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How to manage conflict in the workplace

High performing teams are not afraid to disagree. Disagreements at work are healthy and inevitable, as constant change requires a constant debate. Conflict should not be seen as a source of stress, but as an opportunity for growth and strong working relationships, yet many organisations and leaders are so focused on creating a happy workforce that they try to avoid conflict either by suggesting that uncomfortable matters are “taken offline” or by being afraid to say ‘no’ to anyone. Avoiding conflict, however means tolerating poor performance, increased workloads, stress levels and resentment and can be harmful in the long term.

But it’s not just about the negative effect on team morale – avoiding conflict is bad for business too. It’s not uncommon that teams stay safe in their silos, with no communication and no opportunities for collective upselling or cross-selling, collaboration and innovation. The ability to work through conflict and issues constructively is critical to a healthy organisation culture and business growth.

Avoiding difficult conversations

Whilst ignoring difficult conversations can offer a temporary solution, problems get worse and projects can get off track, putting working relationships and the business a risk. Teams need conflict to function effectively and to deal with challenging situations and diverse perspectives. Whilst uncomfortable, conflict is a source of innovation and critical for risk mitigation and leading change.

Those who try to avoid conflict often spend a lot of time mentally preparing for difficult conversations by wording their thoughts in advance. In some cases, this can take over entire workdays and even eat into personal time. But difficult conversations rarely go according to plan so it’s much better to take the pressure off yourself and instead focus on listening and reflecting. Be interested, proactive and gather as much detail as possible without blame.

Leadership accountability

Avoiding or delaying difficult conversations can harm working relationships and lead to negative outcomes. In a work environment it is highly likely that each team member might be contributing to the conflict in some way and it’s the role of the leader to start with themselves in taking personal accountability as well as manage conflict in a constructive way. Conflict management is not an easy task and it requires time and practice, as well as reflection.

When it comes to conflict, most of us have a default approach – we either tend to avoid it or seek it out. Neither style is better or worse and whilst we all have a preferred style, it’s impossible to avoid or seek out conflict all the time. Leaders are often worried about being liked, however the costs of being liked are too high. When it comes to conflict, instead of worrying about being liked, focus should be on respecting the other person’s view and expecting them to respect yours.

At Acumen we design and facilitate leadership development programmes that solve real life challenges and equip leaders with the skills, knowledge and techniques to lead a highly engaged workforce. In most cases we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off the shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. To find out more, please contact Simon at

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