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How to Successfully Manage Conflict at Work

Does your workplace feel like a boxing match? The picture featured in this article of three-time world champion Muhammad Ali towering in triumph above a floored Sonny Liston is one of the most iconic in sports history. Muhammed Ali was more than just a boxer. He was a man that fought for justice and equality. While Ali made his living in the boxing arena most of us have not signed up for that kind of work and it is not the career or workplace we want. According to research, 85% of employees deal with conflict at work and it costs American companies an estimated $359 billion annually, not to mention the emotional and psychological impacts of conflict in the workplace.

It is natural to want to minimize the amount of workplace conflict. However, conflict can be productive if managed successfully. When we talk about conflict, we are not necessarily referring to aggressive confrontations or arguments. Conflict could mean a heated argument or a simple difference of opinion. The distinction lies in the importance of the issue and the amount of energy you put into it.

  • Constructive conflict is an open exchange of conflicting or differing ideas in which parties feel equally heard, respected, and unafraid to voice dissenting opinions for the purpose of reaching a mutually comfortable resolution.

  • Non-productive conflict is an exchange of conflicting or differing ideas in which parties do not feel equally heard, respected, and are afraid to voice dissenting opinions.

Making conflict work requires a healthy workplace culture and a strong commitment and dedication from everyone within the workplace. Conflict impacts more than just those that recognize the conflict. It is easy to miss the hidden cost of workplace conflict on others and the performance of the company. It’s also important for everyone to recognize that there is a correlation between reactions to conflict and results either positive or negative.

3 Tips for What Not to Do

When it comes to workplace conflict understanding what NOT to do is just as important as understanding what to do. The following are some tips to keep you from mismanaging conflict at work:

  • Don't wait around and do nothing. If non-productive conflict is left unresolved it will escalate over time with win-lose outcomes.

  • Don't let your bias drive your solution to the issue. We all have bias and it is important to reflect on the situation and people involved before moving to solutions.

  • Don't approach a workplace conflict without a plan. As the saying goes, if you fail to plan you plan to fail. Take time to put a plan for how you will approach conflict so you are not just reacting without thinking.

4 Tips for What to Do

As we mentioned earlier, successfully managing requires a healthy workplace culture and the dedication and commitment of the workforce. The following are what you should do:

  1. Have a plan for how you are going to approach the conflict in your particular workplace. Your plan should include answers to the what, when, where, how, and why specific to the situation and those involved.

  2. Provide training for your leaders and employees on how to deal with workplace conflict and repeat. Just like the directions on the back of a bottle of shampoo instruct you to rinse, wash, and repeat. You should provide training for employees on managing conflict, and communication beyond the initial onboarding training for new employees.

  3. Invest the energy when times are tough. Avoiding conflict takes your time and energy. Avoiding conflict will only make matters worse for you, those involved, and the results of your company. Commit and take action. Just like rapids in river there will times of conflict and times of calm. Both are natural and healthy for every workplace.

  4. Be sure that ownership in resolving workplace conflict is owned by everyone. Create a culture of accountability that starts with your leadership. As Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Remember that disagreements do not have to be divisive and what you choose to do or not do will largely determine the outcomes.

Manage Conflict, Manage Your Business

We are available to partner with you to develop a customized solution that will transform your workplace. Walk with the Michigan People Group to enhance your human resources experience.

About the Authors

Clif’s knowledge and expertise include employee relations and diversity, equity, and inclusion, to enhance the human resources experience. Clif Charles is the cofounder of the Michigan People Group in Grand Rapids, MI. Clif can be reached at or by calling

Jeff's knowledge and expertise are focused on leadership development, recruiting, hiring, and performance management to enhance the human resources experience. Jeff Doolittle is the cofounco-founderder of the Michigan People Group in Grand Rapids, MI. Jeff can be reached at or by calling 1-616-272-5955.


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