Understanding Conflict In The Workplace

Understanding conflict is a key first step in developing effective strategies for engaging and managing workplace conflict in a meaningful and constructive way.

Conflict is something that many people spend their whole lives trying to avoid because it tends to activate that fight, flight or even freeze part of the brain. On the other hand, there are some people who are actually open to and enjoy conflict.

When it comes to managing conflict, we all have different mindsets, beliefs and emotions around it. We also have different responses to different people and different contexts of conflict as well. For some situations, you don’t mind walking into some conflict. And for other situations, you may find it difficult.

One thing is for certain, we cannot avoid conflict, so it’s important that we understand conflict so that we can manage it better within ourselves and our workplace.

What is workplace conflict?

Workplace conflict is defined as “actions that disrupt the workflow of employees and teams”. This can present as:

  • A disagreement between employees, customers, or third-party providers
  • A differing view or idea on a specific situation

Workplace conflict is usually based on people having different:

  • personalities
  • beliefs
  • backgrounds
  • skillsets
  • values
  • life experiences.

Research shows that 85% of employees experience some type of conflict in the workplace. Additionally, people believe that about 10% of projects fail because of workplace conflict.

So since we know that it’s inevitable in the workplace, it’s important to understand why and how it occurs, and what our response is to conflict so we can better manage it.

The Two Types of Workplace Conflict


  • A single disagreement or argument
  • Clashes of personality
  • Verbal abuse
  • Passive-aggressive behaviour
  • Bullying
  • Unethical or unfair behaviour that disrupts the work of an individual, team, or company


  • Struggling to choose between different strategies
  • Figuring out which team members should take which tasks
  • Pitting opinions or ideas against each other to brainstorm new approaches

Responses to Conflict

People have a number of responses to conflict – it’s either fight, freeze, or flight. But why does this happen?

Most people try to avoid conflict because they see it as something negative. That comes from our instinctual primal response to threats. And while most conflicts in the workplace are not going to kill us, our nervous system responds as if they would.

So for us to be able to manage conflict in the workplace, there is an art to becoming aware of the situation and seeing the situation as it is, rather than as our emotional brain sees it.

The first step is to be aware that our primal instincts are to fight, freeze, or flight. And then learning how we can manage that in our workplace.

The Dynamics of Conflict

Understanding the dynamics of conflict is a very important part of bringing awareness and interrupting conflict.


It all starts with our beliefs. Your beliefs about conflicts will influence your approach to how you deal with conflict.

For all of us, most of our beliefs are built by the time we turn seven. By that point, beliefs about the world and how we approach it are already in place.

As we become adults and start to deal with different situations, we need to uncover those unconscious beliefs because they have an impact on our thoughts and feelings.

Thoughts & Feelings Lead to Behaviours & Actions

When someone sees a conflict as something negative or a threat to their interest, they can become upset or anxious. That thought or a feeling is then demonstrated in behaviour or action. This can be a flight response, which looks like someone wanting to ignore a situation and run away.

For others, it will actually end up as an argumentative or aggressive fight response.

Whether pulling back or becoming aggressive, both of these can have an impact on the way you deal with conflict. And it becomes more of a relationship conflict which research shows leads to fairly poor outcomes.

Impacts & Results

How we manage conflict directly impacts our workplace, our team, and our own performance. It also becomes a behaviour loop which can, without helpful strategies, lead to unwanted and damaging results.

The loop looks like this:

  • Our beliefs impact our thoughts and feelings;
  • Our thoughts and feelings impact our actions and behaviours;
  • Our actions and behaviours have a direct result on the person/people with which you’re having a conflict;
  • That impact can then trigger something new that reinforces or reactivates your thoughts and feelings;
  • Which triggers further behaviours and actions.

And the cycle continues.

So it’s very important that we understand some of the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings we have around conflict so that our conflict response becomes linear and lessens the impact.

For example, a personal story.

I grew up with parents who are incredibly calm in their approach, which meant I didn’t have many examples of how to actually manage conflict. Everybody in my experience dealt with conflict in a very calm way.

The challenge came when I ended up in situations, particularly in the workplace when I was younger, when I had to engage with people who had conflicting beliefs, behaviours and values. I had to relearn how to deal with it because I tended to flee or freeze as soon as I was confronted with conflict, which was not a helpful response in a number of circumstances. 

I had to stop and think about the ways in which my attitudes and responses to conflict had an impact on the way I managed conflict situations in the workplace and the flow-on effects from that approach. Once I got a good handle on my own beliefs and behaviours, I could develop new skills to assist me in managing conflict much more comfortably and confidently.

The Types of Workplace Conflict

Relationship Conflict = You vs Me

One type of conflict is called relationship conflict. It usually involves people getting angry with one another and blaming each other for the problem.

People usually use negative words when referring to a relationship conflict.

The result of this type of conflict is almost always negative.

Task Conflict = You + Me vs. The Problem

Task conflict involves people working together to solve the issues created by their differences. The focus is on solving the problem or the issue, rather than blaming the other person.

Conflict confident people gain the benefits from this type of approach. This is also sometimes called “third point communication.”

Managing conflict is much more manageable when you are able to point to something – the project, the timeline, the code – that is causing the problem, rather than the person who created the code, or the project manager who’s managing the project.

The Contexts Of Conflict

An important element of understanding conflict is to know the contexts in which you might encounter it.


When you find yourself in the middle of a conflict you weren’t prepared for, you’re usually reacting to conflict.

For example, maybe you’re on a call at the service desk that becomes suddenly challenging. Or you’re a project manager with a scope of work heading into a meeting about it, but when you get into the meeting, you realise nobody has read the scope you distributed and you’re getting lots of pushback. You’re getting annoyed and a feeling of frustration and conflict may be starting to arise.


Perhaps you’ve had a conflict or a misunderstanding with a team member, customer, or colleague in the past, and you now recognise it’s having an impact on your relationship.

You can’t just push it down and hope it will go away. It’s time to revisit the conversation, the project, or the issue and do some repair work to move forward.


When you recognise that a situation you’re moving into may have conflict within it, you can prepare.

You might have a team member or customer that you know you have clashed with in the past on a particular issue. This is where you think about being proactive and preparing for the situation because you know it has the potential to become emotional.


Before difficult conversations occur, you need to be prepared to enter the discussion in a constructive way. Understanding the dynamics of conflict and how your

  • beliefs
  • thoughts
  • feelings
  • actions
  • and behaviours

may impact how you and others respond to conflict.

Only once you have these concepts well in hand, can you begin to respond in constructive ways.

For assistance with developing constructive conflict management strategies for yourself or your team, get in touch with me here.

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