3 Rules to Prevent Conflict Mismanagement

The most difficult requirement of leadership is effectively managing conflict. Whether you have had training or not, when you mismanage conflict, you put your company in jeopardy.

In the US government’s 2020 fiscal year, there were 67,448 workplace discrimination charged, resulting in $106 million in damages through litigation. This does not damages granted by state and district courts. Separately, a 2015 analysis found that the average cost to a small or medium-sized company for defense and settlement was $125,000, with the average case taking nearly 10 months to resolve itself.

Company costs aside, the personal cost to you could be your job. By the time attorneys get involved, the path of least resistance is to fire you. Here are three rules to make sure you do not mismanage conflict.

Rule No. 1: No blindsides

A common problem I see is when a manager does not let his or her boss know about the conflicts brewing in the department. The midlevel manager keeps “moving the chess pieces,” — i.e., shuffling time schedules or moving high-conflict employees to different departments, making promises or unprincipled deals to keep the complainer quiet and avoid looking incompetent to their superior.

But the effects of being blindsided are more significant than a little embarrassment. Once a disgruntled (and ignored) employee files a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, things get messy. I can guarantee that blame rolls downhill. When you are in over your head, it is tempting to keep your problems to yourself and try to negotiate deals with employees but that is the worst thing you can do.

What to do: Go to your boss and fess up. Ask for coaching and advice. Make sure you have documented all the strategies you have tried so far. Own your mistakes, no matter what they are, and ask for help — not just for protecting yourself but also for the organization.

Rule No. 2: Stop avoiding

Let us face it, conflict does not feel good, and we tend to avoid situations that make us feel bad. But every time you avoid a difficult conversation, you wire your brain to avoid it. Then you lose trust in yourself and respect from your employees.

Many avoiders know they are conflict-averse, but many appeasers just think they are “being nice” Appeasers make promises they will not keep. They agree outwardly when inwardly they disagree.

Then there are the aggressors. Aggressors retaliate, and say things like, “I didn’t ask you to work here.” Often those who are aggressive think they are good at addressing conflict. They brag and say things like, “The buck stops here.” What they really mean is that they know how to avoid real conversations without it being called avoidance.

The point is, they are every bit as uncomfortable with conflict as the person who mismanages in other ways. They just have a different method of operation.

What to do instead: Address conflict head-on, without all the emotion of avoidance, appeasing or aggression. Clearly identify the situation by answering the question: What is happening that should not be happening? Once you have answered that question, now you can identify the key players involved, and how the issue affects the business.

Keep it professional and keep the emotions at bay so you do not have to avoid, appease, or use aggression to address the issue.

Rule No. 3: Understand your culture

If you were hired to “right the ship,” but the senior leaders have a habit of avoiding, you are eventually going to be the scapegoat. One reason senior executives complain about having to micromanage their managers is that they override those managers’ decisions.

As a result, managers are afraid to make decisions that make them look incompetent. There could be an ineffective policy manual or a lack of a clear decision-making process. Or the senior managers are conflict-averse, and they struggle to support a manager who is willing to discipline and go by the books.

No matter how willing and skilled a middle manager is with conflict management if the upper level is conflict-averse, they will not be a fit for the organization, and their efforts will be thwarted.

What to do: Before deciding where you must discipline or course-correct, discuss with your upper level, and be prepared to show where your decision aligns with the company values and policy manual. Get verbal support before acting. If you see a history of avoidance, you have some tough decisions to make about how to address the core issue. Do not be deceived. No matter what you were told when you were hired, you will not change the culture without support at the top.


Conflict is not necessarily detrimental to an organization, but mismanagement is. With the right cultural support, some skills, and a few guiding rules, conflict can be a catalyst for collaboration and leadership growth.

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Avoiding and Handling Workplace Conflict

If you’ve never experienced workplace conflict, consider yourself among the minority.

According to a study commissioned by CPP Inc. — publishers of the Myers-Briggs Assessment and the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument — 85% of U.S. employees deal with conflict on some level.

While it’s common to have conflict of some sort in the workplace due to differing personalities, management styles and opinions, it becomes a problem when a situation or disagreement disrupts the flow of work.

According to the report, the following statistics demonstrate how pervasive conflict is in the workplace:

-29% of employees deal with workplace conflict almost constantly
-34% of conflict occurs among front-line employees (employees who deal directly with customers)
-49% of conflict is a result of personality clashes and “warring egos”
-34% of conflict is caused by stress in the workplace
-33% of conflict is caused by heavy workloads
While most employees in the study agreed that managing conflict is an important leadership skill, only a small percentage had ever received any training on how to prevent or handle conflict when they entered the workforce.

