Conflict is a natural part of human interaction and can arise in any workplace setting. Workplace conflicts or organizational conflicts are disputes between two parties in the workplace. These conflicts arise because no two people are the same, and when our different opinions, motivations, interests, perspectives, processes, goals and or needs clash, conflicts arise which create tension, frustration, and a negative work environment. Pruitt and Kim (2004, pp. 7–8) describe conflict as “perceived divergence of interest, a belief that the parties’ current aspirations are incompatible.” Conflict is thus inevitable; it is a fact a life.

There are many reasons why conflict can arise, such as disagreements over work assignments, differences in communication styles, competition for resources or promotions, or personal conflicts between employees. Conflict can manifest in several ways and may be emotional, intellectual, and or theoretical, including verbal arguments, passive-aggressive behaviour, gossip, sabotage, and even physical altercation. Workplace conflict divides and the effects of poorly handled conflict could range from disruptive to destructive, which affects productivity and the ability to meet company and team goals. In some instances, when the conflict reaches a certain level, there might be grounds for termination.

When conflict is not addressed, it can escalate and result in negative outcomes which can be damaging to employee relationships, lead to decreased productivity and job satisfaction, which could lead to an overall negative morale in the workplace and increased employee turnover.

It is however important to note that not all conflict is negative, in fact, healthy conflict can be beneficial for organizations as it can promote creativity, innovation, and improved decision-making. To create a healthy, harmonious environment where the company can thrive, it needs to be managed effectively in order not to escalate into destructive behaviour, which can harm employees and or the company. Conflict is not always something to fear because conflict can often bring about change. By defusing the workplace conflicts as quickly as possible, companies can minimize the negative impact, which will promote a productive workplace culture, bring about better understanding, improved working relationships and create a positive, collaborative workplace.

Common causes of workplace conflicts

Companies comprises of a variety of personalities, viewpoints and opinions which can lead to several workplace conflicts if these personalities and or opinions clash. So many conflicts in life and the workplace are caused by a lack of or poor communication. Misunderstandings, closed-mindedness, and passive-aggressive behaviour are all possible contributors to workplace conflicts, which could be caused by some of the following common causes.

  • Different morals, values, opinions, and beliefs: When employees are not respectful of their co-worker’s beliefs and values, conflict can arise.
  • Lack of interpersonal skills for example communicate: Miscommunication can lead to conflict when there’s a misinterpretation or lack of information between two or more parties.
  • Discrimination: If there’s harassment or discrimination in the company based on age, race, ethnicity, gender, culture or what have you, ignorance can create a moral or legal issue in the company, which can lead to hurt feelings among employers and lower morale and productivity in the workplace.
  • Poor behavior: When an employee exhibits passive-aggressive behavior, their could be more apt for them to get into a disagreement with a co-worker, which leads to conflict.
  • Resource limitations: When companies lack resources, pressure can arise, which can lead to several conflicts within company teams as they compete for the use of the company’s assets.
  • Fast-changing work environments: When employees can’t keep up with changes in the workplace, they can feel run down and let-down by not feeling equip to deal with the changes which can lead to workplace conflict between managers and employers or between co-workers.
  • Interdependence or task-based conflicts: These disagreements arise in situations when individuals must coordinate their tasks so that everyone can successfully get their part done and when one or more team members do not deliver timeously to meet a deadline, it can lead to conflict.
  • Leadership conflicts: Leaders all have a different leadership style, and employees reacts differently to those leadership styles. Leaders should be aware of their own leaderships styles and how they interact with the work styles and personalities of their employees and team members as well as be able to adjust and connect with their employees irrespective of their leadership preferences, in order to minimize conflict.
  • Workstyle conflicts: Employees all have different work styles, with some employees preferring to work in groups while others do their best work, working alone, which could often lead to workplace conflicts. It is imperative for groups and teams to collaborate and learn how to deal with each other’s differences in order to minimize conflict.

Conflict resolution

Effective conflict management can help defuse conflict and is essential for maintaining a positive and productive workplace environment, which motivates employees to perform well, improve their morale, improve teamwork, reduce stress and which could lead to overall positive and improved outcomes and performance results of a company.

