How To Better Understand and Manage Workplace Conflicts

conflict - disagree.jpg

Why do we sometimes disagree and quarrel with our bosses or co-workers? Is it because we get offended or fail to get our way? Because someone broke the rules or made a mistake? The causes are numerous.

What prompts us to become resistant, angry, moody, and emotional towards others in the workplace? Is it conflict that triggers those reactions in us?

Conflict is one of the great opportunities in life. Yes, opportunities! According to Lou Holtz, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.”

So, while life certainly brings about myriad experiences, most of life involves responding to our experiences. The point? Life may not be lived to the fullest if we do not learn how to react and respond well to our experiences, especially to those which are challenging, annoying, unfair, unexpected, or unfortunate.

emoticons showing varied emotional responses
  • Did you run into heavy traffic on your way to work this morning? Did any irritatingly slow, careless or unsafe drivers get in your way? How did you respond?
  • What happened to you in the last 30 minutes? How did you respond?
  • What major sadness or loss have you experienced this past year? How did you respond?
  • Did you experience a major failure in recent months? How did you respond?
  • Have you ever found yourself conflicting with another individual at work? With more than 1? More than 5? How did you respond?
  • Have you ever found yourself yelling at a family member, friend, or co-worker over anything? We know how you responded!


People conflict with others over numerous matters. Sometimes we give voice to these conflicts, sometimes not. But one of the reasons we have quarrels and conflicts is because our personalities and preferred ways of doing life and work differ vastly. Allow me to elaborate on a few of those differences.

figures competing in race at different paces

1. Difference in Pace

  • One drives at a snail’s pace while the other is ready to put the pedal to the metal.
  • A husband methodically shops 8 long months for the perfect sofa while his wife would have been content with the third or fourth one she saw.
  • One team leader is ready to act now, but his co-leader prefers to conduct a few weeks of research first.

What to remember about the pace at which people move:

Everyone's natural "pace" can be either a disadvantage or an advantage at any given time. However, the frequency at which you get irritated with people who do not operate at the same pace as you and the less patience and tolerance you extend them, the more loudly you convey your own lack of self-control and immaturity to others. Self-control in relationship to others is a learned trait which can benefit not only your relationships but also your health and career. Make the conscious effort to exercise some self-control toward those who are not like you.

2. Difference in Personality

people and personality variety
  • A husband possesses a sharp wit and kind demeanor but doesn’t have nearly the tolerance or need for words that his wife displays daily.
  • A kind and patient supervisor has one employee who can’t stop talking long enough for the other workers to complete their work accurately; the talker, however, is quite effective in maintaining her workload.
  • An extroverted team member speaks up during a meeting with one great idea after another only to have an introverted team member speak with the team leader after the meeting, and the supervisor chooses the introvert’s idea!
  • Seven employees make up a close-knit office where everyone is a part of the team, but a new co-worker is hired who makes literally everything a competition.

What to remember about differing personalities:

In the workplace, when you find yourself despising or demeaning another’s personality or modus operandi, you are conveying to that person and others your inability to respect your co-workers appropriately. Instead, stop being so judgmental and force yourself to find one admirable trait, which, if used wisely, would be an amazing attribute in that person. Then, in the kindest, most non-demeaning manner possible, begin to compliment and encourage the person in that direction.

meeting and workplace communication

3. Difference in Communication Styles

  • Your manager is direct, forthcoming, often brash, unrelenting, and task-oriented.
  • You believe all communication should be sprinkled with kindness in the friendliest manner possible.
  • Your husband tends to be moody, and you’re never quite sure what he’s thinking.
  • Then there’s your daughter who is happy, happy, happy and never seems to stop talking.

What to remember about our habits of communication:

We learn at a young age how to “deal” with people who are different from us. That is, we create habits and methods (right or wrong) regarding how we group, judge, label and treat people based on their communication style or a thousand other perceived undesirable traits. Yet remember this: People want to feel respected and appreciated. Sometimes in our “dealings” with people not like us, we (sub)consciously but convincingly convey, “I don’t like you”, "I don't approve of you - or your disposition", “You annoy me”, or "You're a waste of my time" with every interaction we have with the person. Break this habit as soon as possible. We all need to toughen up or change in some way, but for the sake of basic human kindness and less conflict, meet people where they are and be respectful!

