Controlling conflict in the workplace

Conflict is inevitable, but if managed properly, it can be a catalyst for change.


superintendent and team discussing an issue in an office

Managing conflict takes resilience. It requires an ability to evaluate complex information, make evidence-based judgments, and act professionally within the bounds of organizational and legal frameworks. A leader needs the insight to anticipate and manage conflict with confidence, find creative solutions and make tough decisions for the good of the individual, team and organization.

These situations can usually be grouped into the following categories:

  • Poor communication
  • Unfair treatment
  • Unclear job roles
  • Inadequate opportunities
  • Poor work environment
  • Bullying and harassment

Conflict typically occurs in escalating levels of seriousness. In the early stages, it’s easier to deal with issues that are generated, and solutions are more quickly found. At the other end of the spectrum, once conflict has degenerated to a deeply hostile level, it becomes extremely difficult to resolve issues, and external assistance may be needed to mediate a solution.

While conflict among workers in any team might be inevitable, if managed properly, it has the potential to be a catalyst for change and can have a positive impact on employee satisfaction and performance. Conversely, unmanaged conflict can seriously and negatively impact both job satisfaction and performance.

Negative conflict in the workplace results in reduced productivity and time wasting, as anyone engaged in conflict focuses on personal issues, spreading rumors and diversion from the actual work itself. Conflict can turn the workplace into a war zone. This toxic environment leads many, who are conflict adverse, to become disillusioned and depart from the organization. Conflict can result in dismissal damages that can cost an organization in the form of court fees and compensation claims.

However, an organization without conflict is probably apathetic. Conflict signifies involvement, commitment and caring. If understood and recognized, it can stimulate renewed and improved human relations. Without conflict, people seldom face and resolve their problems. Conflict can therefore be functional and beneficial, as it increases staff cohesion on common goals and job satisfaction and creates an atmosphere where everyone works better, produces more, takes fewer days off and stays devoted to the organization.

Dispute resolution is not an easy task. It takes sensible thinking and a sense of fairness to bring two opposite sides to compromise in a civilized manner. Typically, there are five positions to consider when handling conflict:

Competitive — Used by people who plan to win. They are assertive and uncooperative. This method is characterized by the assumption that one side wins, and everyone else loses. It doesn’t allow for diverse perspectives into a well-informed total picture.

Avoidance — This is when people just ignore or withdraw from the conflict. While this might seem the easy choice, these people are not contributing anything of value. When conflict is avoided, nothing is resolved.

Accommodation — This strategy is where one party gives in to the demands of another. They are being cooperative but not assertive. This may appear to be gracious, but it can result in unresolved issues.

Collaboration — Here people are both assertive and cooperative. A team may learn to respect each other’s opinions, creating a shared solution that everyone can support.

Compromise — Participants are partially assertive and cooperative. This concept relies on everyone giving up a little bit of what they want, and no one gets everything they want. Compromise is perceived as being fair.

Finding the middle ground is the best way to improve relationships and achieve successful resolutions. The ability to adapt conflict-resolution styles is a valuable leadership trait. Usually, when dealing with higher authority, maintaining respect for title is beneficial. If there is a difference of opinion, introducing statistics to back up points of view is far more effective than personal opinions. When conflicting with colleagues on the same level, trading a favor or shared workload usually helps reach a mutually agreeable outcome. When dealing with a subordinate, adopting a sympathetic stance and understanding their view shows sensitivity before asking for common ground.

Leaders discover compromise and collaboration aren’t easy to achieve. It takes considerable practice, but it’s well worth it in the end.

Phil Helmn, MG, is a four-year GCSAA member with more than 35 years of experience in the golf course management industry. He is a regular speaker on leadership and the author of “The Power of People,” which offers tips for managing the modern-day team.