Managing Conflict in the Workplace, Part One

managing conflict in the workplace

Conflict in the workplace is a given: at some point, as a leader, you will face tension within your ranks. Beyond the immediate and obvious negative effects that these tensions can have on your team, if these conflicts go unmanaged, the costs – that is, the actual dollars-and-cents costs of conflict -- can be quite high for a company. Joining us today to help us better understand and manage workplace conflict is David Liddle, a thought leader in the areas of Organizational Dynamics, conflict resolution and Transformational Culture. He is the CEO of The TCM Group, and author of the book Managing Conflict: A Practical Guide to Resolution in the Workplace. Here, he explains:

  • The causes of conflict
  • The social, psychological and financial costs of conflict
  • When conflict can have a positive impact; and
  • The advantages of restorative (versus retributive) style justice!

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Entering The Field Of Conflict Resolution

  • Mr. Liddle began his career interested in promoting inclusion and managing conflict in the workplace.
  • Throughout his life experiences, he discovered how poorly people handle conflict, both inside and outside the workplace.
  • He found that, in general, conflict resolution efforts within many organizations were not very effective. 
  • There was an “insidious” nature about many of these conflicts he saw between neighbors, family members, coworkers, etc. and the harsh nature of those conflicts led Mr. Liddle to become passionate about mediation and restorative justice.


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The Scope Of Conflict

  • Conflict encompasses many behaviors from minor to very serious, from simple personality clashes all the way up to harassment.
  • When managing conflict in the workplace, all of these behaviors should be addressed and to begin that process, we must understand where those behaviors stem from:
    • These behaviors often come from feelings, expressions, goals, or issues that have not been expressed in a healthy way.
    • Experiences that cause feelings of isolation, sadness, anger, frustration, and other negative feelings, can create conflict behaviors. 
  • When mediating two parties in conflict, Mr. Liddle looks for what each party is feeling and what each party needs, respectively.
    • These feelings often include feeling valued, respected, heard, and understood.
    • It is not uncommon for the two parties to end up discovering that they each have common issues that need to be addressed. This is where conflict resolution can begin.

Is Conflict Inevitable?

  • Conflict is inevitable, but conflict is not truly the problem, it is how we manage conflict that creates issues. 
  • Differences of need, value, beliefs, etc. will all factor into conflict regardless of the parties that are interacting with each other.
  • The conflict itself is neutral; It is how we choose to react to that conflict that will shape the interaction and relationship between the parties.
    • If parties choose to be constructive and functional, conflict can be resolved much easier and will garner more growth moving forward.
    • If parties choose to be destructive and dysfunctional, conflict can tear the parties apart even further and any notion of productivity and growth can be lost. 
  • Unfortunately our brains often trick us into behaving poorly when conflict is present.
  • Mr. Liddle has learned that helping people to make better and more rational choices when conflict is present is the key to conflict resolution.

Detailing the Cause of Conflict

  • Simply put, conflict is just something that occurs because our brains tell us it does. 
  • It is important for HR professionals and leaders to understand how the human brain works and how it’s functionality makes conflict inevitable.
  • Conflict often stems from loss, specifically three areas of loss:
    • Actual loss - Someone has lost something or someone and there is an experienced sense of grief from that loss. 
    • Perceived loss - Someone believes they have lost an ideal like hope, faith, control, connection, a relationship, etc. This usually refers to an abstract concept.
    • Fear of future loss - This is when people will fight to protect themself from experiencing any type of loss in the future because they know the negative feelings associated with loss.
  • In order to mitigate the negative feelings of loss, people must help themselves to turn that loss into a gain, fostering growth and innovation.

The Social And Psychological Impact Of Conflict

  • Conflict can absolutely have a serious impact on mental health. Issues like suicidal thoughts, depression, lack of motivation, etc. can all come about when conflict is not resolved in a healthy way. This is the “hidden human cost” of conflict.
  • Managers and leaders of companies should be very aware of this “hidden cost” and as such, managing conflict in the workplace should be a top strategic priority for companies. 
  • When handled well in a workplace setting, conflict can unlock connectivity, dialogue, innovation, support, collaboration, connectedness, and so much more. When handled poorly, it can have the complete opposite effect.
  • When managing conflict in the workplace with business leaders, Mr. Liddle has found that oftentimes companies have better strategies for simple, non-important things than they do for conflict resolution. 
  • Consideration of the “human cost” should be at the forefront of any company’s conflict resolution strategy. 

