5 Conflict Management Strategies Every Leader Should Know

Woman thinking about how to intervene in a conflict


Profile Picture
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

An employee “steals” an idea from a colleague. A team struggles due to personality clashes. A worker accuses another of not carrying their weight. 

In the workplace, conflicts happen — and not all that infrequently, depending on the specific organization. Leaders and managers must understand that these disputes are par for the course, no matter what line of work you’re in. But unless a workplace is truly toxic to the point of no return, chances are, they can recover and adapt, even from seemingly major disputes. 

How do they do it? The answer is conflict management. Conflict management plays a critical role in returning a work environment to harmony, or at least organized chaos. It helps people collaborate and resolve their differences more constructively.

What is conflict management?

Conflict management is similar to conflict resolution. A key difference is that while conflict resolution concerns resolving individual issues that arise, conflict management is a structured set of principles governing how people should handle disputes and other interpersonal issues in the workplace.

While there is no avoiding conflict altogether, the principle of conflict management provides a way to address issues thoughtfully and respectfully toward the end goal of keeping a work environment running smoothly and effectively. 

People in all professions, no matter what their field or industry, can benefit from conflict management skills. While it’s absolutely fundamental to certain roles, such as those in, say, human resources, it can give absolutely any professional a boost career-wise. In fact, it’s a skill that is  (and should be) frequently cited on resumes and in cover letters and is highly valued by hiring managers.

The 5 conflict management strategies.

Remember: there’s no way to completely avoid conflict in the workplace altogether. However, these strategies can help mitigate disputes as they arise.

1. If possible, discuss the issue in private.

If you raise the issue in a public space, an individual will most likely feel attacked and become defensive. This, of course, is no environment for resolution. Instead, it could even cause the issue to escalate further, involving other people who happen to be around. That’s why, whenever possible, you should attempt to discuss the conflict in private. 

It’s best to do this in person, although this may not be possible. Try to set up a time to meet privately to discuss the matter so the person isn’t caught off guard. This will also give them time to think and cool off, as well as decide what they want to say, too. (Remember: this conversation is just that — a conversation. It’s not a one-sided lecture.) 

2. Never attack the person.

When people get into heated arguments, it can be difficult to separate the issue from the person you believe is causing the issue. But this is critical to conflict management in all areas, whether the issue is taking place at work or within a personal relationship. If you’re engaged in a dispute, try to remember that you’re upset about the problem, and the person is not the same as the problem itself. 

Avoid using phrases like “You always do such and such.” Instead, focus on the problem in front of you, the thing that you’re upset about right then and there. It can be very difficult to isolate the problem and not chalk it up to the person’s nature and personality, but it’s important to do your best to avoid targeting the person themself. Be specific. For example, explain how a specific behavior or action bothers you.

Make it about the effect of the specific action or behavior. Speaking too globally will overwhelm and upset the other person. This can be especially difficult if the other party is making it personal and you feel attacked, but this is the mature thing to do no matter how they’re behaving.

3. Make good use of breaks.

Conflicts can escalate and get very heated. If you see that one or both of you is reaching a boiling point, it’s time to take a break. Learn how to recognize when the time comes. So, when tempers are rising, know how to step away as calmly as possible. Take 10 minutes to walk around the block, get a glass of water or even just sit at your desk and breathe.

Chances are, this will give you the time and space to calm down. That way, once you reconvene, you can both speak more rationally and constructively, coming together toward a common goal of resolution.

If you’re observing a conflict or acting as a mediator, it’s probably easier to identify when it’s necessary for people to step away and cool off. Chime in to suggest it’s time.

4. Use the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode instrument is a tool for measuring responses to conflict. Taking the assessment will help you and your team improve conflict management and resolution process, giving you insight into which modes you currently use and which ones you should leverage more consistently.

In a nutshell, the TKI identifies two dimensions for resolving conflicts: assertiveness (focusing on your own personal needs) and cooperativeness (focusing on the other person’s needs). It also defines five styles of conflict:

• Accommodating (cooperative)

• Avoiding (neither assertive nor cooperative)

• Competing (assertive)

• Collaborating (both assertive and cooperative)

• Compromising (both assertive and cooperative — not simultaneously)

The instrument consists of 30 pairs of statements, where you are tasked with choosing A or B, intended to show you the approach you rely on more frequently. The goal is to strike a balance between assertive and cooperative.

5. Exercise patience.

It can be extremely difficult to stay patient when tempers are running high. You think you’re right, and the other person thinks they’re right. But it’s important to do so nonetheless. Exercise empathy, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, remembering that the other person is also frustrated and upset, not just you. Do your best to listen to what they’re saying — don’t talk over them or immediately dismiss what they’re saying.

