Handling Difficult Situations & Workplace Conflict

Not all workplace behaviors are appropriate, and if you’re in a managerial role or human resource position, at some point you’ll have to address the problem with your employee(s). Sometimes personal hygiene is lacking or an employee’s work attire is not professional—and what about the workplace coquetry and harassment conflicts? It’s not always easy handling these difficult situations, but just like any learned behavior, it gets easier with practice.

If you’re uncomfortable with conflict, the best thing you can do is face the problem without hesitation. Avoiding the problem by procrastinating is not only expensive for the company, but costly for the employee as well. So how expensive is it, you ask?

The Cost of Workplace Conflict

According to a study by CPP, Inc., American companies spend $359 billion in paid hours to conflict resolution. That’s more than 2.8 hours per week! The study also found that unresolved issues in the workplace have a negative impact on efficiency and office morale. For example, 33 percent of participants in the U.S. reported being attacked or suffering from personal injury due to a workplace conflict, and 22 percent say that it resulted in illness or absence from work.

“Conflict is a normal and essential part of the human condition that companies should work to manage rather than eliminate,” says Rich Thompson, Director of Research at CPP, Inc. “An organization without conflict may also lack that all-important creative spark.”

When addressed properly, researchers found that conflict resolution is actually advantageous for companies. In fact, the study revealed that 81 percent of workers saw a positive outcome from a workplace conflict. Additionally, 41 percent of respondents said they had a better understanding of their co-workers after resolving the conflict, and 33 percent said they improved their workplace relationships. Another 21 percent reported improved team performance.

While the idea of resolving conflict is sometimes “easier said than done,” there are some things you can do to improve your skill.

Tips for Managing Workplace Conflict

According to Bruna Martinuzzi, author and founder of Clarion Enterprises, Ltd., a firm specializing in leadership and presentation training, managing conflict requires you to:

  • Understand what you want to accomplish
  • Know how to start the conversation
  • Be specific about the problem
  • Approach the conversation with inquiries
  • Control the emotions
  • Be comfortable with silence
  • Be consistent and fair when establishing a resolution
  • Select an appropriate place to have the conversation
  • Train other managers on how to deal with conflict at work
  • Be cautious when responding to negative reactions such as stonewalling, sarcasm, and accusations

Mistakes to Avoid in Conflict Resolution

Just like in dating relationships, communication is key to diffusing and managing a workplace conflict. Holly Weeks, a communication expert and professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, describes the most common mistakes that people make when handling difficult conversations in her book, Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them.

In her book, here are some of the most common mistakes to avoid when resolving a conflict:

  • Conversations have a “combat mentality”
  • We misinterpret the severity of the problem
  • We don’t show respect toward each person involved
  • We react to conflict by attacking others
  • We respond negatively to “thwarting ploys”
  • We succumb to our vulnerabilities or weak spots
  • We practice the conversation beforehand
  • We make assumptions about others
  • We lose sight of the objective


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