Conflict resolution is the process of resolving a dispute between two or more people, which may be between individual co-workers, between managers, between a manager and a member of their team or it can also occur between groups of people, such as between management and their employees or between entire departments or between a service provider and or a customer or client. The best course of action when a dispute arises, is to apply negotiation to resolve the problem and identify a solution that all parties agree to which will improve the relationship between the groups or parties in conflict. 

Through conflict resolution a company, management and employees get to understand and learn more about each other’s backgrounds, believes and ideas and may gain a new perspective, which will assist positive relationships to continue, improve and grow the future and overall morale and culture of the company.

Strategies for Successful Resolution

  • Determine and understand the cause of the conflict: Remain calm and accept the reality of conflict, whilst understanding your role and position in the conflict and the involved party’s position in the conflict. Identify the root cause of the conflict and establish the origin of the conflict as conflicts often arises from misunderstandings, miscommunications, or differences in personalities or work styles. Gather information and feedback from employees and other parties, verify the correctness of the information provided, remain independent and impartial while hearing and listening to all parties by keeping an open mind, asking powerful and informative questions so that you fully understand the position, merit, and circumstances of the conflict, whilst avoiding forming assumptions.
  • Encourage Communication:  Once the root cause of the conflict has been identified, encourage open communication between the parties involved and for each party to express        their concerns and feeling. Have each party describe the conflict and detail what they would like to come from its resolution. Listen actively to the involved parties, by rephrasing the statement in your own words to ensure you fully understand what the other party is saying.

It is important to create a safe and respectful environment where both parties can express themselves without fear of retaliation or judgement and to actively listen to both party’s perspective.

Once the involved parties have moved past the root cause of the problem, they often discover that they are working towards the same goal, however they just have different opinions on how to reach that goal. Once the common goal has been identified, you can start working with the parties towards a resolution. 

  • Find Common Ground: Look for areas of common ground during the communication process. It’s important to find a quiet and neutral location where you can discuss the conflict in private and bear in mind that in some cases, the parties might not be able to reach an agreeable solution in a conflict. You also need to consider at what point you would need to walk away from the conflict and which course of action to take if the involved parties can’t reach an agreement.

Encourage the parties involved to focus on finding a solution that is mutually beneficial, which can involve brainstorming ideas, looking for compromises, or finding creative solutions that meet the needs of both parties. Making the conflict parties part of the decision making in finding a solution make them feels valued and that their voice matters.

In some cases, it may be necessary to use a neutral third party whom everyone trusts to be fair as this will ensure both parties understand one another fully and, where necessary, remind the parties of the goal so that the conversation and brainstorming session remains productive.

  • Focus on the Future: It is important to focus on the future when resolving conflict, and not dwell on the past. The parties involved needs to be encouraged to move forward and focus on finding solutions that will prevent similar conflicts in the future. Try to come up with as many ideas as possible and look for win-win solutions and or compromises that all parties can agree upon, by discussing each idea. Discuss and motivate the ideas that is not a suitable solution. Applying the implementing of new policies or procedures, providing additional training, or making changes to work assignments or schedules will assist in this regard.

Ideally, try and identify a solution that’s a win-win for everyone involved, however, if this is not possible, look for an idea that everyone can agree with and commit to.

  • Document the Resolution: Once a resolution has been reached, it is important to document the circumstances and outcome, which can be the creating of a written agreement or documenting the steps that were taken to resolve the conflict, which can assist when similar conflicts arise in the future.
  • Follow-Up and Monitor Progress: Once a resolution has been reached, ensure it is well executed. It is important to follow-up and monitor progress and regularly check in with the parties involved to ensure that the conflict has been fully resolved and that both parties are satisfied with the outcome. It is good practice to have the participants apologize to each other and thank one another for reaching a conflict resolution as this will foster appreciation and understanding that can build a positive work relationship between both parties. Continue to monitor the situation over time to ensure that the conflict does not resurface and that the workplace environment remains positive and productive.

Employers need to encourage their employees to be accommodating towards other members within the company and to maintain transparency that can foster good flowing communication between management, employees, groups and team.

