The Contagion Of Conflict And How Leaders Can Diffuse It In The Workplace

Tracy Cocivera Blog

Conflict is virtually inevitable in many workplaces, mostly caused by real or perceived differences between colleagues and within teams. It is very rare that conflict doesn’t cause hurt feelings and, in some cases, real damage to relationships. In many organizations, dealing with conflict can eat up a vast amount (up to 20%) of a leader’s time.

Let’s look first at a very common type of conflict and the ways leaders can exercise their own power to remediate it.

Christina works in an organization whose culture is dramatically different from her own background and experience. Recently, she’s struggled with a couple of very outspoken colleagues who admire Donald Trump and are constantly singing his praises. Christina feels she has to tolerate them in the interest of free speech, but every so often, she engages in a heated debate, which devolves into arguments and name-calling. These relationship conflicts and disagreements around personal preferences and interpersonal styles are very common. And the impact on the leaders involved and the larger team is often negative if the warring parties don’t constructively work through the conflict and their differences.

Research has shown that relationship conflicts can even affect the health and well-being of employees. No doubt, you have seen colleagues take medical leave due to on-the-job stress stemming from a conflict with another employee.

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 It’s important to notice that these relationship conflicts have nothing to do with the work itself nor the organization. Rather, they're rooted in personal preferences, attitudes, interpersonal communications and external political opinions. Relationship conflicts can be painful because they involve negative emotions and threaten one’s personal identity and feelings of self-worth. Even though these conflicts are unrelated to the work, they get in the way of tasks, productivity and engagement. Often, the most destructive of all relationship conflicts are those between leaders and direct reports.

Leaders have a key role to play, of course, in the way they use their power to resolve conflict and to productively achieve outcomes. Research shows that organizational conflicts decrease when leaders use their personal power as compared to their positional power. Leaders perceived to have high personal power don’t have to resort to the coercive exercise of power to exert influence. Personal power is related to trust, so that when there are discrepancies or issues arising from work, they aren’t automatically interpreted as relationship matters. Colleagues are more willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt and not jump to erroneous judgments and conclusions about the other’s intentions.


In contrast, leaders who rely on their positional power will often escalate conflict and see it increase. For example, when leaders unleash their coercive power and make their colleague's life difficult, their colleague will automatically see it as a threat and either aggressively react or go on the defensive.

Rather than leading with their positional power, it’s important for leaders to cultivate their personal power to reduce conflict and obtain cooperation from others.

For Christina to feel good about going to work in the morning, she will have to find a way to minimize the annoyance she feels about her colleagues’ political views. Their loudness in expressing those views may simply be a non-productive way to needle her. The first thing she has to do is find empathy in herself and her judgmental tendency, which will allow her to be more accepting and interested in her co-workers' views. She might then probe for other political topics upon which they might agree.

In a world of increasingly heated rhetoric, it’s tempting to retreat to the shelter of reading or listening only to people with whom we already agree, but that luxury isn’t afforded to us at work where we must collaborate with, cooperate with and find ways of accepting and working with a wide variety of people and behaviors.

Taking her own leadership seriously, Christina has to find a way to use her personal power to make things great again.

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