According to a report by workplace expert ACAS, nearly half a million people resign each year as a result of conflict in the workplace. The price of workplace conflict is steep – costing UK employers a staggering £28.5 billion each year. That’s just over £1000 for each employee. Workplace conflict can lead to stress and anxiety among staff which have a knock-on effect on productivity.
It’s hard for anyone to deal with conflict – but it’s particularly difficult for young professionals just starting out in their careers. Conflict can arise for different reasons and between two colleagues as well as between an employee and their manager. Whilst conflicts are almost unavoidable, you should be prepared to deal with them in a way that is professional and shows maturity and strength of character.
In this blog we’ll look at:
- What is conflict in the workplace?
- Why is being able to handle conflict with a co-worker important?
- Types of conflict in the workplace
- Examples of conflict at work
- What is the impact of workplace conflict on individuals?
- How to manage conflict at work
What is conflict in the workplace?
Conflict at work refers to any disagreement or dispute that takes place between two or more individuals or groups of people within an organisation. As we discuss below, there are many different causes and types of conflict in the workplace, such as variances in opinions, values, goals, or personalities.
Conflicts in the workplace can manifest in different ways, including disagreements over tasks or responsibilities, interpersonal conflicts, or even systemic issues related to organisational structure or policies.
When not managed properly, workplace conflict can be detrimental to an individual’s well-being and happiness - not to mention the impact on team cohesion and performance. As such, it is essential that you take the time to understand how to identify, address and resolve workplace conflicts in a constructive manner. This will help you minimise the negative impacts and improve your happiness at work.
Why is being able to handle conflict with a co-worker important?
The ability to handle conflict with coworkers is an important skill to have when applying for new jobs or improving your experience in your current role. You may even get asked about your approach to conflict management during a job interview! Here are the main reasons why conflict management is so important for employees:
- Demonstrates professionalism - handling conflict with a coworker in a professional and constructive manner demonstrates maturity. This can improve your reputation within an organisation and demonstrate your ability to handle difficult situations respectfully. Continuous demonstration of such behaviour is likely to be recognised by employers, or even rewarded in the form of a promotion, for example.
- Fosters a positive work environment - actively looking for ways to resolve conflicts with colleagues can help relieve any built-up tension and make for a more pleasant work environment for all employees. In turn, this can lead to better working relationships, job satisfaction, and team cohesion - it’s a win-win for everyone!
- Enhances communication and teamwork - resolving workplace conflicts gives you the opportunity to practise and develop your communication and conflict resolution skills. Both of which are highly sought-after abilities in the working world.
- Improves productivity - unresolved conflicts at work can result in a lack of communication and collaboration, which will ultimately impact productivity and take its toll on your job performance.
- Reduces stress - conflict can quickly become a significant source of stress and drain your energy. By resolving conflicts efficiently, you can reduce the stress associated with conflict and improve your wellbeing.
- Prevents escalation - when conflicts between coworkers are not addressed in a timely manner, they can escalate quickly and become even more challenging to resolve. This can even lead to more serious consequences, such as bullying, harassment, or discrimination. By handling conflicts early, you can manage the situation and save yourself from experiencing these negative consequences.
- Facilitates personal growth - successfully working through workplace conflicts can be a challenging yet rewarding experience. This can help you build resilience and become more confident in your ability to handle difficult situations, leading to personal growth.
Types of conflict in the workplace
There are several types of conflicts that can arise in the workplace. However, the most common ones are interpersonal conflicts and conflicts of interest.
Interpersonal conflicts arise when your views, personality, and way of working clash with others and you fail to find a common approach to an issue. An interpersonal conflict can result in a war of words, or something less visible like exclusion. Workplace conflicts also vary in seriousness and intensity – from less-critical instances like an argument to more serious cases of bullying or harassment.
According to a 2020 report by CIPD titled ‘Managing Conflict in the Modern Workplace’, some of the most common issues for interpersonal conflict are:
- Difference in personalities or working styles
- Individual competence or performance
- Level of support or resources
- Agreeing deliverables or setting targets
- Absence or absence management
Conflicts of interest arise when your personal interests clash with the interests of the company. For example – if you work for your company’s competitor on the side and pass on confidential information. Or if you choose a particular third-party vendor because of a personal relationship with them.
Examples of conflict at work
We’ve outlined a couple of scenarios where you may experience conflict at work to provide you with the tools you need to come up with a solution.
Dealing with task-based conflicts at work
Scenario: A task-based conflict arises when an individual must coordinate with another colleague in order to successfully complete a task. For instance, a designer cannot create a graphic without being provided with a design brief. If briefs are always handed in late, this will affect the designer’s ability to meet deadlines and produce quality work.
