Organizational Wellness

Why Can’t We Be Friends? Conflict Resolution for a Happier Workplace

Apr 7, 2023
Last Updated Jan 23, 2024

Conflict gets a bad reputation despite all the good it does for us. It forces us to acknowledge new ideas and ways of thinking. It brings to light problems to be resolved. It stimulates cognitive and social growth.

And yes, healthy conflict can even strengthen your business.

The keyword here is healthy. When conflict gets out of hand, it can lead to workplace disruptions, decreased productivity, absenteeism, increased turnover rates, and all kinds of hurt feelings and resentment. It’s estimated that unresolved workplace conflicts result in about $369 billion in global losses every year. 

So conflict is inevitable and invaluable, but only when channeled properly. That’s where effective conflict resolution comes into play.

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What Is Conflict Resolution: Definition

The phrase ‘conflict resolution’ describes the methods and processes used to mediate interpersonal disputes, find solutions to problems, and resolve disagreements satisfactorily for all parties involved. 

Say, for example, that you have two teammates, Karl and Maria, assigned to one project. Karl likes to work in sprints, completing entire projects all at once, while Maria likes to do the work in 30-minute chunks spread out over a month. They share a common goal and equal right to their own preferred work styles, so they have to use conflict resolution tools to bring their methods in sync.

Of course, this is only one type of workplace conflict. Disputes and disagreements can take many forms, and the appropriate conflict resolution strategies to use will depend on the situation. 

Why You Need Conflict Resolution

Given that conflicts are inevitable, you should have plans in place to handle disagreements when they do arise. And a hands-off, ‘let people handle their relationships’ attitude usually isn’t enough. Conflict likely wouldn’t drive $369 billion in annual business losses if it was enough to just let people hash it out! The fact of the matter is 89% of employees have seen unresolved conflict escalate, according to Myers-Briggs. Escalation happens, so businesses need to be ready for it.

The good news is that conflict resolution — when properly applied — carries with it several advantages. At its heart, conflict is neither good nor bad — it just is. 

What kinds of advantages? Good question! The right approach to conflict resolution can help you:

Improve Employee and Business Insights

Diversifying your workforce has a plethora of benefits, from increased employee retention to productivity growth. It also brings a spectrum of ideas, habits, and workflows into your organization. Harnessing these different perspectives through constructive conversations can provide you with valuable insight into your employees, processes, management styles, and customers that keep your company vibrant.

Find Peaceful and Collaborative Solutions

Addressing disagreement directly and with the intention to resolve it helps promote increased respect and understanding among your employees. Rather than letting resentments bubble unaddressed, coming together to tackle the problem as a team solidifies the employees’ commitment to the process, the goals, and one another. Collaborating to create satisfactory solutions builds a stronger foundation than could ever be achieved by simply pretending that conflicts don’t exist. 

Increase Retention

Leaving conflict unaddressed can send your top talent out the door. Nearly 60% of employees have either left a job or considered leaving a job as a result of office politics, according to a Randstad survey.

If, on the other hand, your company handles conflict in a healthy and productive manner, you’ll likely find it easier to retain the employees you have. This can also have a downstream effect on your talent acquisition.If your business’ conflict resolution strategies help you develop a reputation for offering a healthy work environment, it could make bringing in new talent easier down the road.

Establish a Safe and Positive Culture

To understand why this is important, ask yourself the following question: Where would you rather work? 

  1. A company where everyone has an inbox full of snippy emails and negative office politics makes the day drag on and on.
  2. An organization that acknowledges differences, works together with respect to resolve conflicts, and applies those insights to constantly improve its company culture.

This question isn’t really a question, is it?

You must address conflict to build a company culture that allows employees to thrive in their roles.

Avoid Lawsuits

If left unchecked, conflict can become costly in more ways than one. In addition to those productivity losses, companies can face large legal bills for harassment or discrimination that is not addressed. 

As the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s harassment guidelines put it: “The employer will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control (e.g., independent contractors or customers on the premises) if it knew, or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.” Failing to address conflict like this can open your company to legal action. In 2021 alone, US businesses paid out a whopping $20.2 billion for workplace misconduct. 

Resolving conflicts early and taking steps to prevent conflicts like discrimination and harassment in the workplace from occurring again can protect your company, saving it from costly legal bills.

What Causes Conflict in the Workplace?

Recognizing the need for conflict resolution is only part of the equation. You also need to understand how and why conflict develops in the first place to develop adequate resolution strategies. 

