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Helping Managers Feel Prepared to Handle Conflict


Fri Feb 23 2024

Helping Managers Feel Prepared to Handle Conflict

Conflict. How does that word make you feel? If it makes you feel uneasy, anxious, or uncomfortable, you are not alone. When we asked people, “How does conflict at work usually make you feel?” over a third said it made them feel anxious, depressed, fearful, or stressed; a fifth said awkward or uncomfortable, 18 percent said angry, annoyed, or frustrated; and 13 percent said demotivated, discouraged, or helpless. But in response to that question, 10 percent said that depending on the situation, conflict can be useful and positive. In our research, we found that conflict can build relationships or destroy them, can surface new ideas and solutions or result in people being ignored, can make things clearer or stifle communication. Managed well, conflict can leverage success.

Everyone has a responsibility to deal with conflict effectively, but managers are key players. When we asked, “How important is conflict handling as a leadership or management skill?” 72 percent of respondents said that it was extremely important, and 26 percent said it was very important—that’s 98 percent, almost everyone. It’s not surprising that Gartner listed an increased need for managers to build their skills in conflict resolution as one of their top nine workplace predictions for HR leaders in 2024. Indeed, Gartner predicts that conflict between employees could hit an all-time high in 2024. In our own research, we found that on average, people spent just over four hours per week dealing with conflict at work—a figure that has doubled since we carried out a similar study back in 2008.


The good news is that many managers do seem to handle conflict well. Just under half of our sample, 46 percent, rated their manager as dealing quite well or very well with conflict. But just under a third, 32 percent, only rated their manager as adequate, and nearly a quarter, 22 percent, rated their manager as poor or very poor. There is room for improvement. And when we asked respondents what their manager could do to deal with conflict more effectively, the top answers were:

  • Listen and ask for people’s opinions, views, or information.

  • Communicate more regularly and more clearly.

  • Address conflict quickly, directly, and early.

  • Stop avoiding conflict and get involved.

  • Stop trying to please everyone or particular favored individuals.

  • Be less emotional, be more rational, and take things less personally.

It’s clear that rather than avoiding conflict, managers need to get involved to resolve issues and to do so in an open, even-handed way, keeping people informed and communication channels open. But this isn’t easy, and managers will need support.

Part of the solution is to make conflict less likely in the first place. We found that the three most common causes of conflict were poor communication, lack of role clarity, and heavy workloads, and these may be something that a manager can do quite a lot about. However, the fourth most common cause of conflict was related to personality clashes. To reduce the effect of these, increasing the self-awareness of individuals, using tools such as personality or conflict style assessments, may be useful. Managers will feel more prepared if they have a framework that helps them to understand how they and their reports tend to react in a conflict situation. Many have found the Thomas-Kilmann (TKI) model very useful here.

The TKI describes five ways of dealing with conflict, according to how assertive and how cooperative a person is—the extent to which they try to satisfy their own concerns compared with the extent to which they try to satisfy the concerns of the other person in the conflict situation.

  • If an individual is neither cooperative nor assertive, they will tend to take an Avoiding approach to conflict, trying to sidestep the issue or withdraw. Issues may be allowed to remain unresolved.

  • If they are cooperative but not assertive, they will tend to take an Accommodating approach, being supportive and sensitive, trying to preserve relationships, and being prepared to neglect their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of other people.

  • If they are assertive but not cooperative, they will tend to take a Competing approach. Conflict is seen as a contest to be won; this implies pursuing their own goals at others’ expense.

  • Collaborating corresponds to high cooperativeness and high assertiveness. Conflict is considered a problem to be solved with others to reach quality decisions. It implies working with others to find a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of both parties.

  • Compromising is a middle position. Conflict is considered a chance to find the middle ground and an opportunity to make deals. It implies splitting the difference, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground position.

Each of these modes have their uses. For example, Avoiding may seem counterproductive; no one’s needs are being met, everyone loses, and nothing is resolved. But Avoiding can be useful. Sometimes the issue just isn’t that important, or it’s not important anymore. Sometimes you need to defuse the situation first, or gather more information, and sometimes you really aren’t the right person to deal with it. Similarly, Collaborating might seem to be the perfect approach—it’s a win-win, and everyone’s needs are met! But Collaborating can be hard work. It can be stressful, it takes time, everyone involved needs to trust in the process and be willing to take part, and it requires good or great interpersonal skills. It’s more intense and takes more effort.


What’s important is that people choose the best mode for the situation. However, we all have a default style, and if we act without thinking, we tend to use this whether or not it is appropriate. The data shows that managers are more likely than others to have a Competing style, but going all out to win is not always the best approach to conflict situations. Once managers are aware of their own conflict style and of the other possibilities, they can choose to take a different approach when it is appropriate. Managers will also be better equipped to understand how their reports are approaching conflict and to help them work together more effectively.

Managing conflict at work is a useful skill for everyone. In our research, those with the most positive view of their ability to manage conflict also tended to have higher levels of job satisfaction, felt more able to be their authentic self at work, and felt more valued and at home in their organization. Training in how to handle conflict may be useful for all workers but will be especially useful for managers.

Dealing with conflict takes time. This is expensive for organizations and can have a negative effect on individuals, so any actions that can be taken to better understand conflict, manage it more effectively, or resolve it more efficiently are likely to pay dividends.

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