Five Tips for Handling Conflict at Work

It was a dumpster fire.

To be successful at my job, you needed the ability to step away and trust those with whom you work to run and manage the process and team. If not, all hell breaks loose.

In a matter of two hours what had started from a harmonious blend of serving customers, managing team workflow and leading the sales team of a business grossing over $100,000 per day, had disintegrated into chaos, frustrated employees, and in turn angry customers, all yelling at me as if I was directly responsible for their current turbulent situation.

I was furious.

What was frustrating was in a matter of about 30 minutes, I was able to flex my operational muscle, course correct, and steer the ship into more calm waters. WHY did things fall into disarray? Where were my peers? After I had defused the last customer issue, having been told how TERRIBLE I was at customer service during the interaction, I angrily pulled out my phone and fired off the most assertive text I could compose:

“Hey, sorry to bother you, but who was in charge, again while I was away? I just have a couple of questions about something.”

Yeah, that’s right. I said it. *eye roll*

I was a coward, and wasn’t even brave enough to address the situation in person. To add insult to injury, the person to whom I sent my devastatingly cryptic text later followed up in the hallway and apologized for the condition of the business to which I smiled and replied:

“No big deal!”

I tried to rationalize that I was exercising political savvy and choosing my battles when the truth of the matter is I completely let myself, and more importantly, my team down.

For so long during my professional career I focused my energies avoiding conflict. It never really dawned on my how much harm I was doing with this reckless behavior.

But why? I mean of course apart from the obvious reason that conflict is difficult and uncomfortable. What were my true reasons for avoiding conflict?

  1. I didn’t want to upset the delicate balance of sensitive work environment.
  2. I was afraid I would be perceived as a trouble maker or problem performer by my leaders.
  3. I wanted to be liked by my team.

FYI – being liked is the absolute worst reason to avoid conflict. What I’ve found in my career dealing with people all day every day, people actually like it when someone doesn’t create conflict, but creates an environment of honesty for the right reasons.

When leading others, we have to remember that conflict is no longer about us. It is about the greater good of our peers and for those whom report to us. In other words, the more responsibility we have, the more we are obligated to deal with and proactively manage conflict in the workplace.

Ok, I’m sure you’re thinking, “No, thank you.” I thought and often still think the same thing. Conflict is a two way street with often unpredictable traffic screeching at you in a head on collision of emotion and distress.

The key word in my above statement was proactively, but what does that mean? How do you peel back the layers of a complex business and proactively manage conflict one person at a time? How do you get your customers to not become unreasonable and demanding during a situation in which they might not get their way?

Tip 1: Engage in Building Relationships with Your Team

The root of ALL your problems lies in how you engage (vs. manage) your team and in turn train them to communicate with one another and your customers. Anyone can be “the boss” and give direction to execute task after task; however, leadership becomes MUCH simpler when your teams are committed versus just being compliant. When was the last time you asked an employee or coworker about how they were feeling? Can you name their children or do you know if they are in a committed relationship. What part of the country are they from and what brought them to your doorstep? Do they have any hobbies or skills unrelated to their every day job.

Many people use the excuse that they don’t want to be invasive or pry into the personal lives of others. That’s a fair argument, but over time in most situations as you interact with your team or peers more these details just make themselves known organically. It all starts with you being proactive and engaging in conversation. The first thing you say to a peer or employee should NOT be focused on work or what you need. It should be focused on connecting personally.

I’ve put this methodology into practice and it has yet to fail me in a major way. Sure there are some people that refuse to open up and connect. If you’re trying to build or foster a conflict free environment, you need to think big picture over time and consider whom you’re hiring practices. We live in a social world based on connection, and its important we evolve our working relationships and environment with that.

Tip 2: Encourage Your Team to Be Open and Honest with One Another

Easier said than done, I know. This one is definitely tricky, especially if you’re working a larger team. Take a moment and consider some of the best team members that has reported to you or others with whom you’ve worked along side. How were their interpersonal skills? Keep in mind this train of thought is operating under the assumption you don’t work in some highly technical field where soft skills are less of a factor. If that’s not the case, there’s a strong possibility you’re picturing some Mr. or Mrs. Congeniality. That person is able to establish a connection with a wide variety of people.

Now, work can’t be some popularity contest, so the best way to focus on this tip is to get your team in a mindset of development. Specifically, help them determine their strengths and opportunities based on behaviors. For example, if everyone completed a personality or skills test that helped them identify their best skill and the one with which they struggle and shared them, that opens up a whole level of professional connection. People enjoy connecting based on experience and opening up development as your primary goal gives validation to people a bit more open with one another.

