Workplace Conflict

Workplace Conflict defines conflict as “friction or opposition resulting from actual or perceived differences or incompatibilities.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines conflict as “a difference that prevents agreement.” Although many definitions exist, the basic definition of conflict is the same. Conflict is a difference or disagreement between two or more people. 

Conflict in the workplace is a normal part of human interaction, yet, handling and resolving conflicts that arise is probably one of the biggest challenges employees face. People bring different personalities, work styles, and perspectives to the workplace and therefore, will naturally find themselves in conflict.  Because conflict is often managed and resolved ineffectively, people commonly perceive it as negative. Sometimes workplace disputes are generally handled by avoiding the conflict, hoping it will go away; or through indirect means such as griping to friends or colleagues about it, complaining to the supervisor, or complaining to the other person’s supervisor. Another common response to conflict is “battling it out.” In all these cases, dissatisfaction is the end result because no true resolution has been achieved.

Learning to effectively resolve conflict can turn potentially damaging situations into positive opportunities. The existence of positive work relationships also helps strengthen the University’s capacity to achieve its broader organizational goals. To that end, employees are strongly encouraged to address workplace conflict in healthy ways and utilize resources provided. When conflict is unresolved, it often has damaging effects on the overall health of the workplace environment. Therefore, it is critical that conflicts be addressed quickly, constructively and professionally.

Co-worker to co-worker conflict

If co-workers are having a conflict, a direct conversation in a private setting may be beneficial, if practical. This can assist in opening the lines of communication as well as clearing up any misunderstandings and arriving at a solution in a more collaborative way.

Direct report to supervisor conflict

This type of conflict can often stem from unclear supervisory expectations. If supervisory expectations are vague, the direct report should ask for additional clarification as well as an opportunity to discuss them further. When the issue cannot be successfully resolved after direct communication with the supervisor, the direct report should request assistance from the next-level manager or another appropriate campus resource.

Sources of Conflict

There are many causes or reasons for conflict in any work setting. Some of the main causes are:

  • Poor communication: different communication styles can lead to misunderstandings between employees or a direct report and supervisor while a lack of communication simply pushes the conflict underground.
  • Personality Clashes: all work environments consists of different personalities. Conflict can occur when colleagues do not understand and accept each other’s approach to work and problem-solving.
  • Different Values: every workplace consists of individuals who see the world differently. Conflict occurs when there is a lack of understanding and acceptance of those differences.
  • Differing Interests: conflict occurs when individual workers ‘fight’ for their personal goals, ignoring organizational goals and well-being.
  • Poor Performance: when one or more individuals within a work unit are underperforming and this is not addressed, conflict is inevitable.
  • Scarce Resources: employees often feel they have to compete for available resources to do their jobs. In a resource-scarce environment, this causes conflicts – despite awareness of how scarce resources are.

Healthy Conflict vs. Unhealthy Conflict

Unhealthy Conflict (Relationship Conflict)

This type of conflict interferes with people's ability to work successfully and, in extremes, involves harmful behaviors. It can be counterproductive and even destructive if not managed effectively. For example, some of the consequences of unhealthy conflict include:

  • Damaged relationships
  • Poor decision-making
  • Dissatisfaction and stress
  • Wasted resources (time, energy and money) dealing with the conflict
  • Withdrawal and disengagement
  • Lack of teamwork (decreased productivity)
  • Lack of commitment
  • Harmful to overall culture

Healthy Conflict (Task Conflict)

Conflict can be beneficial when managed effectively. Healthy conflict builds team connections by causing those involved to change their attitudes and grow personally. It requires knowledge and use of specific skills to effectively deal with the conflict and can be used in all aspects of life. For example, some of the benefits of healthy conflict include:

  • Positive change
  • Better decision making
  • Stronger relationships
  • Increased productivity
  • Effective communication 
  • Better problem solving
  • Increased commitment
  • Beneficial to overall culture

Approaches to Addressing Conflict
There are a few different approaches that can be used to address workplace conflict:

  • Avoidance: ‘hiding your head in the sand,’ hoping the conflict will go away
  • Collaboration: working together to find a mutually beneficial solution
  • Compromise: finding the middle ground whereby a ‘little is given and little is gotten’
  • Competing: ‘may the best person win’
  • Accommodation: surrendering your own needs and wishes to please the other person

Generally, it is believed that either collaboration or compromise are the most productive forms of addressing conflict. With these two types, there is not a winner or loser but rather both parties working together for the best possible solution.

In resolving conflict, it is important to make sure the following occurs:

  • Address the issue face-to-face (notes, emails, and text messages are not the most productive ways to resolve differences).
  • Clearly articulate the causes of the conflict – openly acknowledge there will be differing perceptions of the problem(s).
  • Make a clear statement of why you want the conflict resolved and reasons to work on the conflict.
  • Communication of how you would like the conflict resolved.
  • Stick to the issues. In trying to resolve conflict, it is tempting to resort to name-calling or bring up issues from the past. It is important to address specific behaviors and situations if change is to happen.

Steps to Conflict Resolution

Effective conflict resolution is the practice of identifying and dealing with conflict in a respectful, fair and effective manner. It also requires knowledge and specific skills. It is critical that the focus remains on the idea, issue, or how to resolve the problem (task conflict) rather than on personal differences, preferences or values (relationship conflict).

