Is referring to the HR handbook, or asking HR to intervene or asking the protagonists to shake hands and then to check that there are ‘no hard feelings’ – still your total sum solution to conflict at work?  Possibly OK for the spat which can be contained. But, you know that the underlying cause has not been resolved.

Or, do you really hope that the dysfunctional member of the team will just go?

Conflict exists in every organisation. It can be the result of a passionate belief in a course of action or the debate over an intellectual position, within bounds it may be productive.

The grit in the oyster might create the pearl. But it is the result of an irritant.

Unfortunately, this can be detrimental to the individual and to the team if not handled properly. Wellness clinics are not the result of professional and the respectful right to disagree and hold different positions on an issue. Resentment can spiral out of control and threaten to impact on strategy, productivity and the bottom line.

There are many reasons why conflict occurs at work and what boils over into an actual stand up argument may just be a symptom not the cause. Whilst individual differences can be a profound source of friction and discontent – much must be down to poor leadership and management. Forget handbooks and closed doors try a ‘hands-on’ approach.

Approaches to understanding and managing conflict have many dependencies; personal, social, organisational, cultural and national. But there are some universal aspects that underpin these individual differences.

There are three conflict handling archetypes:

  • Passive
  • Assertive
  • Aggressive

Each has some particular behaviours. Where do you sit on this scale?


Avoiding: conflict, what conflict? Often for fear of people thinking you are a bad manager for hiring such testy subordinates; result: ‘what a bad manager for not dealing with the conflict’

Accommodating: one side caves: very noble of them, but leaves the ‘nobility’ thinking ‘you owe me’, and the other side ‘you own me’

The reality is that a passive response that conceals, avoids or otherwise ignores conflict will only fester and grow into resentment. The likely outcomes: good people will withdraw and ‘keep their head down’, or if the can – leave. The team will fragment creating factional infighting within an organization.

Unfortunately, some managers might revel in this situation and create an inner circle of those included in the team rituals, jokes and networking. These ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups (Graen & Uhl-Bien (1995)) add to the marginalization of the out group, often they are not a group but disenfranchised individuals.  Read more about the role of a leader in our pieces on leadership.        








At the other end of the scale there is…


This aggressive ‘winner takes all’ is about power, control and dominance. The other side loses; the result: ‘I’ll get you next time’

The difficult bit is to tackle the root causes of the conflict and to be assertive in resolving the conflict, by confronting the issues and being Assertive, but not aggressive.


In being assertive there are two approaches

Compromising is an attempt to find a solution that will at least partially please all parties. However, you may end up with the least-worst option, in trying to find the middle ground between all the conflicting needs. It may be the sticking plaster that satisfies no-one. However, this style is appropriate when it is important to reach a solution as soon as possible. It will need a review and that is often the promise made to get the parties to compromise. This might feel not very assertive,

Collaborating – the ‘win-win’ model. It takes time to find a solution that will meet the needs of all parties. It may not be the middle ground, there needs to be some aspect of compromise. The devil is in the detail. However, it is possible to satisfy all stakeholders.

What are the causal links

Even the most convivial of colleagues can find themselves clashing in the classic conflict situations:

Power: the most obvious sign of conflict here is superiors to inferior bullying -; according to one estimate, 80% of UK organisations have a bully, yet less than 5% have set up policies to stamp it out

A University of Michigan study comparing managers’ behaviour when giving feedback either directly or indirectly found that those giving performance feedback face-to-face:

were more positive, and gave more lenient performance ratings spent less time giving feedback provided more documentation supporting their performance ratings.

The report concluded such behaviour was due to fear of interpersonal conflict.


Gender: primary conflict = sexual harassment; arises from an inability (deliberate or inadvertent) to perceive that the behaviour in question is causing offence

Behavioural: primary conflict = the way colleagues think; e.g. the ‘attention to detail’ person on a project clashes with the ‘big picture’ person. Consider Tuckman and Belbin and Hofstede

Culture:  a study of Anglo-French mergers found that friction frequently arises as British managers take a pragmatic, suck-it-and-see approach, while the French prefer to wait for a complete solution.

Inter-culture: based on habits ingrained by tradition and education on both a company and country level.

Inter-department: primary conflict = dependency; where the actions of one group or unit compromise the ability of another to complete their own work.

For example: An international bank memorandum re the conflict between the research department and the rest of the bank:as we are all too aware there have been too many instances where our security analysts have been the source of negative comments about clients of the firm. Our objective is … to adopt a policy, fully understood by the entire Firm, including the Research department, that we do not make negative or controversial comments about our clients as a matter of sound business practice’.

inter-incumbents: primary conflict = between predecessor and current post holder; especially relevant at senior management level, where the previous post holder goes onward and upward, for example to take a seat on the board, and on the successor’s shoulder.

The more measured organisational response:

Beyond grievance procedures and the ‘quiet word’, a more structured approach to conflict management is available to managers, based on five tenets of:

  1. anticipation: to at least go some way to pre-empt problems which may arise
  2. education: to raise awareness and understanding right through the ranks
  3. regulation: gently, to try to literally rule it out, by setting a clear set of boundaries
  4. differentiation: to concede that a one-size-solution will just not fit all
  5. mediation: the ‘hands on’ approach to guide clashing colleagues to a solution.


The four fundamentals for the ‘mediator manager’ to establish:

  1. context: look for influencing factors e.g. extra or sudden pressure, change in circumstances
  2. type: home in on the cause e.g. task related (s/he has not produced the quality of work) or a relationship problem (her attitude stinks) , or style (I do not see where he is coming from); have them state their problem separately, then compare their perceptions
  3. severity: e.g. is it total (addresses a plurality of issues); central (preoccupies parties constantly), zero sum (entrenched, where any give on one side is perceived as a loss)
  4. de-personalisation: focus on the problem; not ‘you did this’, but ‘this has been done’

a word to the wise…

Caveats for those who see the storm clouds gathering:

memory distorts: over time, perceptions become increasingly inaccurate, and tend to fuel further conflict

spite spreads: in one study of worker behaviour, employees most likely to copy co-workers’ aggressive behaviour were those who had worked at the company a while, with co-workers with whom they felt at ease, and with whom they worked closely.


So the longer you leave it, the worse it will really become.