So, how do you deal with conflict?

Training is the most beneficial and productive way, but if that isn’t available, experts suggest the following ways for managers to handle workplace conflict.
Understand the nature of the conflict. Try not to make assumptions about the conflict or play into rumors that may be circulating. Instead, figure out what’s fueling the disagreement between your employees. Is it clashing personalities? Tight deadlines? A difficult client?

Let individuals express their feelings. Some feelings of anger and/or hurt usually accompany conflict situations. Before any kind of problem-solving can take place, these emotions should be expressed and acknowledged.

Encourage employees to work it out themselves. This doesn’t mean that you stay out of it completely, it just means that as a business leader you want your employees to be self-sufficient – you’re their boss, not their mother. Provide guidance or talking points, if needed, to help each employee approach the other person in a positive manner. Don’t set the expectation that you’ll fix the problem for them, but rather you are there to help facilitate a discussion. While this doesn’t apply to more serious situations, it can be a good first step.

Nip it in the bud. If the employees can’t work it out, then it’s time to step in. This should be done quickly so that the conflict doesn’t get worse. When it’s time to get involved, determine if it would be best to meet with the employees together or separately, then hear them out. Give them time to tell their side of the story and focus on the facts. Once all employees have had this opportunity, ask each of them to offer ideas on how the situation could be resolved and how all parties could move forward. Whatever you do, don’t take sides!

Find a solution. Employees don’t have to be best friends; they just need to get the job done. To help ensure you reach a fair resolution, make sure your decision is aligned with company policy. No employee should be above workplace rules. Also, conflict resolution doesn’t necessarily have to end in agreement.

Sometimes, it’s best to agree to disagree, respectfully. When that happens, employees should acknowledge there is a difference of opinion or approach and come up with a solution together on how to move forward.

Teach Them How to Communicate

For some employees, talking out a situation isn’t enough. Typically, people who have these types of problems likely have communication issues already. If there’s a lot of discord among your staff, it’s probably time to teach them some basic communication and problem-solving techniques. Personality assessments and training, such as the DiSC profile, may help your employees communicate more effectively as a team.

Don’t completely rule out organizational changes, either.

Sometimes, if it comes down to it, you can improve employee focus and the workplace dynamic by reorganizing teams. It may be helpful to give the employees involved time to “cool off” before they work together again.
In some cases, you will need to involve the Human Resources Department and possibly the legal department, especially if the conflict is a matter of discrimination or harassment.

The best thing a manager can do is lead by example. Building a culture of engaged employees who respect each other, and work well together starts at the top. By speaking to your employees in an honest and respectful manner, you create an environment that fosters integrity and communication. When you’re open and honest, employees are more likely to follow suit.

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How to Resolve Conflicts with Your Co-worker

Published by: The Harvard Business Review

Differences of opinion at work are inevitable and often integral to innovation, problem-solving, and performance improvement. But knowing that most clashes have benefits does not make them any easier to manage. Disagreements with coworkers can be uncomfortable, and if handled poorly, result in unproductive and even harmful conflict. The good news is that, with a little planning, you can avoid a fight and find an answer that everyone agrees on.

What the Experts Say

Because most people are uncomfortable discussing differences, it’s rare that disagreements go smoothly. “Most conflicts are resolved through brute force or splitting the difference,” says Jeff Weiss, a Founding Partner of Vantage Partners, LLC and co-author of Harvard Business Review’s “Want Collaboration?: Accept and Actively Manage Conflict” and “Simple Rules for Making Alliances Work.” Unfortunately, this approach often means both sides are unhappy with the outcome. Having a productive disagreement starts with your mindset. “Assume you have something to learn, assume there is a more creative solution than you’ve thought of,” says Weiss. By entering the discussion with an open mind, regardless of your coworker’s stance, you are likely to find common ground. Of course, doing this right takes time and attention. Judith White, Associate Professor of Business Administration at Tuck School of Business and co-author of “Why It Pays to Get Inside the Head of Your Opponent,” warns that you should “expect to invest time and thought.”

Below are some guidelines to help you turn a negative situation into a positive one.


Being prepared for a dispute requires knowing your own position and trying to better understand your coworker’s. Before approaching your colleague, White advises you “know what your underlying intentions are.” Weiss identifies three types of differences between coworkers:

1. Substantive, in which you disagree over the content or task at hand
2. Relational, when the dissent is really about your relationship with your coworker
3. Perceptual, when you and your coworker are seeing the problem differently

Understanding this can help you approach the conversation with clarity. First, acknowledge the type of disagreement you are having and check with your coworker that he sees it the same way.