Take Inventory:

  • Emotions: Realize that emotions are part of the workplace and that negative emotions can fuel the conflict. Get your emotions in check before attempting to resolve the conflict. Make sure you are ready emotionally before rushing into the conflict resolution process. Rarely are good decisions made when emotions are high. Request a “time out” if you become overwhelmed by emotions. People generally remember how you respond to a situation rather than what happened.
  • Personal Responsibility: Take a step back to honestly assess how well you have handled the conflict so far. Also, take time to examine your hot buttons and determine if they have been pushed and if so, what impact that has had on the situation. Taking personal responsibility is key in successfully resolving conflict.
  • Needs: Determine what you really need versus what you want. Be careful not to misinterpret a want for a need as it will only make a successful resolution to the conflict more challenging.
  • Expectations: Set realistic expectations about what can be accomplished in the conflict. That is, expectations concerning the desired outcome of the conflict as well as what you need from the other party.

Develop an Opening Statement

  • Set the conflict up for success: Set the conflict up for success by what you say in your initial comments. You should address difficult issues after you have had a chance to organize your thoughts. It is critical that you convey the willingness to listen and work together with the other party, and that you have confidence that a positive outcome will be reached.
  • Focus: It is very important to keep the focus on the idea, issue or problem that needs to be resolved rather than personal differences, preferences or values. The focus should also be on collaboration rather than pursuit of personal needs and desires. Take the time to be clear about what your real concern is.

Create an Effective Atmosphere

  • Timing: In most cases, we have the opportunity to decide when to approach the other party in an effort to resolve the conflict. When deciding on timing, make sure there is plenty of it to appropriately discuss the conflict, chosen at a time when both parties are ready, and at a time that maximizes concentration and good communication.
  • Location: Choose a place that is free from distractions, neutral to both parties and in a location that is conducive to positive interactions.
  • Deliver the Opening Statement: Be very mindful regarding how the message is delivered with your body language, tone of voice and sense of sincerity and genuineness. The opening statement will set the tone and very instrumental in whether you are able to create an effective atmosphere.

Communicate for Success

  • Clarify perceptions and understand needs: Seek to understand in an effort to get on the same page with the other person. Share your perceptions of the conflict to clear up inaccurate assumptions and be certain to invite the other person to do the same.
  • Use non-defensive language: Communicate in a manner which will allow people to come together to resolve conflict rather than becoming defensive. Talk from your perspective to clarify your feelings, or opinions. Use “I” messages rather than “you” messages.
  • Engage in active listening: Use skills such as paraphrasing, summarizing, clarifying, and positive body language to encourage effective communication.
  • Focus on the ideas, issues or problems to be resolved: Keep the focus of your communication on the main ideas and issues of the conflict (task conflict) rather than getting sidetracked on personal differences, preferences or values (relationship conflict). It is highly unlikely that a successful resolution to the conflict will occur if the conflict becomes personal.

Generate Options

  • Develop stepping stones: Resist the temptation to immediately address the central issue of conflict. Instead, set the conflict up for success by starting with the issues that stand a good chance of being resolved.
  • Brainstorm options: Set aside options where you disagree as you can always come back to those later. Instead, look for commonalities you have. At this point, it is important to focus on a free flow of ideas without evaluation or judgment.
  • Invite the other person to share first: Invite and encourage the other person to share first to set the tone that you value their ideas and want to work together.

Take Action

  • Identify key options: Work together to identify options that will meet individual needs, shared needs, and ones that will improve the overall relationship. Keep discussions with others about the conflict limited to only those involved or those involved in resolving the issue. Also, keep in mind it may take more than one conversation to fix the work relationship.
  • Clarify expectations: Work together to ensure that there is agreement on exactly what outcomes you are seeking as well as what each person is responsible for doing. Focus on what you can change – the future.

Positive Outcomes of Successful Conflict Management

  • Gain cooperation from team members
  • Improve performance and productivity
  • Reduce stress and preserve integrity
  • Solve problems as quickly as possible
  • Improve relationships and teamwork
  • Enrich creativity
  • Increase employee morale

Further Assistance

For workplace issues which are difficult for you to resolve on you own, there are additional resources available.

  • Supervisors, deans, directors, or other appropriate administrators - have responsibility to address workplace problems. Following the appropriate supervisory chain-of-command, arrange a private meeting with your supervisor or administrator to discuss the matter and ask for her/his assistance.
  • For faculty – Faculty concerns may be discussed with the Faculty Ombuds. The Faculty Ombuds serves as a confidential, neutral, informal and independent resource for faculty concerns and conflicts and can be reached at (864) 597-6122 or
  • For staff – Employee Relations works to help address problems that arise out of or affect work situations and recommend possible solutions and can be reached at (864) 503-5354 or
  • Any member of the campus community with a concern about discrimination or harassment – Human Resources 864-503-5322 or
  • MYgroup Employee Assistance Program (EAP) -provides free, confidential problem-solving resourcesfor benefits-eligible faculty, staff, and dependents. Servicesinclude assessment, evaluation, short-term counseling,and referral for issues such as stress in theworkplace or at home, personal crises, emotionaldifficulties, parenting issues, and other life problems. For more information, visit or call 1.800-633-3353.
  • Physical Threat - If a conflict rises to the level of a physical threat, call the University Public Safety immediately at 864-503-7777. Public Safety is located at 219 North Campus Blvd.

Suggested Reading

The following resources are available for use from Employee Relations:

Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, Susan Scott (2004)

Conflict Management in the Workplace, Shay & Margaret McConnon (2008)

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High, Kerry Patterson (2011)

Adapted from:

CDR Associates, Conflict Resolution for Managers and Leaders, John Wiley & Sons, 2007 and Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan, Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, John Wiley & Sons, 2007.

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