Choose your battles.

How important is the dispute really? Does it truly affect you, and is it a chronic problem? If it's a one-time incident or mild transgression, let it pass, says Steven Menack, a professional divorce and business mediator.

Expect conflict.

Decide that friction will occasionally emerge in the course of human relationships, Stieber says. Don't fear it -- rather, learn to spot the symptoms early and see opportunity in the resolution.

Use neutral language.

Avoid judgmental remarks or sweeping generalizations, such as, "You always turn your reports in late." Use calm, neutral language to describe what is bothering you. For example: "I get very frustrated when I can't access your reports because it causes us to miss our deadlines." Be respectful and sincere, never sarcastic, Menack suggests.

Practice preventive maintenance.

Avoid retreating to the safety of withdrawal, avoidance or the simplistic view that your co-worker is a "bad person," Stieber says. These are defense mechanisms that prevent the resolution of conflict.

Menack suggests focusing on the problem, not the person. Never attack or put the other person on the defensive, he says. Focus on actions and consequences.

Listen actively.

Never interrupt the other party, Menack urges. Really listen and try to understand what the other person is saying. Let him know you understand by restating or reframing his statement or position, so he knows you have indeed heard him.

Get leverage on yourself.

When dissent between you and a co-worker appears without resolution, it is time to get leverage. Ask to be held accountable. This brings your performance evaluation into the equation but without taking away your responsibility for resolving the conflict. This is hard to do, but remarkable change can happen when you are held to task. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority

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