Avoiding and dealing with workplace conflict

Considering we spend the majority of our lives at work, it’s likely that we’ll run into workplace conflict at some point during our careers. From personality clashes to feeling unfairly treated – there is a multitude of reasons why employees might not get along all the time. Today we wanted to talk you through some insights we’ve learnt on how to help your employees avoid conflict in the workplace (taking the prevention is much more pleasant than the cure approach!) and also how to effectively deal with conflict when disagreements do inevitably occur.  

The cost of conflict

If you’re wondering whether it’s worth investing time into preventing or dealing with workplace conflict, then you only need to look at the stats on how workplace disagreements hinder businesses productivity and profit.  

A 2008 study on U.S employees (commissioned by CPP Inc – publishers of the Myers-Briggs Assessment) found that staff were spending 2.1 hours of their working week on conflict issues, which equates to approximately $359 billion USD in paid hours, or 365 million working days.

The study also highlighted that 25% of employees have seen workplace conflict result in sickness or absence – adding, even more, the cost to the conflict pot!

Strategies for avoiding employee conflict

So how do you reduce the chance of costly employee conflict? Here are some ideas which have worked well for our customers:

1. Have an open environment to get feedback

Employees should feel confident to speak up about issues or to give feedback on how the business is working. Encourage employee feedback by regularly reinforcing the idea that everyone’s input matters in making the company a success. Asking staff to participate in anonymous monthly feedback surveys is a great way to find out about any underlying issues – before they escalate into employee drama!

Holding regular team feedback meetings also helps employees to discuss challenges together and work through them collaboratively. A simple SWOT analysis works well  – where employees suggest and discuss the company’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Managers should open these feedback sessions by being the first ones to contribute, to help gain the trust of the team and get the ball rolling.

2. Ensure feedback is handled effectively

You should also think about how you handle employee feedback or new ideas. Granted, managers aren’t going to agree with everything suggested by staff but even then, you still want that person to feel like they can keep coming back with new contributions. The trick is not to make anyone feel their idea was stupid and to explain in this instance why their idea won’t be progressed. A follow up thank you also goes a long way in making an employee feel valued, even if the idea wasn’t a success.

When it comes to good ideas, making it public (I.e via a company-wide email) that an employee’s new idea will be actioned is a good way of inspiring other colleagues to contribute, proving to them that their opinions can equate to change in the business.

3. Teach the use of open questions

Rephrasing how questions are asked in the workplace can do a lot for both employee morale and productivity.

A closed question such as ‘Will you get your work done this week?’ will likely yield a quick one-word answer, without much thought.

Rewording this to ‘What do you need in order to get your work done this week’  not only causes the individual to think properly about their answer – potentially alerting you to any blockers – but also, communicating in this way has a less accusative tone and acknowledges the employees’ effort – ultimately making them feel valued rather than annoyed.

4. Look out for success blockers

Conflict comes from frustration, and one top employee frustration is feeling blocked from being able to progress in their role. This can be down to a number of reasons such as not giving them the right tools, resource or not having the right people around them to succeed.

Regular 1 to 1 meeting or appraisals with managers should be used to discuss their thoughts on their progression. These meetings are also a good opportunity to check that employees are clear on their objectives and feel happy with them.

5. Don’t fear the failure

We’re human and human inevitably makes mistakes. Employees should feel like they can be honest when mistakes do happen but be taught to come up with a solution to either resolve the problem or avoid the issue occurring in future. Failure should be seen as an opportunity to learn, for everyone.

Successful Conflict Management

Even with the best strategies in place, it’s unlikely you can completely remove employee conflict. It can come down to things like conflicting team priorities – where the sales team might have a different view to the product development team on what should be the biggest focus for serving customers. This is where we’ve found real listening and understanding skills are key to getting to the root of the issue and dealing with it quickly and effectively.

This can be achieved by:

  1. Avoiding personal evaluations of others when expressing yourself in a disagreement;
  2. Asking more questions/digging deeper into why someone has an issue, rather than accepting their initial answers;
  3. Discussing what needs haven’t been met to cause the conflict;
  4. Requesting a resolution that works for both parties.


Avoiding evaluations

When people try to explain an issue during a conflict, they often lead with accusatory evaluations on the other person’s character, rather than what the actual problem is that’s lead to their frustration.

For example ‘He’s not a team player!’ is an evaluation, not the action.

Asking questions to get to the root cause

It’s key to understand what the cause is and not the effect of the problem. In the example above, the mediator or other party should ask what specific behaviours contributed to them thinking that way until an actual observation or fact is produced that everyone can agree on.

Here are some examples of initial evaluations someone might give:

‘He doesn’t pull his weight in the team’ X Too vague
‘He leaves everything until the last minute’  X Still too vague
‘He always leaves presentations until the last minute’  X not specific  – ‘always’ is too vague.

A better approach would be:

‘The last two presentations we’ve had, he’s left it until the day before the client meeting to do his part!– This is a factual observation, free of judgement, which both parties can agree on.

Discussing what needs haven’t been met

It’s not enough to find the root cause, individuals then have to be clear on how that action has affected their needs. In the case above this could be:

‘The last two presentations we’ve had, he’s left it until the day before the client meeting to do his part… this causes stress for the rest of us as he asks us for last-minute input. This concerns me as I want the presentation to be the best it can be and to avoid looking unprepared in front of the client’

Requesting a resolution

Now you have the root cause of the issue and the needs not being met because of this, you can find a way to move forward in a way that works for everyone.

With our example, the employee leaving work duties until the last minute may be struggling significantly with his workload. In that case, you’ve highlighted something that needs to be addressed – such as finding a way to free up some of these individuals time in other duties if possible.

It’s important at this stage that employees don’t start making demands i.e ‘you need to start using your time more efficiently’ as this type of communication likely leads to defensiveness from the other party. A better approach would be:

‘Can you agree to start working on presentations a few days earlier, and checking in with the team if you’re struggling to get it done so that we’re not worrying about looking unprepared in front of the client?’


When both parties agree to listen to each other and negotiate in this non-confrontational way, everyone gets the chance to feel heard and conflict is resolved much more effectively.

Of course, teaching this way of communication in the workplace takes practise and is no mean feat but the benefits of having a team that works in this way outweigh the effort and will encourage you to keep practising.

It’s a good idea to think of conflict as a hidden opportunity – to learn something for the better of the company.


It’s clear that the implications of conflict on the workplace aren’t worth ignoring – at best you have added costs or downtime and at worse a potential PR disaster (just look at how easy it is to leave a damaging review on Glassdoor!).

Whilst it’s inevitable that employee conflict will happen, the above strategies can help you significantly reduce the volume of issues and allow you to work through them in a timely manner, reducing the impact on your business.  


Thanks for reading. ABN Resource are experienced executive search recruiters in the oil and gas industry. Looking for a new job opportunity or just want to connect with us? Get in touch today.