Co-Workers Arguing While Sitting At a Desk

Interviewers often ask job applicants about their conflict resolution skills and ask them to describe workplace conflict examples they have experienced in real life. You might get the job if you can describe your ability to resolve conflicts you have encountered at previous jobs, but your new job might present even more challenging situations.

Conflict resolution is the responsibility of everyone in the workplace, not just upper management and not just the human resources department. All employees have a role in resolving conflicts. Leaders in the organization can, however, set an example for a company culture that allows for differing opinions and cultural differences while providing avenues for employees in all roles to resolve conflict.

These are some common workplace conflict examples and how you should address these situations when they arise.

1. Poor Communication Between Management and the Employees on the Front Lines

When leaders in an organization effectively communicate their expectations, this makes it easier for all of the employees to do their jobs. You would be surprised how many companies have not set out their policies in writing, leaving many of the rules open to more than one interpretation.

For example, is it sexual misconduct if a medical resident assigned to a hospital goes on a date with a physician who holds a permanent job there? Where should employees turn if they are having trouble because of poor collaboration and contrasting personalities among members of their work team?

The more written guidelines the managers provide about how to handle conflict, the easier it is for all the other employees to deal with potential conflicts as they arise.

The Four Quadrants of Management

A manager’s management style has a major effect on the productivity of every team member. The best managers are the most self-aware. They self-reflect before they start chewing employees out about their poor job performance.

The four quadrants of management are key to understanding why inadequate communication and poor workplace morale affect some work environments. It is possible to categorize each manager’s style as high or low responsibility and high or low control.

When managers exhibit low responsibility, personality-based conflicts and other kinds of dysfunction thrive. The most resilient employees can rely on their own problem-solving skills to accomplish some of their work tasks, but it is very hard for employees to effectively adapt to the company’s vision.

When the manager has a low responsibility low control style the employee believes that the manager does not care. Therefore, everyone’s productivity tanks.

A low responsibility high control manager does not communicate expectations but still bosses everyone around and gets mad when they don’t read the manager’s mind. This managed style leads not only to decreased productivity but also to stress and conflict among team members. Low-responsibility management can especially negatively impact employees working in remote locations.

At a minimum, high-responsibility managers have increased awareness of the organization’s vision and of their role in achieving the company’s goals. They know that it is their responsibility to solve problems that arise and, when appropriate, to guide employees regarding how to solve them. They set clear expectations for the workers they supervise.

The trouble is that high responsibility high control managers tend to micromanage and be excessively critical of their employees. This makes team members feel uncomfortable and leads to poor productivity. At worst, it amounts to the root cause of a hostile work environment.

High-responsibility low control managers have the self-awareness to understand that their leadership style affects the productivity and well-being of employees and of the company as a whole. They can avoid conflict by treating their employees with the utmost respect. They avoid communication issues by encouraging employees to openly discuss their perspectives with them. Because of their higher emotional intelligence, they follow up about pending tasks and common workplace conflicts only as much as they need to.

Multiple People Standing and Pointing at a Person Who's Sitting in Front of Documents

2. Workplace Conflicts That Arise From Different Styles of Working

Interpersonal conflicts can arise when you are working closely with someone, even if the two of you have a lot in common and ordinarily get along.

Plenty of longtime friends never experienced personality clashes with each other until they were responsible for a task, such as going on a road trip together or rooming together for a semester. You might have a high opinion of your friend but not be able to stand the way he changes lanes or how he arranges the dishes in the dishwasher.

Clashing preferences on a work team causes tension in plenty of working relationships. The inability to agree on guidelines for updating a shared document or on which other team to email first is one of the most common examples of conflict in an office environment.  Managers should encourage employees to take conflict resolution steps among themselves or with the help of management or human resources before prolonged conflict becomes entrenched in the culture of the organization.

There Is Not a One-Size-Fits-All Template for a Productive Work Environment

Although work style conflicts are very common, the specifics of each conflict vary from one team to another and one conflict to another. When such conflicts occur, it is sometimes appropriate to give the parties to the conflict a chance to resolve the conflict among themselves before you intervene. Some employees are very resourceful with problem-solving tactics.

If an employee complains to a manager, the manager should take some kind of action, but the most appropriate action varies according to the situation. In the case of discrimination complaints or reports of sexual harassment, the managers’ response should not be something that constitutes retaliation against the employee who complained.