4. Difference in Values

values written in red
  • Your supervisor believes little white lies are acceptable, and he is ready to fire you for the relatively “unnecessary” albeit factual information you divulged to a consumer during their recent car shopping visit.
  • Your boss expects you to arrive promptly to work each day and without excuse, but you only run about 5 minutes late each day, give or take a few minutes. Morning traffic!!
  • Gossip is the status quo and basis of many working relationships at the business where you were just hired, but for years you have been intentional about not participating in any form of gossip, especially that related to your bosses and co-workers.
  • You had a great idea and presented it to your business partner, but his priorities are different than yours. You believe that the company must act immediately on an important financial matter, but your sidekick believes that people are more important than the costs the company may incur by delaying action.
  • Your boss wants you to work every day from 8 to 5 with a one-hour lunch, but you want to manage your time a bit differently. Come in 15 minutes late and take a 45-minute lunch. Or arrive 30 minutes late and work 30 minutes late. Your boss refuses to be flexible. She says it’s about work ethic and expecting the same good habits from all employees – not about her personal level of flexibility.

What to remember about expressing and responding to opposing values:

conflict - opposing values - one positive - one negative

This is a biggie in our world and workplace today. We all have drastically different values, similar sometimes, but rarely the same as another. I think it is a wise thing to try to hire employees with similar values (interests, motivations and attitudes) because it simply makes working together easier.

However, most people will find themselves in serious conflict with a co-worker, manager or client at some point in their work experience. There are so many conversations to be had here, but I’ll stick with this directive when addressing a difference in values:

Treat others with every bit of respect that is due them as one of your fellow human beings, whether they are a manager, one of your peers, an employee, or a customer. However, stand your ground and choose to do what is right so that you can sleep peacefully at night. Finally, remember that words, actions and reactions steeped in both lovingkindness and integrity outrank almost every other defense when it comes to the big picture and living life well, both personally and professionally.

5. Difference in Personal Peace

  • Your supervisor’s departmental budget has just been cut by 10%, and she had asked for an increase of 5%. Moreover, her husband just filed for divorce, so she’s not in the best of moods.
  • You’ve been a perfectly happy employee for 2 years, but now your 14-yr old daughter is 2 months into cancer treatment. You are worried about her and experiencing serious sleep deprivation.
  • You co-worker is acting abnormally moody. You don't realize it, but she's just been called out regarding her bad attitude and mistreatment of another co-worker. As a result, she's feeling depressed and ashamed of her behavior. And of course, she doesn't want to talk about it to anyone.
emotions expressed on yellow balls

What to remember about others' lack of peace:

You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again. No one is without trouble in this life. Everyone has issues. Everyone’s personal peace gets disrupted at times. So, be mindful of others’ struggles, even if you aren’t aware of the exact problem, much less the details. There’s always a reason why people act unpleasantly - always. So be just as non-judgmental, understanding and tolerant as possible.

6. Difference in Experience with Conflict

You grew up constantly arguing and fighting with an abusive father, but your employee had a wonderful upbringing with very little conflict. When your employee must speak with you about a problem, a mistake or any other "negative" issue, your tendency is to yell and lash out. And she falls apart emotionally, retreats to her office in silence (for 2-3 days), every single time. It’s most unpleasant, but the story hasn’t changed in 10 years.

serious conflict between 2 people not facing each other

What to remember about dealing with conflict:

To both the employer and the employee in this situation, I would say this: If you do not start doing something differently, nothing will ever change. Serious conflicts should be handled in such a way that communication and understanding will usher in change – change that breeds better days ahead.

7. Difference in Perception

  • You feel left out in your department. You only turned down your coworkers’ invitation twice, but now they never include you in their private talks or lunches away from the office. They interpreted your refusal as disinterest. In all honesty, it was a little disinterest, but mostly due to fear of rejection by people you didn’t know very well yet. Misunderstanding creates distance, confusion and all sorts of negative consequences.
sandwich or snack
  • You are a new employee doing what everyone else in your department does. You eat your morning snack (a.k.a. lunch sandwich) at your desk while you continue to work around 10:00 each day. Then you punch the clock around noon and use your lunch hour to get some sunshine and enjoy a good book. You have done the same thing at previous jobs - no problem. 

However, your desk is right in line with the new manager’s desk; one day he sees you with your lunch box and watches as you eat your sandwich without punching the clock. Apparently, he doesn't realize you are still working. Next, he sees you punch out and take an hour long lunch. He reports you, and you end up losing your job. You are accused of stealing time from the company by taking two lunches but only punching out for one. You try to explain your perspective but to no avail. There is zero tolerance for “theft.”

What to remember about quick and sometimes false perceptions:

Perception and first impressions – these are important – yet things are not always as they seem. Truly, we live and learn, but I would offer these tidbits of advice.

perception - man's head with bubbles of thought

First, let all your actions be above reproach so that you are never falsely (or justly) accused of wrongdoing. Don’t be afraid to communicate with a new boss about anything – to clarify your actions, to ask permission, etc.