Tip 3: Put Your Ego Aside and Be Open to Feedback – Regardless if it is Retaliatory

Leaders that expect behavior should also model said behavior. It’s been my experience that I have learned more about being an effective manager from my team than from my peers or my direct supervisors. How is this possible? I solicit feedback constantly. Opening yourself up to criticism is a deeply personal step to take in your own development, and being on the receiving end is challenging takes a certain level of self-confidence.

Feedback is always based on perception, and while you may feel the feedback received is not correct, it is valid because that’s how someone else views you. Sometimes, feedback may come at you because you started a feedback interaction. It may be delivered in self-defense in a move to help the other party save face or justify their behaviors. More importantly, don’t be the person that retaliates when you receive feedback. Take it and respond at a later time after you’ve had some time to process it.

An incredible side benefit of this tip is you’re not only developing yourself, but you’re developing others to deal with conflict and demonstrating the behaviors necessary to be successful. An employee that’s brave enough to provide specific feedback, even if it’s negative, is one worth having.

Tip 4: Focus on What You Can Do, Not What You Can’t

When you think about conflict in the workplace it most often is created due to differences in opinions on how to move forward with a certain strategy or initiative. Have you ever sat in a meeting or listened to a pitch and there was one or two people that seemed to remind everyone why a specific step or idea would not work?

It’s obnoxious and creates needless conflict. Then, of course, after the meeting people retreat to the office cliques that we all know should not exist and discuss the tension in the room and how negative that one individual made the space….even though they did nothing to alleviate said tension in the situation. Don’t worry, I’m just as guilty of that behavior as well. It’s only human.

Successful people in those situations often do point out flaws in a strategy; however, they bring with them solutions and creative ways to move forward. More importantly, they also work collaboratively and are open to the group’s interpretation and ideas in perfecting solutions to problems.

Positivity fosters more positivity. This tip easily translatable to any facet of your life. It’s important to remember that dialogue with an upbeat positive person that brings solutions to the table is FAR more successful than someone that does not. Those people are also often well regarded and manage conflict more successfully than most.

Tip 5: There Is an Inverse Relationship Between Quality Communication and the Level of Conflict in Your Life

I’ve said to many people on my team, “the quality of your life is directly correlated to the quality of your communication.” This idea translates perfectly to conflict in our lives.

Think about the personal relationships you have and the disagreements that might have occurred. Is it possible that you (or even the other party) did not do a good job of setting clear expectations? Had the proper dialogue taken place, would the conflict have even occurred?

“But I thought you meant….”

“You never mentioned that.”

“Why didn’t you tell me!?”

We’ve probably all shouted some form of those statements a time or two in our lives all the while blaming the other person for the situation. Remember quality communication includes you asking questions, seeking to understand and then be understood (See The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People again). This relates to both your team and your customers. Setting clear guidelines or expectations is necessary to successfully run a business.

Some may wonder, “How much communication is too much?”

Not to worry – experience has taught me that one of the first things people will give you feedback on is if you’re over-communicating. Keep in mind it will be in the form of non-verbals like eye-rolls, heavy sighs or short answers to end the conversation as quickly as possible…no one likes actual conflict, remember?

While repetition does work, the quality of your communication matters most when mitigating conflict.

Try this…

  1. If you delegate a task to an employee, clearly outline the objectives you’d like completed and the methodology to complete them – you’re in great shape. Asking them to repeat the instructions (obviously) improves the likelihood of success.
  2. Frequently provide recognition for specific behaviors you’ve observed. “You did a great job today” is much different from something like, “You did an amazing job articulating a very complex concept to everyone today in the meeting. You obviously put a lot of thought into it and your message was very well received by the team.” Recognition is some of the most critical communication you can use that helps eliminate conflict.
  3. Before communicating an important message, think through your key points first. It may help to even write them down and re-read them. If you’re comfortable, ask someone else for feedback before making it public.

Of course this isn’t a comprehensive list, and I’m sure you may have other ideas and methods of going about quality communication. If you do, I’d love to hear them. Don’t hesitate to comment or reach out.

A Final Thought

A former professor reached out and reminded me of a great point. It’s important to remember that not all conflict is bad. Conflict can be the source of some of the most amazing transformation you will witness professionally, socially and personally. (Thanks, Susan!)

I was listening to my favorite Podcast a week or so ago and I heard a guest speaker say something that I will never forget. It’s possibly what got my wheels turning on this whole idea in the first place.

“Conflict will happen, but drama is a choice.”

I skipped back a few seconds so I could hear him say it again.

“Conflict will happen, but drama is a choice.

Those words were really groundbreaking for me. In the back of my mind I had always known that, but it made me realize that when in a conflict, I am in 100% control of my emotional reaction and actions I take. I think if more people spent time focusing on controlling what they can control, a lot less conflict might occur.

…or you could ignore all of this and keep standing in a dumpster fire like the one that kicked off this whole conversation.

Your choice,


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