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5 Strategies Every Manager Needs to Know to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace

Why Does Conflict Occur

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Why

Conflict is everywhere!

Kids fight and then they go back to playing with each other.

Business professionals try to outmaneuver each other over process and control issues in their organizations.

Political parties battle for influence over the general public with their competing ideologies on how to accomplish different objectives.

Nations war for dominance as they seek to control limited life resources.

Families clash over their different values and expectations of how everyone in the family should behave in life.

Conflict is always present with us and conflict will always be a part of our life. As a manager, this makes your ability to handle conflict effectively a critical leadership skill.

Conflict is an inevitable part of business — just like it is in life. Managers need to respond to conflict appropriately to maintain their leadership credibility. Click To Tweet

Why is Workplace Conflict Difficult to Resolve

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Business Tug of War

Conflict resolution in the workplace is challenging because many managers generally use one, or at most two styles, for handling conflict. The styles they use are generally not based on what is needed for the situation. Rather, it is based on what those managers have found to be effective in the past. This gives these managers a “hit and miss” effectiveness when it comes to handling workplace conflict. This is not something that you want to do in your own conflict resolution efforts.

Further, some early management and leadership training only added to the confusion of how to effectively handle workplace conflict. At that time, many training and development professionals pushed the false view that one style of handling conflict was superior to other styles.

These training and development professionals generally fell in two camps.  One camp said the best approach for handling conflict was collaborating with others for win/win solutions. The other camp argued that the best approach for handling conflict was being assertive with others to reach your outcome.

The truth is that there is no one right way to handle conflict.

There are some conflict situations when you should collaborate with others and there are some times when you should not collaborate. There are also some conflict situations when you should assert your own will over others and some times when you should not. These two approaches to handling conflict have their place in your conflict resolution toolkit but they are not the only tools available to you.

If you handle conflict appropriately, it not only makes you more effective but it can also bring needed change and innovation to your organization. Click To Tweet

How to Resolve Workplace Conflict

the word "how" shown on a white backgroundThe correct strategy to use for handling conflict is the approach that is most appropriate for the situation and individuals involved.

Before I go further into workplace conflict, however, I should define what conflict means in the real world of work. Conflict is a difference of opinion (a disagreement) about how to accomplish an objective. When you are in conflict, this does not mean that your disagreement is heated or even emotional. In fact, you and the other party may be very civil with each other over this issue. However, if you disagree on how best to proceed on a certain situation, you are in effect in conflict with each other (no matter how nice you both may be with each other over this issue).

Limited one-dimensional, absolute views on how to handle conflict are common however. Some people will use quotes that have truth in them to justify their over-reliance on one conflict resolution strategy.

Consider the following quotes about handling conflict:

  • The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. – Dale Carnegie
  • No pressure, no diamonds. – Mary Case
  • You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist. – Indira Gandhi
  • It is through cooperation, rather than conflict, that your greatest successes will be derived. – Ralph Charell
  • Compromise . . . it is what makes nations great and marriages happy – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Note that all of these quotes about how to handle conflict are true and they are all different. These quotes while different describe the five different strategies for resolving conflict. They represent five conflict-handling modes* (strategies): avoiding; competing; collaborating; accommodating; and compromising. They are five strategies that you can use to resolve conflict in the workplace.

The difficulty with these conflict-handling strategies is that no one strategy is better than another. For example, is avoiding conflict as Dale Carnegie mentions always the best approach? Most managers understand that avoiding conflict at all costs is not effective leadership. There are some times when you will have to stand up for your position in your organization — whether you are resisting for yourself or for your employees.

At other times, there are situations in your workplace when Dale Carnegie is absolutely correct that the best approach for you is to avoid conflict. For example, if you were in the jungle surrounded by lions, the best option is to find a safe retreat and live another day than take on an unwise fight and die before your time. The same is true in your workplace.

You can ruin your management career if you do not know when to fight for your position versus when to yield to others in your organization.  This is where understanding the five conflict-handling strategies can help you to be more effective in resolving workplace conflict.

Conflict in the workplace is not the problem that managers make it out to be. The real problem is how organizations choose to handle and respond to the certain conflicts that will occur in the workplace. Click To Tweet

Five Strategies for Handling Workplace Conflict

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The five conflict-handling strategies provide a useful framework for understanding and managing conflict in the workplace. Here’s how this framework operates when you are in conflict with someone else:

  • In times of conflict, your behavior can be measured on two dimensions (assertiveness and cooperativeness)
  • Assertiveness is a dimension where your primary objective is to fulfill your own concerns
  • Cooperativeness is a dimension where your primary objective is working with others to help them fulfill their concerns
  • High, low, and moderate rankings on these two dimensions come together to form the five conflict-handling strategies (competing, collaborating, avoiding, compromising, and accommodating)

With the competing strategy, you are high on assertiveness and low on cooperation. This is a forceful approach for conflict resolution. In this situation, you are seeking to assert your will over other people’s concerns. It is Mary Case’s: No pressure, no diamonds. If you compete too much, you can destroy relationships with others and eventually undermine your effectiveness in your organization. However, if you don’t compete enough, you can create situations where others can take advantage of you.

With the collaborating strategy, you are high on assertiveness and high on cooperation. With this approach, you are seeking both to satisfy your own concerns and the concerns of others. Rather than fighting to just get your way, you have an equal emphasis on finding a solution that fully meets the other party’s concerns. It is Indira Gandhi’s quote: You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist. If you collaborate too much, you can waste time. However, if you don’t collaborate enough, you can have difficulty gaining cooperation from others.

With the avoiding strategy, you are low on assertiveness and low on cooperation. With this approach, you literally disappear from conflict. You both refuse to fight and you refuse to give-in to the will of the other party. It is Dale Carnegie’s quote: The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. When you avoid conflict too much, you can become a non-player in your organization. However, when you do not avoid conflict enough, you can create resentment from others in your organization.

With the compromising strategy, you are moderate on assertiveness and on cooperation. It is a middle-ground approach to conflict. With this approach, you seek a give-and-take solution that partially meets all needs. It is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: Compromise . . . it is what makes nations great and marriages happy. When you compromise too much, you can lose sight of the big-picture. However, when you do not compromise enough, others may view you as being inflexible or stubborn.

With the accommodating strategy, you are low on assertiveness and high on cooperation. With this approach, you will satisfy the other party’s concerns and sacrifice or ignore your own concerns. It is Ralph Charell’s quote: It is through cooperation, rather than conflict, that your greatest successes will be derived. When you accommodate others too much, you can lose the respect of others in your organization. However, when you do not accommodate others enough, they can view you as being unreasonable.

Conflict is an inevitable part of business, management and leadership—just like it is an inevitable part of life. Conflict itself is not bad. Rather, it is how you handle conflict that is important.

If you handle conflict appropriately, it not only makes you more effective but it can also bring needed change and innovation to your organization. However, when you handle conflict inappropriately, this can hurt your career and your overall organizational effectiveness.

Conflict management is important! Managers who are unable to handle conflict appropriately can paralyze their organizations, ruin working relationships, drive away customers, hurt organizational productivity, create organizational turnover, and cause lawsuits. It’s important to develop this critical leadership skill.

Conflict itself is not a bad thing. It's how you handle it that matters. Click To Tweet

Video: 5 Strategies for Resolving Workplace Conflict


Research identifies five strategies for responding to conflict: avoiding, competing, collaborating, accommodating, and compromising. Click To Tweet

*The five conflict handling modes are based on the work of Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann.

Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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