How to manage and resolve conflict at work

Resolve conflict at work

What can you do when your boss holds all the cards and enjoys giving you a hard time? Or When an employee you really depend on is constantly whining and difficult? Or when vitally important clients insist on being demeaning? In this article, Peter Coleman and Robert Ferguson, authors of Making Conflict Work, give you five key questions to ask yourself when conflict arises.


Conflict comes with human relationships; it is inevitable when people are honest, innovative, or simply working together. It can spring from differences in goals, personalities, leadership styles, or a thousand other things. The challenge is to manage and resolve conflicts – and harness their energy – with strategies that further your goals, the mission of the organization, and take others needs into account.


Making conflict work takes thoughtfulness and savvy. To be effective when conflict strikes, ask yourself these five questions:


  1. What are my goals? There is no point to engaging in conflict if you have nothing to gain. You have to want something. A promotion. A reference. A shared victory. New customers. Money. Meaning. Something. Without a goal, conflict is just idle argument, or ego, or noise. Clarifying your goal in a specific situation is first base.
  2. How important to me is the other person? Okay, so you disagree with someone. Maybe a peer, a supervisor, or a direct report. How much do you need this person in this specific circumstance? Do you want to maintain or enhance this relationship going forward? Can you walk away from this situation without consequence? If you have no need to remain in this relationship (for example if it is a one-time encounter), there is little point in engaging in conflict. Why expend the energy and angst? Conflict engagement is best reserved for situations where you need the other person. If you don’t, you can sidestep the disagreement and pursue your goals independently through other means. If you do need the other person, you need a strategy.
  3. Is the other party with me or against me (or both)? Are they on my side? Do they share my goals and concerns? Are they likely to help or harm me? Can I trust them? In other words, are there grounds for cooperation? Or is this a purely competitive conflict where I have to play hard and play smart to win? Or, is this some combination of both?
  4. Am I more powerful than the other party, less, or are we equals? Who is in charge here? Do they have authority over me? Do I have power over them? When equal, a crucial conversation may suffice: establish safety, talk it out, resolve it, done. But if you have more power, or less, it will take additional skills to get to the real issues and achieve your goals. If you have less power, you risk overstepping your bounds or inviting abuse. If you have more power, you risk eliciting dishonesty or sabotage from your supervisee. Ignoring power differences, and lacking a strategy for them, renders standard conflict resolution methods mostly ineffective.
  5. What strategy fits this current situation? Once you answer the first four questions, you are ready for the big decision: what should I do? Conflict situations are addressed most effectively when the strategy fits the specific situation. New research has revealed a menu of effective options for making conflict work at work: By employing Pragmatic Benevolence, Cultivated Support, Constructive Dominance, Strategic Appeasement, Selective Autonomy, or Principled Rebellion. The key is in knowing when and how to employ each.


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