Most people get along with their colleagues. But when there’s conflict, no one’s concerned about what “most” people are doing. They’re concerned about the all-caps emoji fight breaking out on Slack, or side-eyeing the pair of frenemies giving each other the silent treatment.

Yes, conflict happens, even among mature professionals. Today’s employees reportedly spend 2.8 hours a week dealing with workplace conflict, whether that’s simple conflict about the best processes to use, or outright relationship conflicts. (More on the 4 types of conflict below). And for 29% of employees, workplace conflict is “constant.”

Avoiding conflict isn’t about letting people have their way. It’s about establishing healthy habits for your team. These habits should not only prevent conflict, but give you a roadmap for dealing with it quickly and painlessly when it does arrive. And if you have a roadmap, you can work through conflict with empathy. Here’s how.

Use divergent thinking to generate fresh ideas in your next brainstorm
Productive conflict adds value

We hope it goes without saying that not all conflict is bad. As explained by this HBR article, “tension, disagreement, and conflict improve the value of the ideas, expose the risks inherent in the plan, and lead to enhanced trust among the participants.” 

Put another way, healthy conflict – in the vein of friendlier terms like pushback, sparring, debating, and divergent thinking – is not a necessary evil, but a necessary force for good. Conflict becomes problematic when disagreements are rooted in antagonism, opponents lose sight of their shared goal, or the conflict gets personal.

The 4 types of conflict at work

As the Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Dealing with Conflict puts it: people are complicated. At work, we deal with “competing interests, clashing personalities, limited time and resources, and fragile egos.” The result? A workplace can be complex to navigate, even when everything’s running smoothly. To understand this complexity, we can categorize conflict into four types:

  • Process conflicts arise from differences over how to best proceed with a project or initiative. “You’re doing it wrong” is a classic process conflict. These are generally mild, especially if team members still agree on the basic goals of the task.
  • Task conflicts are about a project’s goals, or the reason you’re performing a task in the first place. Because of this fundamental misalignment, they can be a bit thornier than process conflicts.
  • Status conflicts occur when you butt heads over who’s in charge. Think of the classic crime movie trope of federal agents arguing with local cops over who has jurisdiction. If that sounds like your drama, you’ve got a status conflict on your hands.
  • Relationship conflicts can be trickier, because they crop up when feelings get personal. Clarity over a project goal or management status isn’t always enough to resolve this style of conflict. Relationship conflicts can create feelings of disrespect, bullying, and even being unwelcome on a team. 

Adopt smart habits for conflict resolution at work

Set yourself up for success by laying the groundwork for healthy conflict, avoiding the disputes that don’t serve your team, and knowing how to escalate disagreements that threaten group cohesion.

Get your team aligned on goals and practices

6 ways to set and maintain boundaries at work

Two heads are better than one, or so the saying goes. But that well-intentioned truism falls apart if those two heads are butting against each other because they disagree on who’s in charge, how to communicate, or something as fundamental as how often to meet.

Drawing up working agreements at the office can surface these differences in advance, smoothing out unproductive conflict before it starts. After the exercise, you’ll have a comprehensive set of guidelines for how your team will work together, what you expect of each other, and where your boundaries lie. 

Think of this as your “town charter.” If everyone is going to live in this workspace for a while, they all deserve a say in how that town comes together.

Cultivate a culture of psychological safety

The term psychological safety dates to the late 1990s, when Harvard researcher Amy Edmonson coined the term, defining it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. The best teams aren’t the ones with the fewest errors, she found. The best teams were the ones where errors could be safely reframed as learning experiences.

This doesn’t mean a free-for-all where there are no consequences. It means giving employees the latitude to fail without fearing for their job or their standing on the team. 

A classic example is the writer’s room for “The Simpsons,” where everyone is free to toss in joke ideas. As writer Joel Cohen once put it:

50 jokes go in the script and to get there we’re pitching 1,000 jokes. So, a lot of times at the end of the day, when we go back, or when we talk about it in the room, who wrote that joke? We can’t even remember.

Failing to remember who pitched which joke? A thousand jokes tested out, just to arrive at 50? That’s psychological safety in action. In that room, every writer is willing to fail in their search for the best possible joke, no matter who suggested it.

