How to Manage Workplace Conflict

Workplace conflict is the absolute worst. We tend to avoid it at all costs. But when it strikes - and it will - there are constructive things you can do to repair the situation. Modern Mentor shares her favorite strategies.

Rachel Cooke
4-minute read
Episode #660
The Quick And Dirty

These five strategies will help turn your workplace conflict into workplace progress:

  1. Separate signal from noise
  2. Empathize with the other point of view
  3. Consider  your own role
  4. Strive for a "lemon solution"
  5. Celebrate victory in increments

You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach…or maybe behind your eyes…when you have to face something icky going down between people at work? Maybe you’re one of the people, or possibly a bystander, or even the leader of one or more of the involved parties. But whatever your role, there is something universally uncomfortable and unsettling about having to deal with conflict in the workplace.

But there are positive and constructive ways to work through it. So let’s talk about some things you can do to help keep workplace conflict in check.

Tip #1: Separate signal from noise

In the realm of workplace conflict some things matter (signal) and some things don’t (noise). Let’s say you have an assertive colleague, Mary. In team meetings she always speaks first and frequently. She loves the sound of her own voice and it drives you bonkers. You avoid collaborating with her whenever possible. This presents a conflict.

But what’s the signal and what’s the noise?

She’s annoying – and that’s annoying. But it’s noise – it doesn’t really matter or have an impact on the business.  But her failure to be careful and thoughtful – to consider all the critical information before speaking up – that’s signal. There is real risk inherent in there.

Now you have clarity on what needs resolution.

A conflict that is just noise is a waste of your time and energy. Focus on finding the signals. That’s where you’ll invest in finding resolution.

Tip #2: Empathize with the other point of view

Before moving to action, it’s helpful to consider why someone is behaving in a way that may be triggering conflict. Let’s return to Mary. You’ve decided her issue is hubris – she believes her ideas are the best and most important, and therefore her voice must always be heard first.

I get it. I too assume the worst of the people who get under my skin. But have you considered other possibilities?

Maybe Mary is deeply insecure, and she speaks quickly because she doesn’t feel entitled to her seat at the table. Maybe Mary received feedback years ago that she wasn’t speaking up sufficiently, and now she’s overcorrecting. Maybe Mary is intimidated by you and feels she needs to speak before you do.

None of these are excuses for poor behavior. But considering the possibilities may bring more of your own empathy to the solution.

Tip #3: Consider your own role 

You’re amazing. And we both know it. But just for a second…can we consider the possibility that you may have a hand in this conflict as well? Is Mary over-delivering on ideas because she feels you may be under-delivering? Is she moving quickly to solutions because she feels that you linger too long in the data? Is she attempting to role model a behavior she’d like to see you exhibiting more?

This isn’t about blame or shame. It’s simply an invitation to you to reflect on how you may be contributing to the conflict at hand. Are there changes you might need to make?

Tip #4: Strive for a "lemon solution"

A college professor was the first to pose this one to me. Imagine two sisters are fighting over the last lemon in the bowl. They fight, things escalate, and finally their mother comes in to referee. “Why do you want the lemon so much?” she asks both of them. The first sister says, “I’m making lemonade and I need the juice.” The second sister says, “I’m making lemon bars and I need the rind.”

You see where this is going. The conflict was totally avoidable. If they’d simply asked better questions, a solution meeting both of their needs was right there.

How can you bring your own version of this to life?

Mary wants to have her voice heard. You want to ensure important information isn’t overlooked. Is there a conversation you can have with Mary that’s empathetic and constructive?

Maybe something like this: “Mary, I love how generous you are with your ideas. A couple of my favorites have been [fill in the blank]. But I also think sometimes speed comes at the price of accuracy. And I wondered if next time a big question is posed to the team, we might spend a few minutes asking and answering some questions before you move into posing solutions. I’m happy to take the lead on asking the questions if you’d like to lead with the idea.”

This solution validates Mary – it assumes generosity rather than a big ego – and it gets you both what you need. It also acknowledges your own accountability. You get your pause and reflection time, and she still gets to put an idea out there.

How can you apply this thinking to your own workplace conflict?

Tip #5: Celebrate victory in increments

Workplace conflict may take time to heal. Your goal may need to be one hundred tiny victories rather than one big one. 

You and Mary will evolve slowly and over time. So next time you see her pause – even just for a moment before she answers - give her a high five. Next time you’re the first to utter an idea – call it out. “Hey – look at me – moving out of data and into solutions.”

We love celebrations. They make us feel good. Taking note of small victories will motivate us to create more of them.

One final note: if the conflict you’re experiencing is creating a hostile work experience for you – you’re feeling abused, discriminated against, harassed, or anything equally terrible – do not attempt to empathize or compromise. Please learn how to escalate this situation immediately and then do so.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.