The risks of not managing conflict in the workplace

The risks of not managing conflict in the workplace can be significant and can have a negative impact on both the employees and the organization. Some potential risks include:

  1. Decreased productivity: When conflicts are left unresolved, it could create tension and disruptions that can decrease employee productivity, which could result in missed deadlines, poor quality work, and a decrease in overall efficiency.
  2. Increased turnover: Unresolved or continuous conflict could lead to increased employee turnover, especially when employees feel that their workplace is hostile or unsupportive, they may choose to leave the company in search of a better work environment.
  3. Damage to the morale and culture: Unresolved conflict could damage the employee morale and the company culture. When employees are unhappy at their workplace environment, they may become disengaged and less committed to their work, which could lead to decreased motivation, poor job satisfaction, and an overall negative workplace culture.
  4. Legal risks: Unresolved conflict might in some cases, lead to legal risks for the company. For example, if an employee and or employees are being harassed or discriminated against and the company does not take appropriate action to resolve the matter, the company may be at risk for possible legal action.
  5. Impact on customer service: Unresolved conflict could impact customer service. When employees are unhappy or distracted by workplace conflict, they might not provide the high level of service that the company and customers expect, which could lead to decreased customer satisfaction and potential loss of business, directly impacting the bottom line.

Failing to manage conflict in the workplace can have several negative consequences for both employees and the company. For a company to minimize workplace conflict risks and create a positive and productive work environment, it is important for the company to address these matters proactively and timeously.

Programmes that could be implemented to assist with conflict management in the workplace

There are several programs that can be implemented to assist with conflict management in the workplace. Here are a few examples:

  1. Conflict resolution training: Providing conflict resolution training to employees, which could include topics such as active listening, effective communication, negotiation, and problem-solving, can assist them to develop the skills they require to manage conflict effectively.
  2. Mediation services: A trained mediator can provide mediation training to employees who are experiencing workplace conflict by facilitating dialogue between the parties involved and work towards a resolution that is mutually beneficial.
  3. Employee assistance programs: Employee assistance programs (EAPs) can provide employees with access to counselling services to assist them with managing workplace conflict, which could include referrals to other resources, such as legal services, if and when required.
  4. Workplace culture assessments: Conducting regular workplace culture assessments could assist in identifying areas where conflict may be more likely to occur, which could assist companies to develop planned strategies to prevent and address conflict.
  5. Conflict resolution policies: Developing clear policies and procedures for addressing workplace conflict and which outlines consequences for failing to comply with the policy, will provide employees with a roadmap for how to handle conflict in a productive and effective way, as well as to assist in finding and implement solutions.
  6. Peer-to-Peer support: Creating peer-to-peer support networks will assist employees to feel supported and valued in the workplace as well as providing a safe space for employees to discuss workplace issues and work towards finding solutions.

Providing employees with the skills and resources they require to manage conflict effectively, companies can create a positive and productive work environment, with less disruptions. Defusing workplace conflicts will assist in motivating employees which will lead to the attainment of the company’s goals.

Healthy workplace conflict

Healthy conflict in the workplace can lead to a variety of positive scenarios, for example:

  1. Idea generation: When employees are brainstorming new ideas, it might create healthy conflict as team members offer different perspectives, opinions, and approaches, which could lead to more innovative and effective ideas that benefit the company.
  2. Problem-Solving: When teams and or groups are tasked with solving complex problems, healthy conflict might arise as teams and or group members debate the best solutions, which could lead to a more thorough analysis of the problem and ultimately lead to finding and implementing a better solution.
  3. Performance feedback: During employee performance review feedbacks, it might create healthy conflict as they discuss their strengths and weaknesses with their manager, which could lead to a deeper understanding of expectations and areas for improvement.
  4. Diversity and Inclusion: In diverse organizations, there might be healthy conflict as employees with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives work together, which could lead to greater understanding and appreciation for these differences, which could ultimately create a more inclusive and diverse workplace culture.
  5. Change management: When companies are implementing change, such as new policies, procedures and or systems, there could be healthy conflict as employees adapt to these new changes, which could lead to a more thorough and improved understanding of the changes and lead to a smoother adaption and transition.

Encouraging healthy conflict and providing employees with the skills and resources they need to manage conflict effectively, companies can create a culture of open communication, innovation, and collaboration. In conclusion, conflict in the workplace is inevitable, but it can be effectively managed. Without workplace conflicts, employees can strengthen their bonds with other employees, which can assist in fostering collaboration and reliance on others. Workplace conflicts can be reduced through coaching, consulting, and leadership development training, by stopping to look for the right and the wrong, but rather to start looking, finding, and implementing solutions that meets the companies’ overall greater goal.

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