At the most basic level, psychological safety amounts to baking empathy into everything your team does. And it’s particularly useful for preventing status conflicts; when team members feel safe to share their perspectives without judgment, they’re less likely to fear damaging their reputation, i.e., their status in the workplace. 

Implement strong communication practices

Generally speaking, honesty and directness go a long way in keeping resentments from boiling over. But clarity alone won’t prevent conflict. “I demand vengeance!” is clear, after all. Healthy communication practices are more nuanced. 

Speak up for yourself

Work-appropriate communication means never counting yourself out. Yet that’s what many of us do to avoid conflict – we retreat, we go passive, we wait and hope it solves itself. Why? We’re afraid of being penalized for speaking up. Keep in mind, however, that open, honest communication is more likely to help employees get promoted, according to Glassdoor research.

Give honest feedback

The key to giving feedback that doesn’t rub people the wrong way? Start with empathy, then provide honest feedback. Consider one story from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. A woman named Anna Mazzone had failed spectacularly in her first big project in a new job. But her boss gave her the benefit of the doubt, saying that her lack of experience made the mistake understandable. Deeply touched by her boss’s empathy, Mazzone reports she left the meeting with her “head held high.” And she was more determined to do a great job than ever.

Practice active listening

The quickest way to escalate a conflict unnecessarily is to make your opponent feel like you’re not listening to them. In times of peace or turmoil, giving your conversation partner your full attention, striving to comprehend rather than just hear, and asking open-ended questions can go a long way in making them feel heard. 

Use the right communication channels

Much like you shouldn’t break up with someone via text, you shouldn’t hash out your workplace conflicts over Slack. This delicate balance between convenience and humanity is important to consider when you’re establishing team working agreements (discussed a bit further up the page), and our guide to workplace communication channels offers up some food for thought on the matter.

Don’t underestimate the impact of nonverbal communication

Your body language, posture, facial expressions, and eye contact (or lack thereof) can reinforce, undermine, or flat-out contradict what you say. Nonverbal communication – especially in remote or hybrid work environments – goes a long way in conveying sincerity or disinterest. If your goal is to communicate empathy, looking at your shoes can dampen a sincere attempt to connect. 

Put a plan in place for escalating persistent conflicts

People are going to butt heads – and sometimes, that’s a problem. But the key to handling conflict isn’t to guess your way through it. Instead, put an escalation plan in place:

  • Acknowledge and clarify the problem. Without a basic definition of what’s going wrong, you won’t know how to solve it.
  • Collect the facts. Which facts are not in dispute? Do they have any bearing on the final decision or outcome of the conflict? Collect any and all relevant data that might help make a decision easier.
  • Weigh your options. Consider a framework like DACI (driver, approver, contributors, informed) to build a blueprint for a solution.
  • Escalate to the appropriate person. If the conflict continues, is there a manager you can escalate to? Before you do so, make sure the people within the conflict are aware of this possibility.

Lead with empathy

When conflict escalates, it’s tempting to let it take over your psyche. Why don’t they get what you’re trying to say? Why is the other person always standing in your way? Or why can’t two employees ever seem to get along?

Let’s end it with a story about leading with empathy.

1935 was a tough year for the White Motor Company. Numbers were down, the company had just merged with Studebaker to stay afloat, and to top it all off, workers were on strike. Not a good environment for the company’s new president, Robert Fager Black. But Black didn’t clench his fists and prepare for a brawl with the striking workers.

Instead, he went outside to visit them.

He said since they weren’t doing anything, they could play baseball on the vacant company lots if they wanted to. Later, Black took out an ad in the Cleveland papers, praising how peacefully the employees were conducting themselves.

The strike resolved within a few weeks. When Black retired in the 1950s, he was reportedly a beloved figure at the company.

If you ever doubt yourself, always ask what the situation might look like if both sides felt accepted, heard, and psychologically safe. Ask how you would approach a situation if you led with empathy. You’ll often find that the situation dissolves before it becomes more than an ordinary tiff.

Empathy is the antidote: conflict resolution at work