Three Things Every Manager Should Know About Conflict

By Luke Wiesner, Mediation Program Manager

Conflict Happens
Here’s a shocker.  Conflict happens and it happens at work…a lot.  We are constantly sending messages to our co-workers, whether we mean to or not.  The unusual email punctuation, the short hello in the morning, missed eye contact in passing, or the delay in email response are all communicating a message.  But is the message received always the message sent?

Regardless of the intent of the message, the message received informs how people respond.  Over time, misaligned messages can develop into a pattern of responses that lead to misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and conflict.  Because messages are constantly being sent and received in workplace relationships, each person tells a different story about what happens in conflict.  Consider the situation with Liam and Shelia. 

Liam’s story starts with his being upset that Shelia didn’t invite him to her housewarming party that some other co-workers attended.  This led him to unfriend her on social media.  Shelia’s story begins with feeling hurt that Liam stopped asking if she wanted a coffee on his morning coffee runs, which he used to ask regularly.  She understood this to mean that Liam wanted to have a more professional relationship, so she didn’t invite him to her gathering.  Shelia would later find out in mediation that Liam overheard her saying a few weeks prior that she was trying to quit coffee and he didn’t want to tempt her.

In this story, both Liam and Shelia chose a different beginning of the conflict, which portrayed themselves as the protagonist of the story and the other as the antagonist.  This is a commonly known psychological trap called confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias explains that we tend to look for evidence to support our pre-existing beliefs.  Most of us believe we are good, reasonable people, and so we look for evidence to support that belief. 

The Cost of Conflict
Conflict is normal, yet it can be very costly to organizations.  Multiple studies estimate that managers spend anywhere from 15% to up to 40% of their time managing conflict.  That’s estimated to be over $700 billion per year in hourly wages nationally…at the low end. 


Workplace conflicts create dissatisfaction and stress for employees. In turn, dissatisfied, stressed employees may gossip in order to feel validated, which escalates conflict and leads to low morale, decreased productivity, proxy conflicts, increased sick days, and higher rates of turnover.  Let’s take that $700 billion low end estimate for wages spent dealing with conflict, and add in hours lost to gossiping and onboarding new employees, and we see that conflict can take its toll on organizations.

But it’s not all bad.  Conflict can be healthy if people are prepared for it. 

Tips for Managers
1.      Be Proactive and Intervene
We know conflict is going to happen, but it doesn’t need to be something that we shy away from.  Conflict can be a positive experience that increases morale and productivity.  Managers should be proactive with conflict and intervene appropriately.  Consider these three intervention methods:

A)    Prompt employees to address the issues directly and privately: 
Letting the conflict resolve at the lowest level possible can be a great option for mild conflicts and misunderstandings.  When employees resolve issues themselves it promotes responsibility, respect, productivity, and job satisfaction.  Invite them to sit down and work it out before formally intervening.

B)     Facilitate a discussion with your employees: 
Not all conflicts can be worked out directly.  Set up a time to meet with both employees and have a clearly defined agenda so they can prepare.  Allow each employee to have uninterrupted time to share their concerns and experiences in the conflict.  Identify the key issues that need to be addressed and assist them in working through those issues.  When you intervene as a manager you may be wearing multiple hats.  If possible, keep the employees’ issues and any disciplinary actions separate.  There is training for facilitating these conversations right here in Whatcom county.

C)    Call a third party mediator or HR: 
Some disputes may require a trained third party.  You may have an HR department who can assist you, or you might need to call a consultant or professional mediator.  The cost to bring in a mediator is likely a drop in the bucket compared to what you are spending on an unresolved conflict.  Some organizations operate on a sliding scale if you are a small business or community organization.

How do you know when is the right time to intervene?  You may be unaware that a conflict exists within your organization.  If you notice any sudden changes in behavior, verbal or non-verbal communication, or work attendance, you might want to start exploring what is going on within your team.

2.      Resolve Issues AND Interests
It is important to remember that employees are people first and then workers.  We all have needs, desires, and fears.  Most conflicts exist as the issue-level – having a differing position on an issue – and at the interest-level – having unmet needs or needs violated.  We can usually see the issues more easily because they are tangible, however interests are what fuels the conflict.  In the situation with Liam and Shelia, both of them felt disrespected by the other, which intensified their issue around professional and personal boundaries.

Issues are often symptoms of unmet or violated needs.  It is essential for managers to address both the tangible issues and the underlying interests when they intervene in a conflict.  If you notice conflicts reoccurring between the same employees, it might be a sign indicating that something at the interest-level is not being addressed.


3.      Train your team
Despite the cost of conflict in the workplace, and despite the fact that 7 out of 10 employees identify managing conflict as an important leadership skill, most managers have not been trained in conflict management.  A 2008 study indicated that conflict training was the most effective predictor for how workplaces interacted with conflict.  Ninety-five percent of people who received conflict training said that the training helped them interact positively with conflict. 

Many workplaces shy away from providing conflict training to their employees because of the upfront cost.  While, it is true that most conflict training has an upfront cost, the cost to an organization for not providing conflict training is much higher.