Branchefællesskabet for arbejdsmiljø

Conflict between colleagues

We can’t completely avoid conflict. But we can learn how to identify and manage conflicts, so that they do not increase and become serious. Read more here about conflict between colleagues and what you can do as an employee, a manager or a member of the health and safety group.

VIDEO - INSPIRATION FOR STAFF MEETING - watch this video and talk about how you can prevent internal conflict in your shop or store (in Danish with English subtitles).

Understanding conflict between colleagues

Deal with disagreements early on, so that they don't develop into a conflict.

How to manage conflict between colleagues

Conflict between colleagues should be managed early on. Read below about what you can do.

For employees

For employees

If you're in a conflict

Managing the conflict

It is easier to manage a conflict before it develops. It’s therefore important to identify a conflict early on. Conflicts are linked with communication, and you have to talk with your colleague about how you feel. The longer a conflict continues, the bigger and more emotional it can become.

Take time to prepare before you engage in dialogue with your colleague.

  • Accept the conflict, and do not blame yourself or your colleague for the conflict. Conflicts occur because we’re only human and we deal with things differently.
  • Think about your own reaction. In conflict situations, we often react by either confrontation or avoidance (the latter is when you choose not to react although you’re feeling angry, sad or irritated). To engage in dialogue, it’s important that you first calm down.
  • Think about the situation and ask yourself:
    • What happened? Be objective
    • Why are you reacting emotionally? How is your colleague’s behaviour affecting you?
    • Try to understand your colleague. What is making he or she react emotionally?
Can you manage the conflict on your own?

Accept if you don’t have the energy to manage the conflict and ask your employer/manager or someone else at your workplace for help before the conflict escalates.

Ask your employer/manager or someone else at your workplace for help if the conflict has escalated and become personal, and you and the other party are no longer on speaking terms.

At this point, your colleagues or others may encourage you and the other party to seek help to resolve the conflict. Perhaps your manager will address and discuss the matter with you. Be open towards those who want to help you, even if this is difficult.

If you’re having a conflict with your immediate manager, seek help from HR, your health and safety representative or your employee representative.

Engage in dialogue

Conflict management requires dialogue. All parties have their say, hear each other out without judging, and stay open and curious. The goal is to find a solution; not to place blame.

The bigger and more personal the conflict has become, the harder it will be to engage in dialogue. But someone has to take initiative. Invite your colleague to have a talk. More likely than not, your colleague will accept. Point out that you want to talk about your relationship. Avoid any form of blame. If your colleague refuses to have a talk, seek help from your manager or elsewhere within in the organisation.

  • Don’t view your colleague as tiresome. Be objective; it’s the situation that’s tiresome.
  • First try to understand your colleague; then, try to make yourself understood.  A person in a conflict will have difficulty listening and will be more interested in explaining and justifying. Briefly describe your version of the situation. Give your opinion and provide specific examples.
  • Be curious and listen to your colleague’s version. Allow your colleague to explain their side of the story. Focus on understanding what your colleague means. If you’re not sure, it’s better to ask one more time.
  • Describe the situation. Say out loud how you see the situation, but without blaming your colleague. Use the first person (‘I’ language). This means you take responsibility and stay on your own turf, so to speak. You invite dialogue. Generalisations are a sign that you’re moving up the conflict ladder. You should therefore:
    • Speak only on your own behalf. Not that of others.
    • Say “I think”, ”I can”, “I will” and “I feel”.
    • Only say things that the other party can also accept as facts. Everything else can be perceived as blaming.
    • Let the other party feel you’re on the same side: “Let’s see what we can do together to resolve the matter.”
  • Use appreciative language. Focus on what you want to achieve, rather than what you want to avoid. Help your colleague to understand your wishes and objectives.
    • Talk about your wishes.
    • Talk about that what works well between you. Talk about the future you want.
    • Acknowledge your differences of opinion.
    • Stay calm and keep eye contact Body language says a lot: stand with your hands and arms open.
    • Take ownership; show your willingness to resolve the conflict. It’s important that your colleague understands your suggestions, and that you listen to what your colleague suggests.

