Managing conflict in the workplace with kindness

Find out how you and your team can go from conflict debt to conflict resolution

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Take any group of people—friends, family, coworkers—and there will eventually be conflict. But experiencing and managing conflict in the workplace every so often isn’t a sign of team failure or incompatibility; it could just mean someone’s having a bad day.

When one bad day becomes multiple ones, though, it can be a sign of a larger problem. You could eventually end up in a situation where your team alternates between ignoring each other and picking fights.

When you realize you’ve got a serious challenge managing conflict in the workplace, don’t panic. No matter how tense things are, there are resources and strategies at your disposal. Here are some steps you can take to assess the situation, create shared understanding, and produce a resolution—you just need to be willing to do the work.

Step 1: Determine whether you’re experiencing conflict debt

Conflict in the workplace may be constructive, but it can never be ignored. Psychologist and strategist Liane Davey flags this point in The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track. Among other things, the book explores the idea of “conflict debt.”

“As humans, we avoid conflict and build up conflict debt by deferring and dodging the difficult decisions,” Davey writes. “Our organizations are paying the price—becoming less productive, less innovative and less competitive.”

This is a concept that rings true for a lot of workers. “Early in my career, I worked in places that refused to deal with conflict,” says Jairus Khan, who leads outreach for the Internet Health Report put out by Mozilla, a global nonprofit. “When you can’t trust each other, you can’t accomplish things together. You need to be able to have tough conversations in order to have meaningful collaboration.”

To get to that place of trust when managing conflict in the workplace, first gauge the level of conflict debt you are dealing with. Davey has created this Conflict Debt Assessment to help you do this. Looking at a variety of topics and scenarios, the assessment will sort you into the categories of “free and clear,” “debt is mounting” or “almost bankrupt.”

As with assessing any kind of debt, the process can be stressful. But it’s always better to know the reality of the situation, even if we don’t like it.

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Step 2: Identify whether you’re actually the cause of the conflict

The Conflict Debt Assessment tool also examines our own experiences and behavior. For example, which of these two phrases rings truer to you?

  1. “I continually provide feedback to people who treat me in a way I don’t like.”
  2. “I frequently feel disheartened by the way I am treated at work, but I stay silent.”

If you chose the second phrase, it could be that your workplace hasn’t done a good job of establishing psychological safety, or perhaps you just need to take a minute to get some perspective.

Johnathan and Melissa Nightingale, the co-authors of How F*cked Up Is Your Management? An Uncomfortable Conversation About Modern Leadership, offer this quick exercise for taking stock if you find yourself in regular conflict with a person or team. Ask yourself:

  • Why are we here?
  • What are we trying to get done together?
  • Who owns which pieces?

Saying these things out loud frequently uncovers mismatched assumptions that have driven a lot of frustration.

Step 3: Look for compromises

Self-reflection and taking stock of the conflict will give you a better sense of how to move toward harmony. But to get there, everyone will need to keep their egos in check and really be willing to listen to each other.

“The key is to move past winning or losing and a feeling of needing to be right,” advises attorney and mediator Diane Rosen. “The resolution of conflict need not be perfect—it must only be good enough to allow the parties to co-exist. There does not have to be total victory.”

In her popular TEDx talk, management consultant Liz Kislik offered these five ways to achieve conflict resolution in the workplace:

  1. Rule out the possibility that a single dysfunctional person is actually the source of conflict (for example, someone who is a bully, or incompetent).
  2. Ask the right people the right questions. Find those close to the action and ask things like “What is something that drives you nuts?”
  3. Ensure a shared understanding of goals and processes by identifying and eliminating overlapping or conflicting assignments and authority.
  4. Find allies at all levels to help you implement the necessary changes. Without a critical mass of participation, nothing good will happen.
  5. Teach new habits for managing differences, such as creating opportunities to discuss topics your staff or coworkers might feel are off-limits.

Step 4: Move past the conflict productively

Once you’ve managed to de-escalate the conflict among coworkers, you may be tempted to congratulate yourself and move on. But if you can go the extra mile toward true forgiveness in addition to conflict resolution in the workplace, you’ll be surprised what a difference it could make.

In a report, “Forgiveness, Health, and Productivity in the Workplace,” researchers found that “workplace promotion of forgiveness could hold potential for enhancing employee well-being and limiting organization losses due to interpersonal conflict among employees.” The study also found that by “modeling forgiveness in the workplace, leaders can do much to improve workplace forgiveness and in so doing improve health and productivity.”

Academic theory is one thing, but what does that look like when applied to actually managing conflict in the workplace? Ciara Hautau, a lead digital marketing strategist for app development company Fueled, describes it clearly. When she found herself in an uncomfortable dynamic with her manager, she decided to have a direct conversation with him.

“He ended up apologizing, and it was very impactful,” she says. “We both got everything we needed off our chest and came to a resolution that would suit both our work styles.”

This is the ideal outcome of conflict resolution in the workplace: not erasure of what happened, but a shared understanding and plan to move forward—together.

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