Solution: The designer should aim to improve communication between themselves and the individual providing the briefs, addressing the importance of accountability and how their actions affect others. Where deadlines are the issue, they should check in with the individual ahead of the brief deadline and have a clear calendar in place so that everyone knows what they need to deliver and when. If problems still arise, they should speak to their manager for guidance.
Managing working style conflicts with colleagues
Scenario: As you gain more experience in the working world, you’ll quickly learn that everyone has their own working style. For example, some may prefer working alone and others as part of a team, and some may like working under pressure, whereas others prefer having lots of time to complete a task. In some instances, you may find yourself and others around you becoming frustrated due to clashes in working styles.
Solution: In this situation, you need tolerance to accept others' differences and find a way to make various working styles work in unison. For instance, if you work well under pressure, but your colleague does not, then why not take on any pressing tasks and leave back-burner projects to your colleague? This way, both of you are working to your strengths and not stepping on each other’s toes.
What is the impact of workplace conflict on individuals?
Workplace conflict can have a serious impact on employees, however, the experience will be different for everyone. The CIPD report lists some of the common impacts of conflict on individuals:
- Stress, depression, and anxiety - conflict at work can be a major source of stress and anxiety for individuals, particularly if they feel directly involved or affected by the issue. This can lead to serious mental health concerns, as well as physical symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue and insomnia.
- Loss of self confidence - as a result, individuals may find themselves having to take more leaves of absence due to sickness.
- Drop in motivation or commitment - workplace conflict can knock your self-confidence if you receive negative feedback or criticism, compare yourself to others, experience bullying, or micromanagement.
- Unworkable relationships - it is not unusual to lose motivation and job satisfaction if you are working in a negative work environment.
- Reduced productivity levels - it is difficult to maintain working relationships when there is conflict between colleagues.
- Absence due to sickness - with dysfunctional working relationships and time spent engaging in conflict, employees are likely to become less productive.
- Changed job roles - low job satisfaction can result in individuals choosing to switch jobs to escape conflict.
- Resignation or dismissal - in scenarios where conflict escalates, this can lead to management interference and, ultimately, dismissal.
- Formal disciplinary or legal disputes - alternatively, conflict can result in disciplinary action taken by those involved.
How to manage conflict in the workplace
The best way to avoid these negative consequences of workplace conflict is to manage your negative relationships at work. Here is our top advice for dealing with conflict in the workplace.
9 Ways to deal with conflict at work
- Break the ice
- Focus on the problem, not the person
- Involve HR or your line manager
- Avoid escalating the issue through gossip
- Consider that you may be wrong
- Try to find common ground
- Document everything
- Deal with conflicts in a timely manner
- Stay positive
1. Break the ice
Don’t wait for the other person to come to you. Instead, be proactive and initiate a conversation. Request them for a suitable time to meet and choose a neutral setting, preferably somewhere you won’t be interrupted. Broach the topic in a non-confrontational way and be respectful at all times.
This shows integrity and character. Remember, chances are you’ll continue working with this person for some time, so it’s in your best interest to try and create a civil working relationship with them.
Actively listen to what the other person is saying and don’t interrupt them. Giving them a chance to voice their opinions about the issue provides a perspective that you may have been missing. After they have finished speaking, follow up with ‘is there anything else you want to say?’. This shows that you’re listening to them and also gives them the chance to add to what they’ve said.
It’s always a good idea to rephrase what the other person has said and repeat it to make sure you’ve understood them correctly. You can also ask questions at this point to clarify any doubts. You don’t have to come to an agreement at the end of this conversation – you could both agree to disagree. In fact, you don’t even have to personally like or become friends with this person. But you should both be professional and draw a line under the issue before moving on.
2. Focus on the problem, not the person
It’s easy to feel personally attacked by a workplace conflict or any work-related criticism. Take a moment to step away from the situation and focus on the problem instead of the person. Consider the factors that may be aggravating the issue – from poor communication to inequal delegation of work, language barriers, ego struggles associated with hierarchical orders and more.
Once you identify the factors, you’ll be in a better position to suggest a solution. For example – if you’re struggling to achieve a better delegation of work, consider dividing tasks and responsibilities at the beginning of a project and using a workflow management tool so everyone is accountable.
Avoid using accusatory language when trying to address a conflict. Example – if you feel like a colleague is taking credit for you work consider saying, ‘I felt very hurt when you took full credit for the presentation when we’d both worked equally hard on it.’ Avoid phrasing it as, ‘You always do this’, or ‘I can’t believe you did that’. Focusing on how someone’s actions made you feel instead of accusing them is likely to be a better approach.