Retaliating against an employee about a sexual harassment or discrimination complaint can lead to worse legal issues for the organization. Managers should, however, thoroughly gather relevant facts before singling out one employee for his or her role in a problem to which many members of the organization contributed.

3. Employment Discrimination Is More Than Just Workplace Conflict

Communication conflict and disagreements over work styles can yield your organization a reputation as an unpleasant place to work. Discrimination is an even worse problem, though.

Low productivity and high employee turnover are costly, but they cost a lot less than if your company faces a discrimination lawsuit from a current or former employee.

Employment discrimination can take many forms, and it is more prevalent than you might imagine. Many employees who have experienced discrimination do not report it to their employers for fear of losing their jobs or making the conflict worse.

Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on protected characteristics such as race, sex, religion, age, and disability, among other protected characteristics. Employers who subject employees and job applicants to discrimination can face serious legal consequences.

The legal definition of discrimination is much broader than the examples of discrimination most familiar from highly publicized cases. A company does not have to refuse to hire women to be liable for sex discrimination. An employee can sue for sexual harassment if coworkers persistently make sexuality-related comments that bother him enough to interfere with his work performance. Sexual harassment is not always about a C-suite executive pressuring an entry-level employee to provide sexual favors.

How Leaders Can Prevent Discrimination in the Workplace

Effective communication is key to preventing workplace discrimination. All employees should undergo harassment training during part of the onboarding process. The organization should provide additional harassment training each year to notify employees about changes in the law and in the company’s policies. They should also be clear with employees about the extent to which employees can expect confidentiality when reporting harassment or discrimination.

Communication Training for Leaders

4. Conflicts Within an Organization’s Leadership

Poor communication is detrimental to any place of employment, and active listening consistently helps to prevent conflict in the workplace, but the effects are even more pronounced when both parties to the conflict are among the major decision-makers in the organization.

Leadership conflicts are among the most costly types of conflict in the workplace because of their effect on productivity and worker morale.

When to Bring in a Mediator

When leaders who are responsible for the company’s direction disagree about work styles and other matters, sometimes it takes more than just active listening to solve the problem. Officers and other leaders in an organization may need the help of third parties to resolve their workplace conflicts.

Before you lawyer up, you and your business partner should discuss your conflicts in the presence of a professional mediator and try to find a mutually agreeable solution to your workplace conflicts.

5. Ineffective Mechanisms for Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

It is frustrating for employees when they get mixed messages about whose responsibility it is to do what.

For example, an employee might complain to her direct supervisor about a problem, and the supervisor might tell her to talk to HR. When she goes to the HR office, they might tell her that the person who can solve the problem is her direct supervisor. These kinds of communication problems require good leadership to solve.

In the meantime, empathy and emotional intelligence can make a poorly run workplace more bearable until the institutional problems get sorted out.

Conflict Management Training Helps Everyone

You have much more control over your own actions than you do over other people’s, but the more you learn about how to resolve conflicts at work, the more harmonious your work team, or your entire organization, will be.

Most people’s education and job training do not include enough specific instruction in conflict resolution to prepare them adequately for the conflicts they routinely encounter at work. Whether you participate in one-on-one coaching sessions or group workshops, you can benefit your entire organization by sharpening your conflict management skills.

Employees Uniting Hands Over a Table

Contact AllWin About Conflict Management Training

No matter your role in the organization, you can benefit from formal training in conflict management in the workplace with AllWin.

Our certified training courses and coaching sessions can help you build your conflict management, de-escalation, and communication skills through in-person or online programs. Contact AllWin today and take the first step toward effectively resolving conflicts on your team and in your organization.

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About the Author: Jeremy Pollack

Jeremy Pollack, Ph.D. is the founder of Defuse De-Escalation Training, a sister company of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, the largest workplace conflict resolution training and consulting firm in North America. He actively participates in de-escalation training and consulting initiatives for a variety of industries, from Fortune 500 companies to well-known non-profits. Besides his Ph.D. in Psychology from Grand Canyon University, Jeremy holds a Master’s Degree in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, and Peacebuilding (NCRP) from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is also a member of several organizations focused on conflict resolution and peacebuilding, such as the Peaceful Leadership Institute, the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the Division 48 (Division of Peace Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. Jeremy also holds several certifications in the field of training and coaching: he is a Certified Organizational Development Coach (CODC™), a Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist-Individual (CCTS-I™), and an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) under the International Coaching Federation.

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