Nine out of 10 companies plan to implement “return to work” by the end of 2024, according to CNBC. With so many people coming back to the office, does this mean workplace conflict is destined to come along for the ride?
“Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. Any time you’re bringing people together, you’re going to get different perspectives,” shares Scott Monty, CEO and Principal of Scott Monty Strategies and Leadership Coach and Communications Strategist for Chameleon Collective.
This inevitability can actually work in your favor: If you know disagreements are bound to happen, you can prepare yourself. You can be on the lookout for common catalysts and try to mitigate them. And when an issue does arise, you can navigate it adeptly to keep the team unified and the work product strong.
Monty continues: “The key with any kind of conflict, whether personal or professional, is how you resolve it.” Now, keep in mind, we can’t divorce the individuality of everyone involved from our solutions and best practices for resolving workplace conflicts.
"Everyone has different communication needs: the pace of conversation, the length of time devoted to the conversation, the tone and level of detail shared within the conversation are all factors that differ between us and need to be considered for effective communication and conflict management," explains Lindsay Friedman, Leadership Development Coach and Founder of Lead With Lindsay.
Armed with this awareness that best practices and solutions must account for individual differences and workplace culture, here are 7 workplace conflict examples–and suggestions to navigate each one.
Examples of workplace conflict: Scenarios and solutions
1. Inflexible thinking
Inflexibility in the workplace, also known as black-and-white thinking or “my way or the highway”, usually doesn’t allow for multiple perspectives or solutions. In certain work environments, leaders, or colleagues might dismiss alternative approaches simply because they aren’t intuitive to them. As a result, team members may disengage, convinced no one wants to hear their original thoughts anyway.
The conflict arises when someone breaks the pattern. They offer innovation, feedback, pushback, or alternatives. These moments can be particularly sticky because they call for navigating two disagreements. There’s the difference of opinion over the best approach in the near-term, and whether repetition or expansive thinking is the way to go long-term.
How to handle it:
First, you’ll want to pick your battles. If someone’s drawn a line in the sand over something that won’t actually affect the team, the culture, or the results (i.e., it’s just rigid and different), let this pitch pass you by. Ask yourself: “If I wasn’t on this team, and the situation was handled as planned, do I think it would still succeed?”
If the answer is no, or if it’s a repeated scenario, then it’s important to address both the pathway forward in this specific instance, and the way ideas are presented. Of course, these should be two separate conversations.
Start with the immediate: “I notice we seem to have settled on a course of action before [consulting an expert]/ [conferring as a team]/ [considering xyz], could we discuss before finalizing?” Then once the dust has settled, look for ways to discuss culture (HR may be able to help).
2. Poor leadership
When it comes to conflict resolution in the workplace, leadership can be compared to money: not a primary concern when abundant, but when it’s absent, it can occupy most of your thoughts.
The worst kind of leadership vacuum doesn’t come from the absence of a leader, but from the absence of recognized leadership by a person in charge. A poor leader can make team members feel: unsupported, micro-managed, like they have nothing to do, like they have everything to do, and the list goes on.
So, how do you address the resultant workplace conflict as the employee or leader? The first thing to remember is that, in fact, you both have the power to do something about it.
How to handle it:
If your manager lacks strong management skills, research “managing up.” You have the power to report on your work, and create space for feedback. Start by asking for a 1-on-1 meeting, and then, ask if you can schedule it regularly. Tell your manager specifically: “Here is where support/feedback would be particularly helpful.”
And if you’re a leader who hasn’t been given the tools to support your new team, ask for leadership training. This is too often an afterthought for people promoted because of job skills, not management skills.
Start by researching if there’s an online or in-person intensive, email the appropriate powers that be (HR? Your Boss?) and ask to attend. Frame your ask in terms of the company. It sounds like this: “I see there’s a training on managing Gen Z: This will allow me to communicate even more effectively…”
3. Balancing in-office presence
Post-pandemic, differing opinions on return to office have become a hot topic and are currently one of the most common examples of workplace conflict. Monty walks through how you could address this issue in your office, step by step:
“Determine where there is room to meet in the middle. If the two sides are hopelessly divided, then it’s important to recognize that as well. But understanding the reason behind the staked positions is key to working out a solution.
For example, if management wants an employee to spend more time physically in the office versus working remotely and the employee wants more days at home, determine why it’s important to each one. Maybe the employee has elder care issues that require them to be at home; maybe the employer wants to see work output.
In both cases, there are ways to accommodate the needs of the other: letting the employee work from home on days when healthcare visits are required; creating a regular cadence of updates on work completed for the employer.”
How to handle it:
Monty makes a great point: If the company provides the flexibility for the individuals involved to find a solution, they can. As the employee, you should be candid about the specific flexibility you need–and the results you can be trusted to deliver. As the supervisor, do the same, in-office time should be critical, and scheduled reasonably in advance.