3. Involve HR or your line manager
In a situation where you can’t find a reasonable resolution to the conflict, you should involve your line manager or the Human Resource (HR) department to mediate. Your company’s HR department will be trained to manage conflicts and can facilitate a constructive conversation between you and your colleague. The role of a mediator will be to help you find your own solution and not persuade you to accept a particular solution.
Further, according to a report by Glassdoor, the average cost to hire a new employee in the UK is £3000. So, there is an impetus on companies to intervene and resolve conflicts where possible.
4. Avoid escalating the issue through gossip
The saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ is true to some extent. When you are dealing with an issue, it can be helpful to talk it through with someone else. This gives you an unbiased perspective on the situation and can help you gain some clarity. However, in the workplace, you should be careful how you talk about conflicts with other colleagues and avoid gossiping at all costs. Gossip breeds negativity and can create a toxic work environment that you do not want to be part of. It can also damage the reputation of the people you are speaking about behind their backs, but also your own reputation.
Gossiping can also often lead to the escalation of conflicts for a number of reasons. For example, as more parties get involved, this can lead to the creation of cliques and an ‘us vs them’ mentality. This also leads to the spread of misinformation, which can cause a sense of resentment for an individual by a larger group of people and lead to further conflicts between colleagues without just cause.
When this happens during conflict between an employee and a manager, this can even result in the undermining of authority. Such situations can have serious consequences for the employee, including disciplinary action.
So, if you need to let off some steam, try talking to someone outside of your organisation, such as a friend or family member. And if you really need to discuss it with someone at work to begin resolving the conflict, your HR representative or line manager should be your go-to person!
5. Consider that you may be wrong
It’s important to introspect and consider our role in a conflict. It’s not something that we like doing, but sometimes we need to admit when we’re wrong. It’s a good idea to take cues from other colleagues and see if they have the same complaints against you. For example – are you struggling with managing your time and is it affecting the rest of the team?
Apologising for a mistake and taking actionable steps to fix it take guts and humility. It also shows that you’re willing to take responsibility and be accountable.
6. Try to find common ground
When involved in workplace conflict, it is crucial that you take the time to listen to the other person’s point of view and try to find things that you agree on. It’s important to remind yourself that it’s not ‘you vs them’, but both of you against the problem at hand.
It can be a good idea to outline your common goals in order to gain a clearer understanding of what you want to solve. For instance, if you are struggling to work cooperatively with another team member due to different working styles, your common goal will be the desire to find an efficient working arrangement that allows you to produce quality work together.
Next, you will need to work out a solution that suits both of you. In this example, this could be in the form of a new working process that caters for both your working styles. However, in other instances, it could mean agreeing to disagree on a matter - as long as there is closure on both sides!
7. Document everything
In the unfortunate instance of a conflict steadily escalating despite attempts to resolve it, you should keep records of everything from emails, memos, chat histories if any. This is to protect yourself and build a strong case history in the extreme event of having to take the legal route.
8. Deal with conflicts in a timely manner
If you are experiencing conflict with a colleague, it can be tempting to avoid the issue in the hope that it will resolve itself. In many cases, conflicts will begin as minor issues, however, if left unaddressed they can escalate quickly. Instead, it can be much easier to discuss smaller issues with colleagues before it gets to this point.
For example, if you find a colleague uses a patronising tone when talking to you, you should let that person know how you feel. This will be much more effective than allowing this person to speak to you in this tone for months on end before voicing your concerns. By doing this, you will have to experience the problem for longer and also build up resentment for that person. Addressing situations as and when they arise will lead to effective and efficient resolution.
That being said, it can be useful to take a day or two to calm down before reacting in some cases, for instance after a heated argument where emotions may get in the way of how you resolve the issue.
9. Stay positive
A positive mindset can go a long way when dealing with difficult situations at work. Staying positive can help you maintain a constructive attitude, meaning you are less likely to become defensive or take matters personally. Not only will a positive mindset help you resolve problems better, but will protect your personal wellbeing during the process. When you are optimistic and solution-focused, you are better prepared to combat the stress and negative feelings that come with managing conflicts.
And while it is important to deal with workplace conflicts, it’s imperative that you do not allow these challenging situations to take over your headspace, or even seep into your personal life. There’s always a solution, so make sure to keep a can-do attitude and not let it get the better of you!
Starting your first job is daunting as it is. Dealing with conflict can be doubly nerve racking. Considering most people spend at least eight hours in the office each day, the workplace needs to be a positive space where employees feel safe in order to thrive. As more and more people return to the office post-pandemic, the onus is on companies to ensure the mental wellbeing of their employees in the workplace.
Are you a recent graduate looking to launch an exciting career in business or tech? Apply to the FDM Graduate Programme today.