You might not end up agreeing, but you can learn to accept each other’s way of looking at things. If others have been involved in the conflict, then you should talk about how you will tell them that you have resolved the conflict.

It’s not easy and it’s not always possible to resolve and de-escalate a conflict. Remember that you’re not the only person responsible for the conflict; nor for any failure to resolve it. You can train yourself in conflict management, for example by practising active listening and questioning techniques.

If your colleagues are in a conflict

What to consider before approaching your colleagues
  • When is my help needed to resolve a conflict? If a colleague in a conflict is not taking initiative to manage the conflict, this might be a sign that your help is needed. Your colleague might not have realised there is a conflict or might find it difficult to take initiative to manage it.
  • The conflict can have different levels of complexity and emotion. Consider your best options for helping based on how much energy you have and your role at the workplace.
  • Have others acted on the conflict, such as your manager, someone from HR, a health and safety representative or employee representative? This means the conflict is being dealt with and you should assess whether your help is needed.

How to help colleagues in conflict

Approach your colleagues directly. If you have the energy to approach one of the parties in the conflict and to talk to them without further escalating the conflict, it is a good way to help the parties in a more informal way.  If you are a colleague or a manager, this could be the right approach.

Go to a manager. If you cannot take the conflict up with the parties yourself, then you can go to one of their managers and make them aware of the situation. The manager can choose to act on what you say or pass the task on to someone else at the workplace.

Go to someone in charge of conflict resolution Alternatively, you can go directly to the person who has been appointed as the contact person in the event of conflicts. If you don’t have such a person does at your workplace, you should contact the HR department instead, or the health and safety or employee representative.

If you choose to help, it’s important that you engage in dialogue, listen actively and ask open-ended question.

  • Dialogue: Remember that people in conflict aren’t particularly susceptible to sound arguments. So don’t try to resolve the conflict or suggest what the parties ought to do. They aren’t capable of thinking or acting rationally.
  • Active listening: Allow your colleague to explain their side of the story while you listen actively and with an open mind.
  • Ask questions: Show that you’re listening and that you understand. Ask open-ended questions using who, what, where, how, when, and why. You might not be able to help. If this is the case, remember to commend yourself for having tried.

And if you did not help resolve the conflict, consider whether it’s time to seek help from others at the workplace, for example a manager.

Read more

Preventing conflict at the workplace is primarily about knowing how to communicate with one another. Respectful communication and a genuine respect for each other and for each other’s work is the best tool to ensure good collaboration at the workplace.

Related pages on Det du mærker

For managers

Your responsibilities as a manager

Find supplementary information about this topic in the sections If you are an employee and For health and safety groups.

How to manage conflict
Assess the matter before you intervene

It isn’t necessarily always the right thing to intervene in a conflict. Whether or not to intervene depends on the issue at hand and the relationship between the parties involved. You should assess:

  • How does the conflict manifest itself?
  • What step of the conflict ladder has the conflict reached?
  • What is the cause of the conflict?
  • How has the conflict been managed so far?
  • What is needed to resolve the conflict?
  • Who should be included, when and where (in what context)?

Now, you can consider whether to engage in dialogue with the parties and encourage them to take steps to resolve the conflict on their own. Or whether to invite the parties to a dialogue meeting where you act as a mediator; asking questions and helping them to resolve the conflict.

If your employees are no longer on speaking terms, the conflict has reached step four or higher on the conflict ladder. If this is the case, you should consider whether you are the right person to act as the mediator.

  • Resources: Read about the conflict ladder.
Be assertive and be clear

Once you’ve identified a conflict, it’s important that you’re clear about your observation of the conflict and what you intend to do about it.