In most cases, workplace conflict falls into one of two categories:

  • Affective Conflicts: Personal disagreements, dislikes, or emotional incompatibilities between individuals.
  • Substantive Conflicts: Conflicts related to processes, tasks, decisions, or other issues directly associated with team projects or goals. 

Some of the most workplace persistent causes of both conflict types include:

Ineffective Communication

Conflict has a way of feeling extremely personal even when it’s anything but. So often the root of a conflict has nothing to do with intentional offense and everything to do with good, old-fashioned miscommunication.

Plenty of communication breakdowns can create confusion that breeds conflict: Unclear responsibilities, ambiguous expectations, unconstructive or indirect performance feedback, and infrequent contact between managers and employees, to name a few. 

Ensuring that everyone has access to clear, correct information at all times can eliminate a lot of workplace confusion, as can leadership and communication training for management-level positions.

Resistance to Change

Change has a way of getting on everyone’s nerves. Humans are creatures of habit. Once we’re comfortable with one way of doing things, we don’t relish the idea of returning to square one to learn something new. Change represents the unknown, which can arouse fear, hesitancy, and sometimes even hostility. 

Aspects of your organization will change, whether that means rolling out a new advertising strategy or migrating to a new project management system. And even good changes can face resistance from your staffers. Change-related conflict describes situations where an employee resists change within the organization.

Often, the best antidote to this fear of the unknown is knowledge. If your people understand the reasoning behind the change, have a voice in the decision, and are fully trained with the skills and resources they need to make a painless transition, such conflict can be reduced or avoided altogether.

Unhealthy Competition

We love to describe workplaces as ‘one team,’ but this ideal doesn’t always translate into reality. Competing deadlines, objectives, or limited resources can breed conflict between team members or departments that don’t really wish each other ill. 

To be sure, a little competition now and again can drive employees to be their best. But if left unchecked, it can also lead to poaching, sabotage, and social undermining. This is especially the case when teams have a scarcity mindset, which can get in the way of collaboration. As Stephen Covey writes in his bestselling book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”:

“The Scarcity Mentality is the zero-sum paradigm of life. People with a Scarcity Mentality have a very difficult time sharing recognition and credit, power or profit—even with those who help in the production. They also have a hard time being genuinely happy for the success of other people.”

“The Abundance Mentality, on the other hand, flows out of a deep inner sense of personal worth or security. It is the paradigm that there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody. It results in the sharing of prestige, recognition, profits and decision-making. It opens possibilities, options, alternatives and creativity.”

People who view recognition or company resources as scarce are more likely to compete with their teammates for those assets. Encouraging collaboration over competition by helping everyone feel secure and valued can stop conflict before it begins.

Differing Work Methodologies

Task-conflict is a term for when two or more people disagree about how an action should be performed. Remember Karl and Maria from earlier? Their conflict over how to approach their shared objective had the potential to derail the entire project. 

Without proper conflict resolution, task-conflicts can easily become personal. But when two or more opposing work methodologies meet, open-minded individuals can take a step back, consider different points of view, and objectively evaluate every option. This provides more opportunities for businesses to improve how they make decisions.

Clashing Personalities

Companies benefit from having a range of different preferences, backgrounds, temperaments, points of view, and experiences among their staff. And sometimes, those differences clash. Some people just don’t hit it off. And as the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it be friends with all the other horses standing around the trough.” (Or something like that.)

Many employees have the emotional maturity to work well with others even if they wouldn’t choose to catch a game together over the weekend. That said, when personalities clash it may take an unbiased manager one step removed from the situation to help ensure everyone receives the right level of professional respect.   

Important Skills for Peaceful Conflict Resolution

The list of ways conflict can arise is long, but don’t let that discourage you – so are the tools you can use to mitigate conflict! There are plenty of skills you can hone to reduce tensions in your workplace, including:


Honest, direct communication should be your first (and most relied-upon) tool for conflict resolution. Brining the conflicting parties together to discuss the issue, its causes, and what each could do to find a satisfactory solution is often all that’s needed  to clear the air. 

  • Active Conflict Resolution: Meeting with Karl and Maria in a neutral setting and having them brainstorm together on how best to resolve the issue.
  • Passive Conflict Avoidance: Ignoring the problem and hoping that Karl and Maria will sort it out on their own.  

Emotional Awareness

People aren’t robots. Emotions are a valuable source of information for what we think about the world around us, but that doesn’t mean emotion has to be in the driver’s seat. Promoting emotional awareness within your teams makes it possible for employees to recognize and resolve emotionally-influenced responses before they can spill over.  

