Navigating Workplace Conflict: What Managers Can Do

Managers often play a key role in how conflict is resolved.

By John Hackston
From the February 2023 Issue

In a research study carried out by The Myers-Briggs Company, on average respondents spent over four hours every week dealing with workplace conflict—a significant cost to organizations. There were costs to individuals too. People who spent more time dealing with conflict at work had lower job satisfaction and felt less valued by their co-workers and organization.

workplace conflict
(Source: Adobe Stock)

However, the study also showed that conflict can have positive outcomes, such as building relationships, achieving better or more innovative solutions, increasing one’s self-awareness and understanding of others, and bringing things out into the open so that a solution can be achieved.

Our study shows that managers had a key role to play in how conflict was perceived, and the extent to which it was likely to have a positive outcome.

The Central Role Of Line Managers

People see their manager as a key player in conflict management and it was not surprising that almost all, 98%, said conflict handling was extremely or very important as a leadership or management skill. So, it was heartening that when asked how well their line manager or supervisor handled conflict, 46% said that they managed it quite well or very well, and 32% that their manager handled it adequately. However, this does mean that 22% said that their manager handled conflict poorly or very poorly. This has real-world effects; respondents who rated their manager’s skills as poor or very poor had lower job satisfaction, less confidence in their own ability to manage conflict, saw workplace conflict as generally less positive, and felt very much less included and supported by their manager.

What Can Managers Do?

When we asked about the causes of workplace conflict, the three most common answers were poor communication, lack of role clarity, and heavy workloads.

Individual managers may be able to influence all or most of these to at least some extent, and could consider:

The clarity and effectiveness of their communications. Our natural tendency is to communicate in a way that works for us, but this may not work so well for everyone. Managers should consider using a range of different channels (email, one-to-one meetings, group events, etc.) rather than just relying on one favorite approach. Tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment can help managers discover their default communication style and allow them to adapt this when needed to meet the needs of their team.

How clearly defined their reports’ jobs are. Are there areas of ambiguity, and have role profiles and job descriptions become outdated? A manager may have a very clear picture in their head of who is responsible for what, but this view may not be shared by others, especially if it has not been clearly communicated.

Workloads. Managers may be limited in how much they can do here. But demonstrating awareness will help.

The research also revealed that managers’ conflict style was important. We presented respondents with descriptions of different conflict styles, based on the scales of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (the TKI), and asked them which description sounded the most like their manager. The TKI takes uses a person’s assertiveness (how much they try to satisfy their own concerns) and their co-cooperativeness (how much they try to satisfy the concerns of another person) to define five different ways of dealing with conflict:

  • Avoiding (low assertive, low cooperative): avoids conflict, sidesteps issues, withdraws.
  • Accommodating (low assertive, high cooperative): neglects own concerns to satisfy other people’s concerns.
  • Competing (high assertive, low cooperative): pursues own goals at others’ expense.
  • Collaborating (high assertive, high cooperative): works with others to find a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of both parties.
  • Compromising (medium assertive, medium cooperative): splits the difference, exchanges concessions, or seeks a quick middle-ground position.

Each of us will typically have one or two favorite styles and we may tend to over-use these, even in situations when another approach might have been more effective. In this study, individuals who saw their manager as having a Collaborating conflict style, and to some extent a Compromising style, had the most positive experience of workplace conflict. Those who believed their manager had a Competing, and to some extent an Avoiding, style had the least positive experience. In practice, a Collaborating style may well be the most suited in some situations or interactions, but a different style in others.

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If a manager is aware of their own typical approach to conflict and has the knowledge and ability to flex and take another approach when the occasion demands, then they are likely to be better placed to help their teams navigate conflict successfully.

John Hackston, workplace conflictHackston is a Chartered Psychologist and Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company where he leads the company’s Oxford-based research team.

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