With that said, as Monty mentions as well, there isn’t always “room to meet in the middle.” Did your CEO just publicly declare return-to-work was mandatory, zero exceptions? Start sending your resume around, because sometimes the resolution is realizing it’s not the company culture for you.
4. Compensation disparities
Many years ago, I wrote a personal essay for The Muse entitled “What You Should Learn From My $10,000 Career Mistake”. It was the true story of how my failure to negotiate landed me in a parallel role but on a different payscale trajectory from my colleagues. And yes, it caused conflict.
First, I felt resentful of my colleague. We were of a similar age and experience, and she wasn’t working longer or harder, but she was making more money. Second, I felt resentful of my boss. She knew there was more budget available for my salary. She offered me the low end because she expected us to dance, I didn’t, and the money that was allocated for my role just didn’t go to me.
Third, I felt resentful of the institution. I knew rationally that my colleague and boss had nothing to do with my failure to negotiate. When the decision was made to tell me the salary for the role, why wasn’t it the actual amount allotted? Finally, I had conflict within myself that I was a living, breathing example of “If you don’t, you don’t get.”
How to handle it:
The best way to address this conflict is to avoid it all together. Companies: Pay people what they’re worth to avoid the cost of repeated searches. Keep this in mind: When the underpaid hire finds out (and they will), tell-all tweets, LinkedIn statuses, and TikToks are becoming more prevalent–and then your organization will have to pay for another search (and perhaps a crisis team).
Job searchers: Negotiate. And while I’ve come a long way from leaving $10,000 from not asking; I’m still not the best person to advise you on this. But The Muse has a great resource on this topic right here.
5. Time management
Time is a non-renewable resource. So conflicts over time feel personal. Why is it taking your colleague or boss so long to get you that thing you need? Why is your boss or colleague rushing your process?
Time management touches so many other dicey areas, including: delegation, multitasking and productivity, and quality of deliverables. Some people enjoy the stress of working up to the last minute and others like being done two days early.
How to handle it:
The best approach here is to be honest with your colleagues from the outset about what you need. For example, if the person you’re working with is notoriously tardy but does great work, saying clearly: “I need this by XYZ deadline in order for the project to be a success.” Or, “This client likes deliverables for review before the meeting.”
If the project requires concurrent work and you have different schedules, pose your concerns as questions: “How can I better support you in your part of the project?” Or, “Would it be helpful if I took [aspect] off your plate?” Or, “Could you give me visibility into your timelines for this project?”
6. Lack of recognition in the workplace
I know a business owner who used to ask his employees what their love language was when he hired them. While this may not be appropriate in your work environment, the sentiment holds. It’s helpful to know what appreciation means to your team. Is it: Words of affirmation? Gifts? Acts of service? In other words, do they want the pizza party or the monetary bonus?
The reason why it’s so helpful to get to know what feels like recognition, is that a lack of recognition can be both unintentional, and a cause for conflict.
How to handle it:
There are several ways to avoid and address conflict in this area. First, be generous and avoid worst practices. Failure to credit colleagues for ideas or thank people for their efforts is never a good idea.
If you’re the one giving credit, remember: The ideal is to be sincere and share out loud and with documentation. Meaning, take the time to tell a teammate they did a great job–and write it in the performance review. The former is validating, and the latter is often key for advancement.
And if you’re dealing with a credit stealer? Ask questions (ideally, 1:1).. “Andrew, I’m thrilled the idea was well-received, but I was surprised that you didn’t mention we worked on it together?” You can follow up by asking directly: “How do you envision we share credit/responsibility as the project rolls out, now that it’s green lit?”
If this is recurrent, ask your boss how they’d recommend someone address someone else stealing their ideas.
7. Out-of-office personal conflict
Remember the good ol’ days when you were advised to avoid friending colleagues on Facebook in case someone tagged you in a college-era keg stand photo? Now, it’s because you might vote for different presidential candidates and that could lead to an all out feud.
To put it plain: These conflicts don’t belong in the workplace. Unless a colleague brings their perspectives into the office and engages you specifically: asking you to discuss your views, deriding you for your views, refusing to work with you because of your views—what they think and who they vote for is outside your purview.
Now, if it’s important to you to work in an environment where your colleagues will hold similar political ideologies; if you’re looking for a company with a strong public stance on ethical, moral, or political issues–that’s different. And you can find that.
How to handle it:
If personal political transparency and alignment isn’t part of the company culture, it’s not something a team member should be enforcing. This is the sort of conflict best directed to HR, immediately.
Be as direct as possible in your email: “Could you please provide me with recommendations for a co-worker repeatedly questioning my political beliefs?” HR is literally there to help.
Conflict in the workplace may be inevitable, but the outcome is not. There are two takeaways you must keep in mind. First, while conflict can occur at any time, so can conflict resolution. Handled correctly, it can build even stronger relationships moving forward. Second, you don’t have to go it alone. While these suggestions are strong first steps, when behavior is concerning, elevate it to HR–that’s literally what they’re there for.