If you find that you are unable to be patient, revisit strategy #3 — take a break. This will give you the time and space to recharge and get into a headspace that’s more conducive to active listening and conflict resolution.

7 tips for better conflict management

Now that you have a better sense of how to handle conflicts as they arise, it’s important to have governing principles for how to manage conflicts overall, whether or not there is a pressing issue on the table at the moment. 

1. Accept that conflict will happen.

It bears repeating: conflict is inevitable. No matter what your position in the organization, you need to understand that you can’t avoid conflict altogether (and if you do, you might actually be avoiding larger issues). 

As with any type of relationship, conflict is often healthy — it means you’re recognizing the issues that exist (and issues always exist). Once you realize that, you can take strides to manage the conflicts such that you’re better equipped to resolve them, a healthier step for both the individuals involved and the overall organization. In other words, this is an opportunity for growth and reflection.

2. Develop a policy as a team.

A solid conflict-management policy requires input from everyone. As a team, brainstorm conflict-management techniques to ensure that everyone has input and is on the same page. Ideally, you’ll be able to craft a document that encompasses everyone’s unique needs and responsibilities. This will go a long way toward promoting collaboration and having everyone on board with your overarching strategies.

Remember, however, that it can be difficult to remember the intricacies of a policy when you’re faced with conflicts in the real world. That’s why you should aim to make it as clear and straightforward as possible.

3. Establish ground rules.

As part of your policy, establish ground rules for how to manage conflicts when they arise (and they will arise). Again, involve your team in this process. Brainstorm ideas for a process to follow when issues happen.

Be patient. In the beginning, it may be difficult for people to remember these rules — or remember to remember the rules — when they’re involved in a heated dispute. But as people become more accustomed to the process you’ve set up together, things will most likely run more smoothly. 

4. Create an environment that’s conducive to constructive resolution.

This is a broad one — how can you simply create a better environment? But it can be done. Work on providing a space that encourages people to feel comfortable speaking up before conflicts arise.

This might include, for example, regular check-in with your team members, where people can voice any of their concerns or simply talk about what’s going on in or out of work. 

5. Facilitate positive communication.

Positive communication is the cornerstone of good conflict management. Work on facilitating strong communication between all members of your team. This isn’t limited to times of conflict — everyone should be working on honing their communication skills in all respects and forums, including at meetings, via email and even chatting on Slack.

You might initiate activities for bonding to help improve team communication and collaboration. This will help employees become more comfortable with one another and get to know each other on a personal level, which, in turn, will strengthen communication and resolution skills during disputes.

6. Establish roles.

Conflicts can arise between any colleagues. As a manager or leader, take the time to consider what your role will be in managing the issue. While it’s always best for people to try to work through issues privately, without input from third parties, sometimes, this might not be possible. 

Consider your role in conflict management so you’re prepared when problems arise. Design your own process for knowing when to get involved and what steps you’ll take to help your team members resolve the matter.

It’s also possible that you might be involved in a conflict with a team member at some point yourself. Be prepared for that possibility, and determine whom you might ask to step in if you need help resolving it.

7. Offer education on conflict management and resolution.

Conflict management skills come more easily to some people than others. In order to get everyone on the same page, provide education and resources to help your employees learn how to handle conflicts and disputes better. Work with your human resources (HR) department or representative to develop training sessions. During these sessions, make sure you model the steps toward resolution. Include a range of scenarios, given how many different types of conflicts can occur in a work environment.

It’s also a good idea to develop materials to distribute, so employees can reference them. 

Why is good conflict management important? 

It’s probably pretty obvious that conflict management is helpful. But it’s more than “nice to have” — it’s critical. 

When conflicts remain unresolved, the workplace will be tense or worse. A conflict can easily escalate from a dispute between two people to something that affects the entire team or company. Productivity, collaboration and morale often suffer. 

But when you and your team are equipped with good conflict management skills, you can make the workplace more efficient and productive. You’ll be able to nip problems in the bud before they fester and affect the entire organization. It will encourage people to communicate with one another and collaborate more effectively.

It can also help you save money. For one, it can reduce instances of absenteeism and presenteeism, because people won’t have to fear coming into a toxic workplace. They’ll also be less likely to be preoccupied and stressed at work. Of course, they may have personal issues that have nothing to do with work, but work should never add to that stress — with good conflict management, it can serve as a safe space. 

Moreover, you can make better decisions as a team, working together toward a common goal. Employees will come to see work as a place where they can share and collaborate. They’ll be less likely to want to leave — thus improving retention.

Ultimately, conflict management improves engagement, performance and relationships. It’s a win-win for everyone.

About the Career Expert:

 Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.