Regardless of the nature of the quarrel, try to leave your emotions at the door. “Disagreements are best solved through objectivity rather than emotions,” says Weiss.

Preparation also includes careful consideration of logistics. Schedule your meeting so you will have enough time to reach a conclusion. Be sure the conversation can happen face to face in a private setting. Don’t try to solve differences using email, which does not do a good job of conveying tone or nuance.

Identify Common Ground

To start a difficult conversation the right way, it’s important for you and your coworker to identify something you agree on. This may be a common goal or a set of operating rules that you consent to. Try saying something like: “We both want to develop a plan that will take our company to the next level,” or “We said we would be thorough about this decision.” Be sure that the common ground is something your colleague genuinely cares about, and not something you think he should. Before moving on, check for your coworker’s agreement. You may also want to reassure him that you value your relationship. This will reassure him that your point of contention is not a personal one.

Hear Your Co-worker Out

Even if you think you already understand your coworker’s perspective, you should hear what she has to say. Ask questions that help you fully understand her point of view and determine whether your disagreement is a function of differing interests or differing perceptions. According to Weiss, this requires that you “stop figuring out your next line” and actively listen. Don’t just hearing her story but take it in as well. Remain open to persuasion since your coworker’s explanation of her side may uncover an important piece of information that leads to a resolution. For example, if she says she is just trying to keep her boss happy, you can help her articulate how a resolution is aligned with her boss’s concerns.

Once you’ve heard your coworker out, share your own story. This should not be done in a “point, counter-point” way, but should focus on helping your co-worker to see where you’re coming from. If she challenges your interpretation, let her vent and express her frustration.

Propose a Resolution

When all data is on the table, offer a resolution. Don’t propose what you walked in the door with but use the information you gathered during your conversation to come up with a better solution. Say to your coworker, “You’ve said A, and I’ve said B, perhaps we can consider solution C.” “Don’t assume a combative stance,” says White. If he isn’t happy with the solution you’ve put out there, engage him in a problem-solving process to come up with a result you can both live with.

When it goes badly…

Even with a well-thought-out approach, some disagreements turn ugly. “Most often these conversations turn into battles when it gets personal,” says White. If your exchange becomes heated, bring the conversation back to your shared interests or goals. Re-focus the dialogue on the future. “You can’t resolve a battle over a problem that has already happened, but you can set a course going forward,” says White.

If your co-worker is antagonistic or aggressive, it may be best to take a break from the conservation. You can either literally step out of the room or pause mentally pause to observe the course of the conversation. This “outsider” observation can help you gain perspective on what’s really going on. You may also try changing the process: step up to the white board, take out a piece of paper to brainstorm, or even offer to continue the discussion over drinks or dinner. This can help to alter the dynamic that’s developed between you. If all else fails, withdraw and find a third person to mediate.

Principles to Remember


  • Focus on shared goals and interests
  • Understand the nature of your disagreement before meeting with your coworker
  • Remain open to persuasion


  • Assume you fully understand your colleague’s perspective
  • Try to solve a disagreement over email
  • Stop your coworker from venting his frustrations

Case Study: Reframing the disagreement as an agreement

Andrew Lund is a professor of film and media at Hunter College in New York. His department, like all departments at Hunter, is assessed by an external reviewer every eight years to help the university allocate resources. Last year, the department received a glowing evaluation. However, the reviewers said in their report that film and media’s graduate program was taking valuable resources away from its undergraduate program.

Andrew and his colleagues knew that this would upset graduate program professors. Before long, they began to hear rumors that these colleagues were planning to repeal the report. Simon (not his real name), one of Andrew’s coworkers, a leader in the film and media department, felt that the group should remain silent on the issue, neither endorsing nor distancing themselves from the report. According to Simon, they weren’t responsible for what went into it especially since no one in film and media had expressed that opinion during the review process.

Andrew believed that remaining silent would only infuriate the graduate program professors. “The only thing it would do is create suspicion and competition between colleagues,” he said. With a faculty meeting looming, he knew he had to resolve the conflict between him and Simon and align the department. After listening to Simon’s view, he told him that they both wanted the same thing: funding for the department and a good working relationship with all their colleagues. He said he believed that their disagreement was procedural more than anything. Andrew explained that speaking up would show support for graduate program faculty and put film and media in a position to dictate further funding terms.

He proposed that they make a motion at the beginning of the faculty meeting to rescind the section of the report without taking accountability for it. After hearing Andrew out, Simon agreed to go on record that the review didn’t reflect the department’s views. “Not only did we solve the conflict, we won goodwill,” the team was triumphant!