Secondly, be the type of person who is willing to work at getting to know others, not just the people who are easy to know but also the ones who require a little time and good conversation before committing themselves to new acquaintances.

Finally, for those who are introverted, learn from situations like this and be prepared to take a chance on building good workplace relationships with both your supervisors and your co-workers.

sad woman facing conflict at work


When you see unresolved conflict in the workplace, the repercussions will always be negative in nature. Disagreement becomes acutely personal and emotional. Loud arguments and fighting persist. The conflict clouds otherwise typical good judgment in your best employees. Walls are built – walls that cannot be torn down easily. The whole culture of a company can be infected with the negativity which unresolved conflicts may generate. The joy of working is fully negated, and people want to leave the company.


It takes a leader with emotional intelligence to deal with emotional conflict. Business leaders must learn to deal effectively with conflicts which arise among their employees. We all know that where there are people, there will be conflict. It’s inevitable. But there are a few ways of thinking and responding which can benefit arbitrators of conflict.

respect - held in one's hand

1. Mutual respect goes a long way toward working through differences, so be sure you are building a positive culture where mutual respect is the norm.

“Respect your fellow human being(s), treat them fairly, disagree with them honestly, enjoy their friendship, explore your thoughts about one another candidly, work together for a common goal and help one another achieve it. No destructive lies. No ridiculous fears. No debilitating anger.” - Bill Bradley, former pro-basketball player and U.S. Senator

2. It is unwise to ignore any conflict because smaller ones can lead to more consequential ones. Rather, a leader’s willingness to address conflict in the workplace emphatically reveals how much one cares about both the employee and the company. Conflicts which are left unaddressed will be emotionally draining on an organization and all its employees.

conflict & solution - 3 work toward resolution
“Every unaddressed conflict wastes about 8 hours of company time in gossip and other unproductive activities” which creates “an enormous drain on an organization.” - Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts, a training and organizational development company in Utah

3. Conflict that is handled successfully has a host of benefits:

  • Increased diversity of critical thought and opinion which leads to better decisions
  • May spark creativity which inevitably leads to innovation
  • Can help build a genuine spirit of cooperation and collaboration among employees
  • Listening and leading well during a conflict can create trust between managers and their staff
  • Addressing the specific factors which led up to a conflict may result in needed changes regarding company methods and policies
  • Helps newer employees understand the valuable contributions of longstanding employees
  • Creates opportunities to share one’s point of view with others; also builds greater appreciation for the perspectives of one’s co-workers and managers
  • Can be the one thing that creates a bond between two incompatible individuals
quote - learn to dance in the rain
“Conflict can and should be handled constructively; when it is, relationships benefit. Conflict avoidance is not the hallmark of a good relationship. On the contrary, it is a symptom of serious problems and of poor communication.” - Harriet B. Braiker, Who's Pulling Your Strings? How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life
“On great teams – the kind where people trust each other, engage in open conflict, and then commit to decisions – team members have the courage and confidence to confront one another when they see something that isn’t serving the team.” Patrick Lencioni, an American writer and author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team


It is critical to create a deeper respect and understanding between all conflicting parties. Encourage honest and mutual sharing opportunities plus a little humility. I have found this strategy to work quite well with my teenager when we have a serious disagreement. Through the years, I’ve also realized how much it means to me both personally and professionally when a manager is willing to share his or her point of view and reasoning with me. It is rare that conversation like this doesn’t breed greater understanding.

As to what will work best as a resolution, there must be a commitment by both parties to abide by the manager’s final decision. Additionally, there should be a sense that the resolution is being made without placing blame on either party, simply determining what is best. A leader’s decisions are rarely easy, and yes, sometimes they do not work to everyone’s advantage. Such is life.

conflict and finger pointing

When negotiating a conflict resolution, it is imperative that there be no finger pointing. The ones in disagreement should own their participation in the conflict. They must acknowledge aloud their part in escalating their opinions and emotions. The admittance of such should involve phrases such as I felt, I realized, I misinterpreted, I assumed, I regretted, I saw, I did, I thought, I tried, etc.

We as human beings can feel so wronged! With those feelings come cruel, hurtful words, bad attitudes, resistant hearts, and spiraling emotions. We sometimes feel moody, mistreated, unfairly reprimanded, or in an on-going power struggle. Jealousy, pride, and our egos can manifest themselves in the ugliest, most unprofessional ways. We differ in opinions, and sometimes those get expressed inappropriately. Employees, supervisors, team members, department heads – we all have the potential to conflict over anything we honestly care about. But in all these things, the conflict must be addressed and the root problem resolved in the most satisfactory manner possible among those in disagreement.

For additional help with resolving conflicts in the workplace, contact our Business Consultant at