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The Workplace: Ripe for Conflict - Reap Its Rewards, a Four Part Conflict Management Series


August 24th, 2016

- Updated on

July 31, 2019 - 3:27pm
Conflict can occur any day, anytime, anywhere and with anyone in the workplace. Why is this? Neuroscience research can shed some light. Studies by Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman of UCLA show that the human brain is a social organ and its physiological and neurological reactions are directly shaped by social interaction.i
We would be hard pressed to find an environment more laden with all varieties of social interactions than the workplace. In fact, this research showed that our brains experience the workplace first and foremost as a social system, with all the dynamics of relationships, the give and take, the perceived and actual rewards and threats that drive our innate reactions to human interactions.ii
In this four part series, we’ll:
  • Create a baseline understanding with validated and effective conflict resolution basics
  • Examine the real sources of generational conflict
  • Explore recent research and strategies for mitigating team conflict
  • Highlight cutting edge brain strategies useful to resolve our own internal conflicts
The latest research into human neurobiology indicates that although workplace conflict is fraught with potential threats, those who manage it well often reap its potential rewards. Let’s begin our exploration by reviewing some conflict management basics.

More simply stated, workplace conflict may arise in any situation in which people have incompatible perceptions, interpretations, emotions, or interests that often result in divergent goals and actions.iii  Yes, given human nature, conflict indeed abounds.

Workplace Conflict Costs

Why does this matter? Studies by CPPiv and Harvard Law Schoolv indicate that the costs of poorly managed workplace conflict can be enormous. These studies report that:
  • 85% of US employees experience workplace conflict and that they spend an average of 2.8 hours per week dealing with it.
  • $359 Billion of paid hours per year in lost productivity and resources were directly attributed to unresolved workplace conflict in 2008 ($434 Billion when adjusted for 2016 average earnings). 
  • Only 31% of surveyed leaders report that they handle conflict effectively, while 78% of their employees say even that isn’t so.
When conflict is not appropriately addressed, productivity suffers, morale dives, teams flounder, distraction grows, and absenteeism and turnover can increase. There is good news buried in all these statistics, though. The surveys also show that well managed conflict can be a game changer.

75% of the employees surveyed report that they have experienced positive outcomes from well managed conflict that would not have been realized without the conflict.

Mastering Responses to Conflict

Although it is human nature to avoid confrontation, letting problems and conflicts fester; astute business leaders exhibit high levels of conflict competent skills. When confronted with circumstances that are troublesome, conflict competent leaders first manage and diffuse their own potential hot reactions by:
  1. Stepping back to recognize and name their own emotional response to triggering events.
  2. Slowing down to reflect, taking into account their own interests and those of other stakeholders.
  3. Engaging constructively with the other party only after assessing the circumstances and deciding on the most appropriate mode for handling the conflict effectively.
Foundational research by Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilman into the conflict resolution modes reveals that “conflict-handling norms are pretty much independent of the geographic distinctions of gender, race/ethnicity, age, organizational level, and geography and have remained largely the same” since the original research conducted in the 1960’s and ‘70s.vi 
In the Thomas-Kilman model, each mode is arrayed on dimensions of Assertiveness and Cooperativeness, as shown in the graphic.vii  Some behavioral choices may require more assertiveness and cooperation than others, all requiring refined interpersonal skills to select the right mode and to apply them in a constructive way.
Here are the basics of the conflict-handling modes Thomas and Kilman detailed in their research.
Thomas and Kilman Conflict Handling Modes
Mode Best Use Circumstances Outcome
Avoidance When one needs to take time out to assess situation or potential solutions, to give parties time to calm down, or if one decides the issue is not important after all. Neither party gets needs met.
Competing When outcome is more important to me than it is to the other party. One party gets 100% of needs met. Other party gains nothing.
Accommodating When the outcome is not as important to me as it is to the other party. Other party gets 100% of needs met. 
Compromising When the outcome is moderately important to both parties and there is little time to discuss it. Each party gets 50% of their needs met.
Collaborating When there is not an overwhelming stress environment, when there is time to explore and express real needs and wants, when there is a potential for a multidimensional agreement and when respect, trust level, communication skills and organizational culture support truth telling. Multiplier benefits. Potential for each party to get more than their expectations, satisfying and sometimes exceeding 100% of stated goals. Generates a Win/Win.

Reaping Conflict’s Rewards

Depending on circumstances and the criticality of the situation, a skillful leader may choose to employ any of the five identified modes to mitigate the conflict. This constructive, thoughtful approach takes skill, patience, self-awareness, and often, a big dose of self-control.  
To ensure that leaders master these conflict resolution skills, AJO recommends the Thomas Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI Assessment) to help leaders assess the frequency of their own and their team members’ conflict management styles. Follow up coaching in choosing the most effective conflict handling mode for different workplace situations, and using each mode wisely, enables leaders to reap the rewards possible in any well-managed conflict situation.
By developing and using these skills in the midst of conflict situations, leaders will increase positive outcomes and minimize the disruption and harm that mismanaged conflict may cause. What are the potential rewards for those who take the risk to manage workplace conflict?viii ix
  • Smarter decision-making
  • Increased trust and employee engagement
  • Enhanced communication and interpersonal understanding
  • Strengthened relationships
  • Harmony, tolerance for diversity
  • Increased confidence in the work-group or team
  • Enhanced cross-functional teamwork
  • More openness to new ideas and innovation
  • Sparked creativity
  • Increased commitment and follow-through on established solutions
Well worth it, wouldn’t you say? To learn more about choosing the optimum conflict mode for your circumstances, or for more information on AJO's approach to managing workplace conflict, contact us. We’ll send you further information along with our Conflict Management Coaching Guide.
In Part 2 of AJO's four-part series on Conflict Management Series, we'll address "The Real Skinny on Generational Conflict."


Kathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.