Resolving Conflicts respectfully™

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Note: The following is an excerpt from the book, Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO.

For business professionals who hope to positively impact their organizations while also building their executive presence, conflict can provide great opportunities to test their mettle and show enlightened leadership. The following list offers some additional tools and strategies to aid in that process.

Use Active Listening — Most of us understand the benefits of “being in the moment.” In a conflict situation, this means listening carefully to all sides without an emotional filter, the way a judge listens to lawyers pitching their cases. If you’re a manager arbitrating a conflict between two employees, this is a bit easier than if you are a party to the conflict. Nonetheless, being crystal clear on the reasoning of each side in a conflict is critical to helping create a mutually satisfying resolution. The term “listening” in this context applies to more than words; you should strive to perceive the multitude of signals — from vocal tonality to facial expressions and body language — all of which can speak volumes about the intent and motivation of the participants.

Acknowledge and Validate — As an arbitrating manager, it is critical that you not only seek to understand both positions in a conflict but also validate each party’s claim. You don’t have to agree with the claim; just acknowledge each party’s unique perspective. This alone can open the parties’ minds with the assurance that they’ve been heard, even if the outcome doesn’t exactly go their way. People need respect and consideration just as much as they want to get their way. In the game of conflict, sometimes emerging emotionally validated, with one’s status intact, is enough.

Empathize — The power of empathy in conflict resolution cannot be overstated. Empathy happens when you put yourself, minus your biases and personal experiences, in the shoes (the circumstances) of both parties and, if you’re one of the combatants, in the shoes of your opponent. Try more than to just see the situation from the other person’s point of view; try to feel it, too. If you do, you may find that the picture takes on a slightly different hue.

Implement Boundaries and Expectations — Because you are a manager, people are looking to you to clarify boundaries and expectations for behavior and outcomes. If these things are muddy in the middle of a conflict, your job is to clarify them for the feuding parties. The idea here isn’t to reprimand but to prevent escalating emotions from clouding the established norms of conduct in a conflict and to reinforce the expectations for roles, behaviors, and outcomes. A good way to open this can of behavioral worms is to simply ask the parties to state what they believe the boundaries and expectations to be that pertain to debating the issue at hand, using their perspectives as a platform for your clarification and reinforcement. This approach enables open and honest communication and will keep the parties within acceptable boundaries as they (or you) work through the issues.

Be Tactful — This may not be easy, as any one of the parties to a conflict may be way out of line from the outset. But don’t get sucked into the brewing emotion, and don’t convey even the slightest sense of disrespect for the parties or their views even if they originated on another planet. If you remain sensitive to their feelings, the chances that they’ll remain open to your input increase — to everyone’s benefit.

Explore Alternatives — The parties to a conflict rarely are interested, at least at first, in looking at things differently. It’s your job as the arbitrating manager to help them do this, and it happens when you begin exploring alternative views and solutions with them. Ask open-ended questions such as “How would you act differently if this policy were reversed?” that require thought and elaboration. If you can get them to talk about an alternative, you’re a step closer to getting them to accept one.

Use “I” Statements — When you are a party to a conflict, using a first-person context is much more productive than using other language. If you say, for example, “I was angry when you said that about me,” you’ll be greeted with more openness than you would be if you say, “What you said about me was wrong.” People can’t argue with how you felt, but they can certainly dispute the right or wrong of things. Speaking about how you feel avoids accusation, and accusations are fuel on the fire of conflict.

Make Use of the Power of Stroking — It may sound manipulative, but if you can say something positive about the other person in the heat of a dispute, that person will be more open to hearing what you have to say about the issue at hand. Stroking the other person says you aren’t attacking her character and haven’t lost respect for her, only that in this instance you disagree with something that was said or done. Conflict goes off the rails when it becomes personal, but ironically, injecting something personal in a positive manner is the best way to keep it from going there.

Attack the Issues, not the Person — Conflicts sometimes are smoke from another fire or the surfacing of past disagreements or personality conflicts. When you sense triangulation entering the argument — the use of an unrelated opinion or issue to create a negative context for the present one, such as, “You always put yourself first in these situations” — you know that this is personal rather than issue-driven. As an arbitrating manager, listen for anything that is personal in nature and bring the conversation back to the issue as quickly as possible.

No matter how enlightened your conflict management approach is, when emotions run high and egos get bruised, relationships can suffer long-term damage. And particularly in a work environment where cooperation and teamwork reign supreme, this isn’t something to shrug off. Use these techniques to restore a relationship, or at least replace simmering resentment with mutual respect and collegiality.

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