Stages of Conflict in the Workplace

Workplace conflict can affect you, your job and your company.
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Put two or more people in a room together, and conflict can result. It’s human nature to have an opinion, and if someone doesn’t value your opinion or you don’t value his, you could find yourself in conflict. Conflict at home is a family problem. Conflict in the workplace can become the whole company’s problem. Whether you experience conflict at work directly or indirectly, your own work performance can be affected -- and that could cause you to take the conflict home. Fortunately, understanding the nature of conflict could help you to keep a bad situation from getting worse.

Ingredients for Conflict

    Whenever people with different opinions, goals, beliefs and backgrounds have to work together, you have the key ingredients for conflict. How you mix those ingredients makes all the difference. Managers should make it a point to provide clear objectives and instructions to avoid opportunities for misinterpretation -- and differing opinions as to what the team is supposed to accomplish and how it should be done. Conflict can be avoided with good leadership and team building approaches that take advantage of these differences and channel them toward a positive outcome.

The Tipping Point

    A tipping point occurs when the final ingredient for conflict causes the mix to erupt. The trigger could come from one team member’s actions, or it could be the final straw after a series of events creates heightened emotions. The initial catalyst could simply involve teaming up employees with competing personalities or a history of not cooperating. A misunderstanding, lack of respect for cultural differences, taking credit for someone else’s work or embarrassing a co-worker can all be or lead to triggering events.


    After the tipping point is reached, the conflict could escalate if no action is taken. Conflict creates tension in the workplace not only for the employees directly involved, but for everyone observing or interacting with them. A manager who avoids the problem could be compared to a camper who doesn’t bother putting out her campfire because it’s supposed to rain. If the rain doesn’t come, the fire might spread. A conflict situation that is not addressed could lead to more conflicts or cause the damage already done to be amplified.


    In the resolution stage, each employee should be given an opportunity to present her point-of-view. If a conflict has reached the escalation stage, resolution will generally require the intervention of an arbitrator. The arbitrator could be a colleague or a manager, and the process could be informal or formal. Formal arbitration will be necessary if the fallout from the escalation stage includes claims of harassment or other legal matters. An informal arbitrator’s objective is to help the employees in conflict to reach a compromise. A formal arbitrator, however, might be more focused on driving toward a resolution that serves the best interests of the organization and the overall health of the workplace.

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