We all know that one guy. The one who has an overly critical eye when it comes to everyone else’s work. The one who whistles. All. Day. Long. The one who doesn’t like tacos. While it may seem easier to ignore the situation, there comes a time when you need to pull up your boot straps and learn how to deal with conflict at work. 

What’s the problem?

Even if you have the trendiest office space and offer all the perks, there’s an even more important factor to building a good work environment: people. Part of running a business smoothly means keeping employees working together peacefully (cage fighters excluded). So when a conflict arises, it’s important to quickly ferret out what the actual issue is. Sure Gary talks about his pet iguana. A lot. But is that the real squabble? Or is it that he wants to chat while others are trying to finish a project? Focusing on the actual problem can reduce miscommunication and spare hurt feelings.

Hear it both ways

When there is an employee conflict, listen to what each party has to say. Rather than jumping to conclusions (“Yeah, Gary is a jerk!”), be sure you understand each side. Rephrase what you heard, asking if you perceive the complaint correctly. Ask additional questions if you need more information to fully assess a situation.

Keep it positive

Upset people tend to speak in negatives. “Gary is really lazy and never does his work.” As thoughts are shared, rephrase the words into helpful terms. “You find it frustrating when Gary doesn’t complete his portion of the project as promised.” This allows everyone to express their point, but also keeps the discussion from becoming an attack session. You are rooting out the actual issue, not lining up the sights to assassinate a person’s character.

Identify talking points

Deciding how to handle conflicts in the workplace should always include two factors: communication and compromise. Meet with both parties — separately if necessary — to create a list of both disagreements and agreements. The first tells you what the issues are, while the latter gives you common ground to work with. Disagreement: “Gary is trying to sabotage everyone in the fitness challenge.” Agreement: “The sticky buns are to die for.” Solution: How do you feel about a Treat Tuesday? 


If there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer, try a brainstorming session for ideas with the conflicting parties. Arm wrestling? Dance off? Of course, it depends on the seriousness of the situation, but putting some creativity — and even some humor — into the picture may help ease some of the tension. It can also help the parties turn their focus toward making changes instead of digging their heels in. Clarify that ideas need to be positive for both parties. “Gary just needs to quit” doesn’t qualify. “Send us to a team-building retreat” does.

Make changes

No matter how much talking you do, serious (and sometimes minor) conflicts won’t be resolved without a formal action plan. How will we go about these changes? Who needs to do what? Focus on what each person would like to have happen and how they can accomplish that goal. Again, each person should feel they have input. Then have all parties agree to fulfill their respective responsibilities.

Follow up

Once a plan of action has been implemented, follow through. Has Gary stopped sending daily cat memes? Revisit the employees to discuss how the changes are working and point out what you feel is going well. “I appreciate your following assignment protocols. It has really helped increase our productivity.” Congratulate them on their efforts. And keep encouraging open, positive communication.

Everyone wins

Learning how to deal with employee conflict can help everyone feel more comfortable in the workplace. As you discuss problems, all parties should feel they are understood and have valued input. Then, as team members work together to resolve issues, they can walk away feeling more satisfied. In addition, they’ll be learning better communication skills, which should ultimately help in future disputes. Foosball champion gets first dibs on next year’s vacation calendar! Even if it’s Gary.

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