The Financial Cost of Conflict

  • As mentioned, the United States had an annual cost of $359 billion due to poor conflict resolution. 
  • One way to understand the scope of loss that stems from conflict is to use a “scorecard” on which all of the costs of conflict can be added up.
    • The categories on this scorecard include things like absences, recruitment, suspension, investigations, dropping morale and productivity, impact on the team’s effectiveness, management capability, litigation, legal fees, etc. and as those categories add up, you end up with a massive cost stemming directly from poor conflict resolution strategies. 
  • There is also a reputational impact of conflict.
    • The media today is ruthless and always connected, leading to numerous stories per day about companies that struggle to resolve just one conflict that then bubbles over to a scandal or serious issue.
  • Even with all of the various costs listed above, Mr. Liddle suggests that even those are probably underestimating the total cost of poor conflict resolution. 

Conflict As A Positive

  • Conflict offers a profound opportunity for us to share ideas and opportunities.
  • When conflict is managed well, not only can a manager, leader, or HR professional resolve the underlying issues, but they can also turn those energies toward each other as opposed to away from each other. 
  • Oftentimes, managing conflict in the workplace sheds light on what some of the true causes of conflict are, such as failing systems within the organization rather than just two people having an argument. 
    • This can be a process or structure within the organization that is causing this dispute and thus their conflict can highlight areas within the organization that need to be improved.
  • As a manager, managing conflict effectively can lead to better performance as a manager or leader when it comes to measurable metrics.
  • Managing conflict in the workplace is not just about being nice and morally correct, it is also about bettering the organization as a whole.

The Current “Resolution Revolution”

  • Mr. Liddle claims that many companies he has worked with are “woefully adequate” when it comes to managing conflict in the workplace.
  • In his experience, many companies get far too wrapped up in diplomatic and bureaucratic processes that in turn actually lead to even more contentious conflicts. 
  • One of the great things he has seen within HR teams is when those teams and their respective organizations gear more toward a human-centered design where people are the main focus. 
    • There is a Resolution Revolution occurring right now meaning that policy, process, and procedure while important, should operate in the background while people, values, and culture should be the main focus.

“Extensive Inaction Or Expensive Overreactions”

  • This quote from Mr. Liddle describes the polarization of typical conflict management styles.
    • On one end of the spectrum, you have organizations that choose to ignore conflict and hope the issue works itself out while on the other end of the spectrum are organizations that vastly overreact to conflict and wind up spending large amounts to attempt to solve the issue.
    • The perfect spot between those two is action:
      • Action includes listening - specifically listening to find meaning and understand what people are truly feeling in their conflict as opposed to listening just for quick, short-term solutions
      • Action also includes empathy - by putting yourself in their shoes, you can empathize with their specific situation and that will help you to get a better understanding of what they are going through.
      • The final aspect of action is relaxation - These conflicts need to be taken seriously, but from a relaxed mindset. This will open up minds, hearts, and ears to what is really going on and will allow for deeper understanding of the issue.
      • Using these “action” steps is key to effectively managing conflict in the workplace.

Approaches To Managing Conflict In The Workplace

  • Throughout Mr. Liddle’s book, he outlines numerous different strategies and approaches to managing conflict.
  • The “GBH” policies (Grievance, Bullying, Harassment) have run out of steam, meaning that they do not play any meaningful part in conflict resolution for a modern business. We cannot resolve issues and build back better by relying on these outdated systems.
  • Leaders are encouraged to be brave and be bold in their style of managing conflict in the workplace and lean more toward a restorative style of justice rather than a retributive style, reframing what “justice” means within our organizations.
  • We can secure a just, fair, inclusive, and sustainable outcome through dialogue, listening, and through full and open engagement. 
  • When approaching conflict with a restorative mindset, it opens up a world of possibilities that will better our organizations and our people.
  • We also need to support our managers and give them the skills, training, coaching, and guidance that they ended in order to have productive and restorative conflict management.
  • The fear of failure is another aspect of managing conflict in the workplace that must change if this approach is to work correctly. 
    • People must be able to enter into difficult conversations with confidence knowing that they might be wrong, and that is ok as long as the situation is better once the conflict has been discussed.
  • Leaders need to align their behaviors and ethics to the values of the organization and to show a commitment to compassion and understanding.
    • If leaders do hold themselves to the exact same standards as everyone else in the organization, conflict will surely occur and it will be much more difficult to resolve. 

The Importance of a Leader’s Courage

  • Many conflicts that occur can be career-defining when it comes to how it is handled by leadership. 
  • Leaders need to have the courage to do what is right even if that action is something that may not have the best outcome for themself or the organization.
  • It takes real character and courage to handle conflict gracefully.
  • We must give our leaders the right tools to manage conflict in the workplace effectively, and courage is at the heart of using those tools to their full potential.

David Liddle Background


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