Learning to identify types of interpersonal conflict at work can improve your workplace

On a scale 1 (low) to 10 (high), how confident are you in your ability to manage interpersonal challenges in the workplace?

As you reflect on this question, another question for you to consider is how many hours you spend dealing with one of the following issues in a typical week:

  • Misunderstanding – correcting a miscommunication
  • Act of incivility – perceiving that someone was rude to you or snubbed you
  • Workplace conflict – disagreeing with a peer over a workplace issue

Regardless of what you put as a number, most likely it was not time you had planned or booked into your calendar. All of them can negatively impact productivity and the employee’s experience.

To put a number to this, imagine a peer who is paid $75,000 a year and who on average spends three hours a week in some form of interpersonal conflict. Typically, they will be working 48 weeks in a year, so that equals 144 hours of conflict, which is more than $5,000 of their salary.

Whether you are a manager or an employee, you may find yourself in a position where you are observing two or more parties in interpersonal conflict. Even if you are not directly involved, if you are trusted by the conflicting parties, you can help facilitate a resolution.

Interpersonal conflict contributes to the state of disharmony due to real or perceived differences. The root cause of the differences can vary from having different wants, needs or values – as well as not having all the facts.

Such conflict can also be inconvenient and take time to resolve – which may not always be a bad thing. Taking the time to work through conflicts can create a new level of respect and understanding.

When interpersonal conflict is not managed, it has the potential to escalate (i.e. into threats) that can potentially cause psychological harm and injuries. It can also result in lost productivity and talent.


  • Develop the basic skills required to be effective at interpersonal conflict resolution. It is helpful to develop the ability to manage stress under pressure, maintain emotional composure, listen carefully to other perspectives and to ask questions instead of making statements. These are examples of the kinds of micro skills that can position a person to be able to effectively manage interpersonal conflicts.
  • Accept that sometimes you might be wrong. It is helpful to go into a conflict with clarity on your position and why you believe what you do. However, since no one is perfect, there is always the possibility that you are wrong if you don’t have all the facts or understand the context. Being open to this possibility provides you with the flexibility to change your position if appropriate.
  • Create an environment that looks to deal with differences quickly. Give permission as well as guidance to others on how to best confront you if they believe you are wrong. When others can come to you without fear of getting into a major debate or conflict, they will start to develop trust. Positive experiences can create a safe environment that encourages people to actively close the gaps on differences and find common ground.
  • Fight fairly. Interpersonal conflict in the workplace for some is about winning. Fighting fair means focusing your energy on finding common ground and accepting the notion that, regardless of the type of interpersonal conflict, dealing with it in a firm and fair manner provides the opportunity to learn new perspectives. Seldom will people have just one interpersonal conflict with the people they work closely with. Fighting fair is about wanting to make your point with the hope of persuading the other person to come your way if appropriate. It is best to not engage in behaviours that could emotionally hurt others or create such a negative experience that the parties involved would prefer not to interact with you any more.




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