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Opinion: 6 steps to resolve workplace conflict

Smart Ways Series

Posted online

There is nothing wrong with conflict when it helps people. But there is something wrong with how conflict is often handled.

In my experience, if a manager does not handle employee conflict skillfully, then it’s likely that work culture, productivity, employee morale and turnover will be impacted negatively.

When unresolved, there’s also the risk that employee conflict will affect the customer’s experience, compromising future customer loyalty, the company’s brand and sales.

Perhaps the only thing worse than resolving conflict ineffectively is to not resolve it at all. Here are some smart ways leaders can resolve conflict effectively.

1. Don’t be a too-nice boss. Some supervisors mistakenly believe it’s good management to avoid performance issues with employees or sidestep decisions that might please some individuals but not others. But too-nice bosses, who unnecessarily avoid conflict, actually cause situations to fester.

2. Encourage healthy types of disagreement and conflict. Studies on team problem solving by Human Synergistics show when people reach conclusions too quickly or without sufficient discussion, decision-making quality decreases. The effects of disagreement on a team can be positive. According to a Wall Street Journal article in 2014, leaders at Southwest Airlines noticed “artificial harmony” in their culture and wanted to change it. The airline now trains managers on ways to inspire conflict that leads to vigorous, but still respectful, internal debates. If you want high performance from people, encourage them to examine all sides of an issue.

3. Head off possibly destructive conflict by managing small stuff. One of my favorite books is “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff,” by Richard Carlson. Most conflict in life, and business, is in many ways small stuff – minor issues that get blown out of proportion to become more serious issues down the road. Most potential conflict can be addressed before it has a chance to worsen. The key is to hold discussions with individuals as soon as small stuff starts to be contentious.

4. Give feedback in specifics, not generalities. Some managers avoid speaking straightforwardly to employees because they want to dodge how it affects them personally. Avoiding what should be said can lead to giving employees one-size-fits-all feedback like, “work on your communication,” “try to be more cooperative” or “improve your attention to detail.” Employees have a hard time making the necessary changes when they don’t know exactly what the boss means.

5. Be a leader not a friend. Some managers get promoted into a supervisory role where they manage former peers. This can be challenging for the manager, and it can create tension for the team. Getting promoted over people, who were once friends or adversaries, can be tricky when a decision must be made that favors one person over another. What’s more, striving to please everyone is a recipe for problems such as backstabbing, bad attitudes and an underperforming team. There is no cure-all for managing conflict among former peers, but balancing friendliness and openness with leadership strength is a good start.

6. Don’t tolerate continued poor performance. Top performers don’t like it when a manager tolerates a poor-performing employee but holds others accountable to a higher standard. A client, who owned a business, once admitted to me that he was avoiding a discussion with an underperforming employee because he didn’t want to look for a replacement. No doubt, finding a good replacement today is difficult, but it shouldn’t be the reason for tolerating underperforming associates. Allowing underperformers to go unchecked may cause you to lose high performers who can’t stomach the unfairness.

Consultant and professional speaker Mark Holmes is president of Springfield-based Consultant Board Inc. and He’s also the author of “The Five Rules of Megavalue Selling.” He can be reached at


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