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Advisory booklet - Managing conflict at work

Conflict at work takes many forms. It may be that two workers simply don't get on; or that an individual has a grievance against their manager. Conflict may take the form of rivalry between teams; or it may be apparent by the lack of trust and cooperation between large groups of employees and management.

Download the pdf icon Advisory booklet - Managing conflict at work [1Mb]

Signs of conflict

Some signs of conflict may be visible such as a heated exchange between colleagues or a meeting between management and employee representatives that turns into a "stand-off".

However, not all forms of conflict are so obvious. Some individuals might hide their feelings as a way of coping with a problem; while a team might react to pressure by cutting itself off from the rest of the organisation.

Symptoms of conflict

Motivation drops: fewer people volunteer to take on new tasks and there is little employee input at team meetings or briefings.

Behaviour changes: people start to make derogatory remarks towards each other and there are fewer social events organised.

Productivity falls: there are likely to be more queries and complaints if people are not cooperating with each other.

Sickness absence increases: unhappiness may lead to depression or stress.

Responses to staff attitude surveys or questionnaires: indicate underlying dissatisfaction.

Causes of conflict

Some of the issues that can cause conflict between individuals and groups at work include:

  • poor management
  • unfair treatment
  • unclear job roles
  • inadequate training
  • poor communications
  • poor work environment
  • lack of equal opportunities
  • bullying and harassment.

Managing conflict

Managing conflict between individuals often involves:

  • having a quiet word
  • investigating the problem informally
  • using internal procedures - for example, company procedures for dealing with grievances
  • upgrading line management skills - particularly around handling difficult conversations
  • using a skilled mediator.

Managing conflict between groups often involves:

  • improving the way you communicate and consult with employees
  • forming representative structures within your organisation to tackle problems - for example, working groups or staff councils
  • using problem-solving cycles to find joint solutions to workplace problems
  • getting outside help.

Questions and answers

What is the first step to managing conflict?

In many disputes the informal stage is the first stage as many conflicts can be sorted by simply talking and listening to employees. Giving people the time and space to express their feelings and concerns can often help to clear the air.

When should help from outside the organisation be sought?

Outside help is probably of most benefit between the informal and the formal stages of conflict but there are no hard and fast rules and it partly depends on the kind of help you want. Mediation is the most common form of dispute resolution. It involves an independent, impartial person helping two individuals or groups reach a solution that is acceptable to everyone.

What are the typical responses to conflict?

Fight - you react in a challenging way. At work this may mean shouting or losing your temper.

Flight - you turn your back on what's going on. This is a common reaction - by ignoring a problem you hope it will go away.

Freeze - you are not sure how to react and become very passive. You might begin to deal with the issue but things drift or become drawn out through indecision.

Face - Approach a problem in a calm and rational way with a planned approach.

Did you know?

Acas run practical training courses to equip managers, supervisors and HR professionals with the necessary skills to deal with employment relations issues and to create more productive workplace environments.

Click to view related Acas training and course dates in your area for:

Managing conflict in the workplace - Acas business solutions

We can visit your organisation to help you understand what needs to be done to address a range of issues related to conflict, disputes and mediation and then work with you to develop practical solutions. Find out more.

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