Managing Workplace Conflict to Improve your Organization

Conflict doesn’t have to be negative. Know the difference between the conflict types to manage them properly.

Posted by Dr. Pat Pitsel in on June 26th, 2012

Not all conflict is resolvable and no matter how hard we try, it is wistful (not to mention magical) thinking to believe that we can or should exist in a conflict-free world. Conflict is not only inevitable, some is essential. When everybody thinks alike, nobody thinks very much.

There are four basic types of conflict that we find in the workplace. Two of them are positive and should be promoted while two are counterproductive and need to be managed. Each type of conflict has specific tools to help in reaching a positive outcome.

Academic Conflict

This involves a difference of opinion about how things should be done when there is a right or wrong or better solution. I call this “academic” because it comprises the essence of what universities are designed to do – conduct research to find the best answers to problems.

The tools used for this type of conflict are facts, data, analysis, research and logical thinking.

Goal Conflict

Here people differ, sometimes significantly on what to do rather than how to do it. Should we open an office in another location? Should we allow flex time? One of the thinking approaches that creates conflict in this area and which makes it almost impossible to resolve in a civil manner is our tendency to think in a binary fashion – should we do a or b, this or that?

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One strategy to resolve this type of conflict is to put the binary question into a different form, along the lines of:

  • “What is the best way to reach more customers?”
  • “What is the best way to accommodate staff who have child care issues?”

Another strategy is to agree, in advance of the decision, how you are going to decide, for example:

  • Push the decision up to another level?
  • Flip a coin?
  • Arm wrestle?

We need to constantly challenge one another: Is this the best possible solution to the problem facing us? Is there a better, faster or smarter way of doing things? This is what positive conflict should do.

Personality Conflict

This type can be exceedingly destructive to teams and organizations. We’ve all seen the negative impact of this, or perhaps even have been involved in this type of conflict. It’s not pretty. Some negative effects of personality conflict include:

  • People take sides
  • Reputations are damaged
  • Productive work slows to a crawl
  • People go home unhappy with headache number 752

An inordinate amount of managerial time goes into trying to manage this type of conflict (according to one piece of research as much as a day a month).

Conflicts around Beliefs and Values

North American society is polarized around such issues as abortion, same sex marriage, political beliefs, and capital punishment, to name a few. That’s why, for example, most organizations do not permit staff to bring religious pamphlets to work. Beliefs are important but they are not facts.

Conflict reduction strategies for this type include:

  • Avoidance
  • Agreeing to disagree
  • Developing more tolerance for opinions that differ from ours

Values and beliefs conflicts are the most difficult to manage and, if accompanied by a personality conflict, are probably unresolvable. The best solution might be to transfer or terminate one or both of the combatants. Education sometimes works but is vastly over-rated as a conflict resolution tool in the short term.


Pat Pitsel
Pat Pitsel

Psychologist, Educator and Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd.

Dr. Patricia Pitsel, Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd., is a psychologist and educator. Pat received her M.Sc.Ed. from Fordham University, New York City, and her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary.
Dr. Pitsel's enthusiasm and sense of humour have made her a frequent speaker at conferences and conventions where she has been known to keep people awake for several minutes at a time.