In my blog “The 6 Characteristics of the adaptable leader”, I note that the 4th characteristic is that “They (adaptable leaders) deal with conflict and disagreement productively.”

Conflict cost money, it is drain on the business’ resources.  It generates both direct and hidden costs:

  • Direct costs of conflict include absenteeism, lost productivity, and staff turnover
  • Hidden costs of conflict include spending time on people problems, which diverts time and energy away running the business.  It has been estimated that 20% of managers’ time can be taken up handling conflicts or differences.

When workplace conflict becomes a problem:
Workplace conflict becomes a problem when significant working relationships breakdown or become dysfunctional as a result of differences.  When this happens, we are faced with 2 choices:

1.     Transform the conflict, and find a creative resolution, or

2.     Adopt a primitive response, allowing the conflict to remain, intensify, or be ignored.

Very often we choose the second approach.

Primitive Approaches to Conflict

At a primitive level, we are hardwired to respond to threats, real or imagined, in one of 3 ways:

  • Flight
  • Fight
  • Freeze

Common responses to workplace conflict:


Avoiding conflict by removing ourselves from the situation, e.g. not answering calls or refusing to meet. Sometimes we may deny that a conflict exists, deferring to the other person, or obeying some-one in authority, even if we disagree.  This can produce “losers” on both sides.    The refusal to acknowledge the differences, or address the issues, usually results in nobody being satisfied with the outcome.


Dealing with conflict aggressively, often blaming, attacking, and confronting others. This may create a “winner”.  However, “winning” is at the expense of other people, and relationships, as the “victor’s” needs are met regardless of the impact on others.


Responding passively to conflict, trying to please the other people, agreeing to what they want.  In such cases, we may even repress our own wants, and blame ourselves for the problem. This is likely to create “losers”, as we forgo our own needs, to meet the needs of others.

Passive Aggression:

Sometimes we may adopt a fourth, but equally unhelpful, response to conflict: “Passive Aggression”.  Passive aggressively, we may pretend to be OK with things, but adopt hostile and unhelpful behaviour behind the scenes.   This can result in issues never being addressed, which may leave us feeling disgruntled.  When this happens, we may bad mouth the company and, at worst, actively work against its interests.

An assertive approach to conflict:

Disagreements and differences of interests at work do not have to have to result in destructive workplace conflicts. It is widely acknowledged that being interpersonally skilled is more important than being “clever” when it comes to managing workplace relationships.   When faced with workplace conflict, we have the option to respond assertively, act calmly, acknowledging the other person and being respectful of their position, even if we don’t agree with it.  Assertively we can seek to meet our own needs, but at the same time be equally keen to help to meet the needs of others.  This response to workplace conflict can produce “win/win outcomes”, where differences are acknowledged, but energy is invested in finding a mutually satisfactory outcome.

This article has been posted by Sean McCann, the Managing Director of People Based Solutions an HR consultancy specialising in developing emotional intelligence at work, team building, and workplace conflict resolution. If you would like to know more about how we can help you develop an assertive approach to workplace differences by:

  • Ensuring your managers are skilled with people
  • Helping you to recruit people who have an assertive approach to conflict and difference
  • Helping you to develop a culture where differences are acknowledged and addressed courteously
  • Train your managers to handle conflict effectively
  • Delivering workplace mediation

Contact us at:

People Based HR