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Winnie Onyekwere

Concilium Dispute Resolution


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Conflict management: why managers must stop burying their heads in the sand

Why acknowledgement is the first step to resolving workplace conflict.

It’s been a demanding 18 months for us all and, as we get to grips with our new ways of working and the stresses that come with it, it is inevitable that conflicts will arise. Often this will take the form of micro behaviours – tiny, often unconscious gestures, facial expressions, words or tone of voice – that can influence how included (or excluded) those around us feel. So how should management address these issues and behaviours when they arise?

One simple step leaders can follow to help resolve conflicts in the workplace smartly is to acknowledge the conflict.

Leaders can be effective by taking the initial and important step of acknowledgement. Acknowledging that there is an issue can help to resolve potential problems from escalating and creating low morale, exclusion, disrespect, lost productivity and absenteeism.

Conflicts are undoubtedly a natural part of life, particularly in the workplace. When managing a team with different interests, agendas and needs, a leader may find themselves in the midst of two or more team members disagreeing. Team conflict is healthy, it produces creativity, relieves tension and keeps a balance within. Conflict must, however, be professional and be conducted with respect, otherwise chaos can ensue.   

In a chaotic environment a leader may find team members not communicating or listening to other’s ideas, low employee morale and a tense uncomfortable environment where trust is lacking. This ultimately leads to poor performance, lack of productivity, and the inability to achieve business goals.  

Causes of conflict

A few of the main reasons for workplace conflict include:

  • Unfair treatment/lack of equal opportunities
  • Poor communication
  • Poor management
  • Unclear job roles
  • Clashing personalities  

When a problem arises, it’s common for a leader’s natural reaction to be simply to declare that there is no issue. They don’t see the need to get involved with the conflict. It’s not that they don’t wish to deal with it, it is simply they don’t even see that there is a problem. The chances are that the problem had not been displayed in front of the leader, but it has been going on for long enough and there were signs.  

When leaders avoid a problem there is usually a climate of caution. They may miss meetings, avoid getting involved with discussions, procrastinate or allow others to run with the conflict. They may be seen by others as uncaring, or not wanting to be judged. The leader may feel that they don’t have much leverage to change the dynamics. For some leaders, therefore, the best solution seems to be to pushing the conflict under the table and perhaps wishing that it might go away. Unfortunately, this will inevitably cause the conflict to escalate.  

Be proactive, not reactive

One simple step leaders can follow to help resolve conflicts in the workplace smartly is to acknowledge the conflict. The initial stage is to develop creative thoughts on how to get things back on track. The point is to act rather than react. An effective leader is more likely to engage in dialogue that is going to lead to productive outcomes and emotional safety. To do this, you need to:

  • Approach everyone involved in the conflict and explore what the problems are.
  • Create a safe environment for each party in the conflict to express their issues, concerns, and release frustrations openly and honestly.
  • Demonstrate active listening skills, the objective being to hear all sides of the conflict and refraining from being judgmental.
  • Communicate your concern to start rebuilding the relationships and engagement.

As a workplace mediator I recommend that acknowledgement of a workplace conflict should come from a leader who has an awareness of what is happening, a vested interest in an outcome and a reasonable level of confidence of being able to play a helpful role. In fact, it’s helpful that a leader should not wait for others.

Alternatively, a workplace mediator can be called in, who will understand the dynamics of workplace conflict and take the lead in initiating and facilitating these conversations to remove the conflict and prevent the problem from escalating.

Interested in this topic? Read How to manage the ‘R number’ for conflict at work.

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Winnie Onyekwere


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