How to handle workplace conflict

As much as we try to manage our work wisely, it is nearly impossible to avoid workplace conflict. In fact, 85% of us will have to deal with workplace conflict at some point in our professional lives. Whether it occurs rarely, or is a part of your daily life at work, if left unresolved, it could lead to burnout, decreased productivity, sick days, and more.  On the plus side, conflict can actually have some beneficial outcomes. Learn all about workplace conflict, how to handle workplace conflict effectively, plus it’s risks and potential benefits below.

What is workplace conflict?

Ever gotten on someone’s bad side at work? Built a grudge against someone in the office, that made working with them – or even talking to them – difficult? Or have you been bullied, belittled, or harassed by someone in a more senior position? These are all forms of workplace conflict.

OPP, a division of the Myers-Briggs® Company, defines conflict at work as “any workplace disagreement that disrupts the flow of work”.

If workplace conflict has affected you at one point or another; not to worry; it affects more people than you may realize.

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How prevalent is workplace conflict?

In a 2008 global research report, the OPP studied workplace conflict throughout Europe and the Americas. Their comprehensive findings revealed that 85% of all employees have to deal with conflict to some degree. The figures vary by country, with 56% of employees in Germany reporting that they have to deal with conflict ‘always’ or frequently, whereas that number is only 36% in the US.

Culture plays an important role in how frequently and over which topics workplace conflicts manifest.

The negative consequences of workplace conflict

When employees are subjected to workplace conflict, the study found that the following consequences can occur:

  • Lost working days due to time spent dealing with conflict
  • Personal attacks & bullying
  • Sickness or absence leave
  • Cross-department conflict
  • Project failure
  • Loss of customers/good employees

One of the most visible costs of workplace conflict is the time that must be taken to resolve the issue.

In the UK, this amounts to approximately 2.1 hours per week, or one day per month that each employee spends absorbed in the conflict situation rather than getting other important work done.

Another significant cost of workplace conflict is the cost to the individual employees involved. Conflict can take its toll on individual well-being, which can then lead to poorer performance in the workplace (a double negative for both employee and employer).

Conflict situations, especially persistent or ongoing conflicts, are likely to lead to negative emotions such as demotivation, anger, and frustration.

“Women are twice as likely as men to feel sick with nervousness or sleepless as a result of a workplace conflict.”

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Who is affected by workplace conflict?

Conflict occurs most frequently in the charity/nonprofit sector (48%), catering (43%) and human resources (43%).

The largest portion of workplace conflict (34%) occurs among entry-level/front-line employees, who are less likely to know how to deal with such conflict after having been with the organization for only a short time.

A quarter of all conflicts happen among line managers and their direct reports. Only 6% of conflict arises among leaders and senior executives.

Causes of workplace conflict

In the study, the causes of conflict were outlined as reported from employees themselves.

The OPP found that there were three main perceived causes of workplace conflict: personality clashes and ego wars (49%), stress (34%) and heavy workloads (33%).

Other main causes included insufficient resources, poor leadership, lack of honesty, poor line management, lack of role clarity and lack of clarity regarding accountability.

Additionally, differing values, poor team pairing, taboo topics, poor performance management, bullying, harassment, and perceived discrimination played a role in bringing about conflicts in the workplace.

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Who is responsible for handling workplace conflict?

While it might seem that only one party – such as HR or leadership – is responsible for managing conflict, the reality may be different. HR may tend to view it as leadership’s job, while management often views it as a part of the work that HR does – leaving no one entirely accountable.

Ultimately, everyone in the organization, not just management or HR, is responsible for managing conflict in the workplace.

When everyone does his/her part in preventing and healing workplace conflicts, the whole organization can benefit from less overall conflict. Now, let’s explore how to handle workplace conflict in a constructive way.

How to handle workplace conflict

There are several different strategies for handling workplace conflict. We’ve outlined the main approaches you might find helpful below:


Use this strategy only when avoiding the conflict will not escalate it further. We are all familiar with times when it may be necessary to simply ‘sleep on it’ to resolve a conflict or unpleasant situation in our personal lives, and the same can apply in work conflict situations.


With this technique, try to determine what the other person wants out of the situation and do what you can to make this happen. Preserve relationships by putting the needs of the other above your own interests for the time being.


When the subject of the conflict is just too important to you, or when the other person involved is simply not, taking a competitive approach to get what you need out of the situation might be the best way to go. With this approach you may experience short term benefits at the expense of long term relationships – a calculated risk.


Allow all those involved to have a portion of their needs met, which can offer a quick, if not completely satisfying, outcome to the problem situation.


Seek to find a win-win solution for both parties involved. While this option can be more difficult and take longer, in the long term, trust can be maintained and work becomes more efficient.

Handling workplace conflict from an employer perspective

Here are four things employers can do to better handle workplace conflict:

  1. Embrace clarity – Conflict thrives in areas where there is ambiguity or lack of clarity surrounding goals, expectations, job descriptions, policies, or working practices. Embrace open and honest communication practices that will eliminate the potential for employees to become disgruntled by a lack of vital information.
  2. Provide Training – Build the skills of your workforce by providing them with tools and a mindset that can transform conflict into a catalyst for progress and innovation.
  3. Create accountability – Make sure that everyone within the organization feels accountable for resolving conflicts in a timely manner.
  4. Watch for tipping points – Keep an eye on escalating situations and manage ‘toxic’ people out of the organization.

Bonus: get our  five best practices for welcoming a new employee, to ensure that relationships with new employees have a great start.

Conflict as a force for progress & development

While conflict in the workplace can have many costs and disadvantages, it can also be a catalysts for change and other important progress within an organization.

“76% of employees have seen conflict lead to something positive”.

Positive outcomes from workplace conflict can include:

  • increased understanding
  • improved relationships
  • innovative solutions to problems
  • better overall team performance
  • increased motivation

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For more tips on overcoming conflict, read the OPPs report on workplace conflict.

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