Tips for handling workplace conflict and differences of opinion

Shot of a group of businesspeople having a meeting in an office

Having a process in place for dealing with employee differences helps with the smooth running of your business, maintains strong relationships, and ensures a healthy working environment. Using the top tips below, we’ll show you how…

At some point, you’ll be faced with objections in the workplace. With so many different personalities, work ethics, and attitudes in one environment, conflict is bound to happen. Avoiding differences in opinion is almost impossible, stopping you from reaching a resolution if things do end up boiling over.

But rather than playing down the tensions, having a process for dealing with differences in opinions and objections in place is key. By finding a middle ground between the direct and indirect approach, you can help to defuse potentially explosive situations and keep everybody happy, productive and engaged.

Here, we’ll run through what causes conflict in the workplace, examples of disagreements that might arise and a selection of useful tips to help you handle objections when they arise.

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What is workplace conflict?

What causes conflict in the workplace?

Managing and resolving conflicts in the workplace

Conflict mediation tips for line managers

Workplace conflict management examples

The effects of unresolved conflict in the workplace

Improving conflict management skills


What is workplace conflict?

Conflict in the workplace occurs whenever there are disagreements between colleagues. This often takes place because those involved have opposing ideas, interests or beliefs.

And while some conflicts can be positive, such as healthy competition between team members on the way towards achieving goals, it’s when productivity or wellbeing suffers that conflict becomes more of an issue. Put simply, it’s bad for business.

Senior businesswoman telling her colleagues to stop arguing on a meeting.


What causes conflict in the workplace?

Before we dive into how you can start handling objections, it’s important to understand why conflict at work happens in the first place. By identifying the underlying issues bubbling below the surface, you can start to address things before they have a chance to build into something bigger.

Poor communication

Crossed wires, mixed signals, and a failure to communicate are some of the leading causes of employee conflict. When instructions and messaging are unclear, the frustrations that result can negatively affect relationships in a big way, hindering productivity and damaging employee morale if they continue to go unchecked.

Differing work styles

Whether it’s a generational gap or differences in values, your employees’ approach to their role has a part to play in workplace conflict. And while it’s not the differences themselves that are causing the conflict, the failure to accept them most likely is.

Silhouette shadows of business people talking in office

Clashes in personality

Similarly, failing to recognise differences in personality can lead to issues and disagreements. Your colleagues and employees will come from a wide range of backgrounds, each with their own unique experiences, all of which can have a huge impact on their personalities. Being mindful of these differences goes a long way to avoiding clashes between employees.

Unrealistic needs and expectations

Long hours, mounting workloads and a minimal work/life balance can make employees feel undervalued and ignored. And a disengaged employee can soon become a disgruntled employee if these unrealistic expectations carry on for long enough. Are you piling on the work and expecting them to get through it all? It might be time to reduce their to-do list if so.

An overly competitive workplace

Competition amongst employees can be healthy, fostering team spirit and driving productivity when done right. But if your workplace values competition over everything else without properly managing it, things can become heated and hostile. In extreme cases, it may even lead to employees sabotaging the work of others so they can get ahead.


Managing and resolving conflicts in the workplace

If you’ve encountered disagreements at work previously, but it’s been a struggle to stop tensions from rising, then try giving the following strategies a go.

Angry manager scolding one of his subordinate at the office.

Understand the conflict

One of the most important things about addressing disagreements and differences is not to make assumptions. It’s easy to draw conclusions when rumours are at play, but gaining a full understanding of the issue before responding is vital.

First of all, you might need to make sure you aren’t dealing with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issue, such as workplace harassment or discrimination. If it is, you should familiarise yourself with your company’s harassment prevention policies and guidelines, if you haven’t already. And if you don’t have any in place, then prioritise them!

Once you’ve ruled out the possibility of it being an EEOC problem, it’s worth considering if there are any underlying circumstances that may be causing or exacerbating the issue. Is it a clash of working styles? Are there deadlines looming? Perhaps the office environment is a stressful one? You may have to be honest with yourself if you’re to get the root of the issue, but it’s something that goes a long way towards reducing problems amongst your employees.

Invite constructive criticism

Honest and open lines of dialogue help team members understand that having differing viewpoints is an acceptable, everyday occurrence. Some workplaces can perpetuate the myth that objecting to established opinions is taboo, but this mindset can be restricting.

Colleagues standing in a small group discussing something. One of the women is holding documents and gesturing with her hands as the others watch and listen.

Invite all levels of the organisation to share any constructive criticism they may have about workplace practices. This will help decision-makers open up to new viewpoints and make the process of handling objections simpler and more standardised. If the criticism can lead to positive results, then everyone within the business should have a say.

Keep a cool head

When faced with objections, some people tend to let their emotions bubble over and go in feet first, whatever the problem may be. Differing opinions can lead to arguments that then become a game of one-upmanship. And while it can be tempting to try and get the upper hand, whether it’s a charged email or a heated argument, it’s certainly something we’d advise against.

