How to handle conflict in the workplace

One in three UK employees had recently experienced some form of interpersonal conflict at work
One in three UK employees had recently experienced some form of interpersonal conflict at work
Share this article
1
Have your say

Conflict in the workplace is often unavoidable and can take many forms.

It could be a problem between an employee and a manager, a disagreement between co-workers, or an individual with an axe to grind.

In a survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), one in three UK employees had recently experienced some form of interpersonal conflict at work, while one in four had isolated disputes or clashes, and a further one in four reported ongoing difficult relationships.

Workplace conflicts are commonplace, then, but you can learn to how to handle them effectively.

“Don’t feel you have to come up with the perfect answer all the time,” says Corinne Mills, career coach and joint managing director of Personal Career Management. “Share problem-solving responsibility so that you get the people affected actively involved in creating their own solutions.

“They are far more likely to want to make it work if they feel they have had input into making it work.”

Disagreements can get heated, but Corinne advises keeping a cool head. “Watch the emotion,” she says. “Don’t get so hung up on practical solutions that you miss the emotional subtext which so often reveals what the issue is really about. Be direct and they are far more likely to tell you the truth about what the basis of that anger is – and it may be nothing to do with the issue you are discussing.”

Sometimes tempers boil over and it seems like no solution is in sight. When this happens, it’s time to stop the discussion.

“If things get really heated and difficult halt proceedings and meet up again when tempers are cooled,” says Corinne. “There is a real danger of irreparable damage if things get to a point when people will say things they regret.”

When picking up the discussion make sure it’s structured. “Ask people to prepare their comments so they’re able to make focused points rather than wildly rambling,” says Corinne. “Give each person clear, uninterrupted time to make their points and ensure everyone listens.

“This allows people to feel they’ve said all they want and have been listened to. Often this is enough to defuse the conflict.”

Another tactic is to summarise back to them the points they have made in their argument, making sure you use their exact word. “You’re not saying that you agree with their points, but just showing that you have really listened to what they’ve said,” says Corinne. “This can be a very powerful way to reduce the tension in a conflict situation.”