Remember that the conflict won’t be resolved without the parties themselves. They are best positioned to understand the root causes of the conflict. Your role as the manager is to take responsibility for ensuring conflict resolution.  Either play the part of mediator yourself, or call for assistance from a professional mediator.

Managing the conflict as a mediator

Agree the framework and ground rules beforehand. Agree the framework for the process if you choose to mediate the conflict yourself. Who will participate? When and for how long?  Deciding ground rules will help the parties respect each other’s boundaries. For example it will help them accept:

  • That there are different versions of the conflict
  • That you can only speak for yourself
  • That it is important not to interrupt
  • That it is important to try not to become defensive
  • That it is important to show willingness to understand the other party
  • That it is important to make an effort to make yourself understood

Engage in dialogue  Conflict management requires dialogue. All parties have their say, hear each other out without judging, and stay open and curious. The goal is to find a solution; not to place blame.

How the conflict is resolved differs depending on whether it’s a value conflict, a personal (relationship) conflict, an interest conflict or a task/process conflict, but no matter the type of conflict, dialogue is required to manage it. This is how you proceed:

  • Re-establish contact between the parties and agree on the issue of their disagreement.
  • Find out whether the parties really want to resolve the conflict.
  • Have the parties each tell their version of things without being interrupted.
  • Identify the overall content of the conflict and the specific issue.
  • Identify the underlying interests and demands behind the parties’ arguments and viewpoints.
  • Brainstorm to identify solutions and then choose a solution.
  • Make an agreement that both parties can agree on.

Remember that being impartial can be difficult. As a manager you may have an interest in the conflict resolving in a specific way, or there may be things that it will be difficult for you to disregard in your future relationship with the employee(s) in question. It’s therefore important that you think about this when you talk with the parties involved.

  • Resources: Read more about conflicts and conflict resolution under Understanding conflict above.

How to prevent conflict

To prevent conflicts, you need to identify them early on. Below are a number of initiatives for how to prevent disagreements from escalating and becoming conflicts.

Tools and links

Preventing conflict at the workplace is primarily about knowing how to communicate with one another. Respectful communication and a genuine respect for each other and for each other’s work is the best tool to ensure good collaboration at the workplace.

Related pages on Det du mærker

For health and safety groups

The work of the health and safety group

There is no clear-cut role for the health and safety group in conflict situations at the workplace. Often, it will be more logical for the manager to intervene and manage conflicts between employees at the shop.

Conflicts with the manager

However, if the conflict is between a manager and one or more employees, it’s another situation. In such situations, it will be relevant for the health and safety representative and the employee representative to intervene to help resolve the conflict.

Use the health and safety risk assessment

The health and safety group can, however, play an important role regarding monitoring the scope and nature of conflicts at the workplace.

The health and safety risk assessment (APV) can be a useful tool in this connection. It’s obligatory to carry out a health and safety risk assessment every three years. The first section of the risk assessment focusses on psychosocial factors.

If you’re experiencing (or sense that there are) conflicts at the shop, it will be a good idea to carry out a written and anonymous questionnaire survey among all employees.   If the survey reveals conflicts, lack of wellbeing/job dissatisfaction, then you can go on to address these problems, possibly by seeking assistance from external health and safety consultants.

The quick method

If you want to address the subject of conflict between colleagues at a small workplace, a simple staff meeting may be a good place to start. You can exchange and discuss your experience with conflict at the meeting and share ideas about how to prevent conflict. At the end of the meeting, you can all assess whether there is a need to launch initiatives.

  • Watch the film about conflicts between colleagues.
  • Talk about the film: What is it like at our workplace?
  • What can we do to prevent and manage conflicts between colleagues?

For the chair of the meeting: Prepare for the meeting by reading more about conflict management on this page. Also, download tips for the meeting itself in the Staff meeting guide.

Tools and links

Preventing conflict at the workplace is primarily about knowing how to communicate with one another. Respectful communication and a genuine respect for each other and for each other’s work is the best tool to ensure good collaboration at the workplace.

Related pages on Det du mærker