If the unprofessionalism doesn’t come back to get you, then the embarrassment will. There’s a great deal of relief to be felt knowing you resisted the temptation to explode and escalate the situation when it really wasn’t necessary. Calm down, take a breath and look at the bigger picture before you formulate your response.

Avoid the blame game

When resolving a difference of opinion, it can be easy to blame other parties for the dispute. However, this only serves as a diversion, and shirking responsibility is never a good idea. Focusing on the problem itself is a better method for effective and efficient conflict resolution, which brings us to another element of resolving conflicts…

Dissatisfied executive manager having conflict with employee about financial report mistake, disgruntled clients claim complaint disputing about bad contract terms meeting lawyer, legal fraud concept

It’s the problem, not the person

Everybody has different perspectives and ways of doing things, so convincing anyone to change their ways is always going to be a tough ask. Instead, try distancing the personality from the problem. Accusations and character assassinations aren’t going to help, even if you have to deal with the most difficult colleagues in the office. Catch yourself before you say something you’ll regret and aim to analyse the root of the problem.

Above all, remember that different opinions often present an opportunity to learn. Use them as case studies in team-building exercises, look for the positives in the situation, and build on their resolutions in the appropriate manner.


Conflict mediation tips for line managers

If you’re in a managerial role and have to involve yourself in a resolution, then knowing what to do is essential. Strengthen your approach to conflict mediation with the help of these effective strategies.

Listen to both sides

If you’ve heard rumours swirling throughout the office, then listening to both parties can help defuse especially explosive situations.

Whether you see each person individually or together, give them the time to tell their side without interruption. And be sure to encourage them to articulate the message in a calm, considered manner. There’s a chance tempers have already flared, so you’ll want to avoid them reaching boiling point once more.

Multiethnic millennial colleagues talk dispute share thoughts on startup project launch at team meeting in office, diverse coworkers brainstorm speak discuss business ideas at briefing together

Be impartial and objective

A good manager will approach the situation without biases or preconceived notions, and allow each the time to speak on the issue thoroughly. Be sure to listen to them properly and avoid formulating a response while they’re still talking. Only after you’ve heard the facts should you begin to get a sense of how to respond. And whatever you do, don’t take sides. Playing favourites is never a good look for a manager.

Find a solution

Ask each party what they’d like the outcome of this discussion to be, and have them describe specific actions they’d like to see. Whether it’s outlining certain deadlines, requesting more respectful communication or any number of actions, detailing the outcomes goes a long way towards resolving conflicts.

Avoiding escalation through separation

Sometimes, you may come across certain situations that go beyond boiling point. In such scenarios, this conflict may start to affect other team members simply through their proximity to the clashing colleagues.

When an entire team’s performance is affected, then a no-nonsense approach might be the move. And by that, we mean temporarily separating the team members who are causing the issue. Once they’re properly separated, you should be able to bring them together once more and have a calmer, more rational conversation.

Serious business negotiators talking during stressful negotiations, focus on hands of businessman in tension making important decision, feeling pressure stress or being scolded by boss at meeting

If, however, no resolution is possible or a certain member of staff routinely creates conflict, then it may be advisable to move them to a different role or team – providing you’ve fully discussed the possibility with the individual.

Lead by example

It’s important for managers to set the standard for their employees. Creating a culture of engagement and respect starts from the top. Speaking to your employees in an honest and respectful manner, it allows integrity to flourish, with courteous communication going both ways as a result.

If there’s a company culture in place, then you’re duty-bound as a manager to hold up the values, policies and guidelines that are in place. Through reinforcing the culture, leading by example becomes unconscious and automatic. And by not expecting anything from your employees that you wouldn’t do yourself, trust and respect will soon follow.


Workplace conflict management examples


How do these occur?

During projects dependent on the coordination of tasks, team members being held up by another employee’s work may feel frustrated. And this drop in progress can lead to more heated situations as a result but how can they be resolved?

Confident and successful team. Group of young modern people in smart casual wear discussing business while sitting in the creative office

In these instances, the importance of responsibility and accountability can’t be stated enough. Every team member is a cog in the larger workings of the project. If one part falters, then the project as a whole comes to a halt.

Make sure everyone is aware of what their role entails and clarify the processes they’ll use so they can understand how their workflow is supposed to progress.


How do these occur?

Clashes with management can arise if an employee feels they aren’t gelling with the manager’s style. If a manager sets ambitious but unrealistic goals, an employee may feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. Elsewhere, an employee may be looking for a path towards greater progression, but their manager’s laid-back, hands-off approach actually ends up blocking the way.

How can they be resolved?

As a manager, you should be aware of your own leadership style and understand how your own approach interacts with everyone else’s work style. A talented manager will be able to adjust and adapt their style to their employee’s preferred way of working.

Managers should also take the time to discuss these issues with their employees. Honest and ongoing discussions play a big role in the development of employee/manager relationships, so don’t discount the value of getting things out in the open.