  • Active ConflictResolution: Holding regular team and one-on-one meetings with Karl and Maria to assess their feelings and allow them to get to know one another better. 
  • Passive Conflict Avoidance: Encouraging Karl and Maria to bottle everything up inside until the discord begins to delay the deliverable.


Conflict is more likely to arise when people consider only their perspective on an issue. 

It’s easier for us to move past condemnation and to solution ideation by looking at a situation from the other person’s point of view. Practicing empathy is about more than  just hearing what someone is saying or how they’re reacting. It’s about putting yourself in their shoes to understand their why.

  • Active Conflict Resolution: Considering Karl’s workload and how making adjustments to this project flow could have downstream effects on other projects for which he’s responsible. 
  • Passive Conflict Avoidance: Writing off Maria as a “crazy person” and assuming that she’s just trying to be difficult.


If you plan on sitting down with Karl and Maria and finding a solution, you need to know how to negotiate. Even if you don’t have an obvious personal stake in the outcome, you still have to be capable of mediating the dispute objectively and with a clear focus on tackling the problem.

  • Active Conflict Resolution: Encouraging Karl and Maria to explain what they hope to accomplish, and then identifying areas of possible compromise.
  • Passive Conflict Avoidance: Encouraging Karl and Maria to rant about why they can’t work together and what each one is doing that is hurting the project.

Problem Solving

Here’s a useful fact: At its essence, conflict resolution is just problem solving. Problem solving is a major leadership competency, and success depends on your ability to define the conflict, determine the root cause, identify and prioritize your options, and finally follow through with the best possible solution.

  • Active Conflict Resolution: Interviewing Karl and Maria about their project and presenting possible solutions that will allow them to accomplish their goals.
  • Passive Conflict Avoidance: Making an off-hand decision based on a limited understanding of the situation.

How to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace

You know what conflict resolution is, why it’s important, where conflict comes from, and what kinds of skills you need to turn disagreements into solutions. Now all you need is a game plan! And although every conflict is unique, with this handy six-step resolution plan is a useful overarching structure for any workplace disagreement that comes your way.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Start with empathy
    Gather as much information as you can about the situation, those involved, and any root causes that may be apparent. Approach the problem with a clear perspective that you’re trying to resolve the issue rather than assign blame. Recognize that everyone involved is on the same team and that they are intelligent, logical human beings who have reasons for their actions.
  2. Acknowledge the issue at hand
    Addressing interpersonal conflict can be awkward, but it needs to be done. Don’t treat the issue like the elephant in the room. Address it clearly, define how it may be impacting the team, and make sure that everyone is committed to finding a solution.
  3. Listen actively
    Those involved in the conflict will be some of your best sources of information, but they may be too close to the issue to know how to objectively fill you in on what’s going on. As you discuss the situation, be an active listener, taking verbal and non-verbal cues from those who are involved and providing the appropriate feedback to encourage them to fully express themselves in productive ways.
  4. Communicate clearly
    Getting everyone fully aligned means speaking in exact terms, avoiding euphemisms, and being direct in your language. Leave no room for misinterpretation.
  5. Problem solve cooperatively
    Conflict resolution isn’t a courtroom, those involved aren’t plaintiffs or defendants, and you’re not a judge handing out the sentence. Ideally, all parties should be willing and capable of putting aside their differences to collaborate toward a common goal. The best solution is one where everyone comes away satisfied, and the best way to reach that kind of solution is through cooperation.
  6. Commit to the solution
    Once you’ve defined the problem, laid out the stakes, gathered all the relevant information, and committed your people to work as a team to find a solution, the last step is to see it through. iIf you’ve put the right focus on resolving the conflict effectively, then everyone should be able to move forward with confidence.

Foster a Healthy Work Environment

Conflict pushes us forward. Without it, few of us would push out of our comfort zones, consider new ideas, or adopt new ways of operating. But unchecked conflict can easily become disruptive, degrading a company culture and the quality of work employees produce.

Active conflict resolution is vital to creating a healthy work environment. It facilities a culture where employees know unhealthy behaviors will not be tolerated and they are empowered to make improvements. This kind of supportive culture helps employees thrive, and employees that thrive are more likely to stay at your organization, be more productive, and produce higher quality work while they’re at it.

A wellbeing program supports all of these same goals. They show employees you actively care about delivering a positive work environment where they can be healthy, happy and growth-oriented. Speak to a Wellhub Wellbeing Specialist about how you can encourage work-life wellness throughout your organization!  



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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