How to Handle 3 Types of Workplace Conflict

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By Henry Updegrave

Hollywood would have you believe that workplace conflict is awesome. Movies depict the best offices as filled with macho dudes in suits screaming at each other, throwing around insults, and somehow also getting fantastic results.

That’s entertaining, but let’s look at the facts: a 2010 study revealed that the average U.S. employee spends 2.8 hours a week dealing with disputes at work, resulting in losses of $359 Billion across the American economy. In reality, conflict pulls people away from their jobs and kills productivity.

With that in mind, your instinct might be to ruthlessly stamp it out wherever you see it. But that’s not always the best course of action. You need to recognize that not every workplace conflict is the same. It’s like criminal justice—a first degree crime is sentenced differently than a second degree crime. The context, causes, and intentions should influence how you deal with conflict in the workplace.

Here’s a rundown of three of the most common types of office workplace conflict, what they mean for your company, and how to solve them.

1. Bullying over role responsibility

When people feel that their role in the office is being threatened, they often turn to bullying to feel more secure.

For instance, in his article on workplace conflict resolution for startups, Close.io founder Steli Efti describes a hypothetical bullying incident. In his scenario, a salesperson makes a product design suggestion, only to be told by an engineer, “Oh yeah, we should totally let our sales guy design the interface, and later I’ll ask my hairstylist to do a root-canal treatment for me.”

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As executive coach Ray Williams writes, this kind of workplace bullying wears the victim down and saps their motivation—they struggle to get through the workday rather than attack their job with gusto. Not to mention, the bullying tends to spiral out of control. Victims become anxious and lethargic, their work suffers, and they become even more of a target.

As Steli’s story illustrates, bullying often arises from role ambiguity. Several studies have shown that workplaces with unclear roles have more bullying because employees feel threatened without clear direction. In this case, the engineer felt that his “control” over product design was being attacked by the salesperson, so he used a cruel, public cut-down to put him in his place. Now, the salesperson is less likely to contribute to future meetings, and if the bullying continues, he might even quit.

How to nip bullying in the bud and prevent workplace conflict

Here are three strategies to make sure bullying never becomes a problem at your company.

  • Give everyone one job. According to philosopher René Girard, conflict arises when people have overlapping desires. That’s why at PayPal, Peter Thiel gave every team member one single directive to focus on. That kept them out of each other’s hair and limited infighting. Create clear documentation around all your team member’s distinct roles.
  • Three strikes, you’re out. Here’s an old James Bond quote: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” Consider a three-strike policy. If someone acts like a bully three times, they probably are one. You’re better off without them.
  • Highlight everyone’s contributions. In the tech world, engineers and the like often get more glory than folks in roles like sales, customer success, and operations. That’s a recipe for bullying. Whether it’s in your weekly IDoneThis, your newsletter, or via Slack, find a way to shout out the exceptional work everyone on your team is doing.

Each of these ideas gives your team a sense of equality and togetherness, which prevents bullying before it starts.

2. Squabbling over failure brings workplace conflict

A more understandable, but no less threatening type of conflict is the discord that arises when a project—or even company—is failing. Nowhere is this more obvious and more crushing than in the bickering between startup founders.

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After all, 65% of startup failures come from conflict between founders, and according to HubSpot founder Dharmesh Shah, one of the biggest reasons for those conflicts is that the company looks like it’s heading off a cliff.

It’s not surprising. Picture it: You quit your cushy job at Google to strike out on your own and build something you just know the world will love. But six months later, growth has stagnated, there’s no money coming in, and your girlfriend dumped you because you work 100 hours a week. Meanwhile, your co-founder barely does anything, her projects all stink, and you’re pretty sure it’s her fault your biggest customer just canceled.

The dynamic isn’t even limited to startups. You could be at a massive corporation like GE, but if your team is failing, you’ll worry about job security and maybe even scrap with the other managers.

But failure can’t be all doom and gloom. If your team is at each other’s throats the second things get tough, that all but ensures you’ll never recover. If you can dig deep and put aside your differences, you’ll be shocked at what you can overcome.

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How to push through the tough times without killing each other

Whether you’re in charge of a startup or run a team at a bigger company, you need to stay unified with your fellow leaders during times of turmoil. Consider:

  • Focus on one metric. SaaS analytics expert Patrick Campbell, founder of Profitwell, calls it a compass metric. For example, in Facebook’s early days, all they cared about was growing total users. A compass metric keeps everyone’s eyes on the prize and forces them to pour any energy they might waste fighting into making that number go up.
  • Make it public. You might think that if your company is failing, the last thing the team wants to see is the co-founders arguing over strategy. But that beats being kept in the dark. If there’s a disagreement, lay out the differences for the team, let them chime in, and turn this difficult situation into a team-building opportunity.
  • Celebrate failure. Gaming company Supercell looks at failure as a learning opportunity. Despite huge hits like Angry Birds, they have plenty of games that get zero traction. Rather than mope, Supercell analyzes what went wrong, extracts lessons for the future, and then pops champagne to celebrate what they learned.

Workplace conflict is a natural symptom of failure, but it’ll also distract you from turning things around. These strategies will keep you focused and help you right the ship.

3. Some workplace conflict is actually…healthy?

Back in the early 2000’s, the West Point varsity crew team was badly underperforming. They were supposed to be the academy’s eight best oarsmen, but there was no team unity, trust, or camaraderie—they frequently lost to the JV team.

So the coach tried something drastic. He divided the varsity team into pairs and had them wrestle each other. The prima-donna rowers soon found that each of their teammates was just as strong and competitive as they were, and worthy of their respect. From that day forward, they worked together as a team, and the boat moved a lot faster.

From the outside looking in, the coach’s strategy would have looked like madness. His oarsmen were literally fighting each other—could conflict get any worse? But in reality, the team was coming together and learning to channel their aggression more constructively.

Likewise, there’s healthy conflict in the workplace too—it just never involves wrestling. Competitive, passionate teammates are always pushing each other to get better, challenging each other’s ideas, and finding new ways of doing things. That can often lead to conflict, but as long as teammates maintain a personal sense of respect, it can get results.

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How to make workplace conflict productive

Here are few strategies to tap into the lively, respectful type of conflict that helps teams perform better.

  • Encourage healthy competition. Contests can work wonders for sales managers in search of a quick revenue spike, and the sales analytics experts at InsightSquared have valuable guidelines for keeping contests productive. For example, put your sales data into a cool-looking, gamified leaderboard reps can refer back to, rather than bury it in a spreadsheet they’ll never look at.
  • Don’t fight the awkwardness. Cambridge business professor and teamwork expert Mark de Rond points out that healthy conflict will still feel like conflict. People might become upset and feelings could be momentarily hurt, but you need to think about the end result you want to achieve.
  • Talk it out after. Uber-successful hedge fund Bridgewater Associates has a radical, intellectually-aggressive culture in which everyone’s ideas are ruthlessly evaluated. That sometimes leads to conflict. Whenever a team member has an “emotional response” to harsh feedback, they meet with executives, who help them understand that just because their ideas are being attacked doesn’t mean they’re being attacked.

Each of these strategies makes employees feel comfortable with debate so that they can quickly pinpoint the best ideas and run with them.

Different conflicts need different solutions

Part of emotional intelligence is knowing that not all conflict is the same. Some of it, like workplace bullying, is just plain wrong and needs to be dealt with. On the other end of the spectrum, some workplace conflict helps your team grow and achieve more.

You need to assess every workplace scrap on a case-by-case basis, identify the root cause, and take the action that makes sense. If you do, you’ll have a team that gets great results and has an awesome time working together.

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