Angry businessman discussing with colleague during a meeting in the office.


How do these occur?

However big your team is, differences in how people prefer to work are bound to crop up. Some people are big on working in teams, while others might like to go it alone instead. Certain people may need guiding through a task, whereas others won’t. Some thrive under pressure, while others might not. With so many different approaches on a single team, it’s easy to see how differences in opinion might occur.

How can they be resolved?

A manager should identify each team members’ working style and tailor tasks to them accordingly. Pairing extroverts with introverts might not always be the best idea, for instance. On the other hand, there is certainly value in working with differing approaches; not only can we learn new strategies from them, but it allows us to respect each other’s differences in ways we might not have recognised.


How does this occur?

When disagreements get out of hand, employees may experience harassment or discrimination based on things like age, race, ethnicity, and gender. At this point, human resources are likely to step in to investigate these serious instances.

Business woman and man meeting and talking. Both are casually dressed. There is a laptop computer on the table. They are sitting at a boardroom table with a window behind them

How can they be resolved?

Serious claims shouldn’t be taken lightly. If it’s a repeat occurrence, then HR will have to explore the root of the issue to see if there are more deep-seated reasons for this to have happened. At which point, educating employees on diversity and tolerance may be necessary.

Managers should also sit down and listen attentively to what the affected employee has to say. From here, measurable goals that work towards eliminating such behaviour must be established so abuse and discrimination don’t continue.


The effects of unresolved conflict in the workplace

 Conflict that’s left to fester is sure to escalate. At this point, some very undesirable effects can rear their head, many of which impact teams and businesses as a whole in a variety of different ways.

While we’ve hinted at some of these effects earlier, let’s take a closer look at the consequences of unresolved workplace conflict in a little more detail…

Drops in productivity

Between squabbles, gossiping and taking sides, workplace conflicts don’t leave a lot of time for actual work. With all their attention on the issue itself, as well as the sapping of our mental and physical energy, workplace objections can cause productivity to take a drastic dip.

Shot of a young businesswoman rubbing her eyes while working alongside her colleague in an office at night

You should also consider the effect this has on your team. Without a resolution, team members are still going to be at odds, and the division this creates might spill over into other areas of work, affecting collaboration, communication and team spirit as a result.

Low morale

Speaking of spirit, unresolved conflict can be particularly draining, causing employees’ morale to weaken over time. When we become unmotivated and unfocused, it causes us to disengage from our duties, losing sight of the role we have amongst our team. This creates a knock-on effect; those with low morale are prone to make more mistakes which might add to further conflicts in the future.

Increased employee turnover

An environment where conflicts run rampant and are left to go unresolved is a toxic one. If disagreements and objections are weaved into the fabric of the business, then it becomes obvious to employees at all levels that the only way to deal with the situation is to quit.

Without any sort of approach to resolving conflicts, businesses run the risk of losing some major talent as a result of something that can easily be rectified.

Sad man in bed text messaging


The path to increased turnover could well be paved with a surge in absenteeism. If staff aren’t quitting outright, then they may end up taking more time off just to take a break from the constant conflict going on around them.

Mental health issues

The mental strain that gearing up for another week of conflict places on people can take a real toll. Whether it’s a lack of sleep, a loss of appetite, or feelings of anxiety and depression, the effects of unresolved conflicts can start to show themselves in symptoms such as these.

Financial costs  

The drops in productivity, increase in turnover and absences, and every other undesirable effect of unchecked conflict will soon add up. And it’s here that such problems start to hit the business financially.

From extra recruiting and training costs to the money lost through increasingly unproductive teams, the price to pay for companies ignoring conflict can be hugely damaging.


Improving conflict management skills

If conflict management is something you’ve struggled with in the past, use these top tips to help improve your approach the next time disagreements arise…

Attentive men listening to their female colleague during discussion at business training

Practice active listening         

When others are trying to get their point across, they’ll find it a challenge if your own listening skills have been lacking lately. Through active listening, however, it’s possible to make yourself fully present and engaged in what’s being said. Through verbal signs such as positive reinforcement, recalling key points others have made and asking open-ended questions, you put yourself in a better position to understand more fully – and resolve – the conflict itself.

Try a workshop

Hosted by a range of conflict management experts, finding classes and workshops designed to get to the root of workplace issues can be hugely beneficial. Try finding one in your local area so you can get started equipping yourself with the right conflict-reducing tools.

Do a role-playing exercise

If you’re having trouble seeing things from others’ perspectives, then a role-playing exercise is a great way of putting yourself in their shoes. By assuming a different position, you have the chance to better understand how someone in that situation might feel, which allows you to get a grip on your team’s emotions.

Ask for feedback

Don’t be afraid to ask your superiors for constructive criticism on how you’ve handled things in the past, either. With these pointers, you’ll have a better idea of how to approach conflict management when objections arise in the future.

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