Shortly after joining the team as a new marketing manager, in which she was told she may take on some of her boss’ managerial duties, Maria ran into problems with three other employees. They’d expected a more senior colleague and not a new supervisor. Accustomed to only minor revisions, they bristled at her more hands-on style, often resisting her suggestions. One even went over her head to the director, seeking to overrule her request for a major revision of a project.
Many of us have probably been in Maria’s situation, or in the situation of her colleagues. That’s because workplace conflict is inevitable — whether from shifting roles, clashing personalities, or a lack of guidance. But if your office atmosphere feels more disrupted and tense lately, it might not be your imagination. A recent survey released found the average amount of time people spent managing conflict at work has more than doubled since 2008. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who reported frequently dealing with conflict increased seven percentage points over the same period.
The legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic may be partly to blame. Shifting work arrangements created new challenges that companies continue to grapple with. Meanwhile, the world is still adjusting to the new normal. Pent-up emotions may simmer beneath the surface. When triggered, even by seemingly minor events, these feelings can lead to aggressive behavior, which, like a virus, spreads to those in nearby cubicles or on a chat thread.
Regardless of the dynamics that spark it, conflict prompts the brain to respond as though under threat. When it detects a potential danger, the brain enters a state of heightened awareness as it prepares to send the body into a fight, flight, or freeze response. The greater the level of the perceived threat, the more instinct and reflex kick in, and the more our capacity for rational thought shuts down. While this tradeoff has proven useful during our species’ evolution, it can create problems in today’s workplace.
By helping to explain what’s happening in the brain, neuroscience can suggest ways to best resolve a situation while also heading off similar problems in the future. Here are five frequent sources of conflict and some insights from research on how to handle them:
Shifting work arrangements
Whether being sent home, then called back to the office, or trying to split the difference, many of us have endured several years of flip-flopping work arrangements. When forced on us, these changes in how and where we work can be perceived by the brain as threats, leading to angst and conflict. For example, this past year, when Google and Apple employees were told they needed to return to the office for much of the week, many objected and went so far as to say they’d quit.
Even when arrangements are finalized, in-person employees may resent the flexibility their remote colleagues have, while remote workers may feel invisible. For all roles, inadequate transparency — or sharing information honestly and completely — can lead to feelings of unfairness and uncertainty. Leaders can provide transparency by clearly spelling out expectations for hybrid work schedules or publically weighing in on in-person requirements. Also, offering employees the autonomy to choose their own work arrangements, whenever possible, goes a long way toward reducing this type of conflict.
Uncertainty in roles and beyond
Maybe you and your colleagues have taken on a project without knowing quite what the end product should look like. Or, perhaps some unanticipated staffing changes led to a hasty rearrangement of job duties. At some point, most of us have encountered situations like this, and that’s because not knowing what to expect can make us miserable — perhaps even more so than an outcome we dread. In one study, people felt more stress when faced with the possibility of a painful electric shock than when they knew they would receive one.
To provide certainty, leaders should do their best to clarify the issue at the heart of the problem as soon as they recognize it or even notice the potential for one. This could mean spelling out the purpose of a project or explaining how altering an organizational structure will help a team achieve its goals. Doing so gives workers a better framework for their own decisions. When uncertainty arises from external factors, such as in the face of a dramatic economic downturn, and leaders don’t have answers, they should acknowledge that while giving employees the information they do have. This can mean, for example, explaining the options the company is considering and when leadership expects to make a decision.
As Maria and her new colleagues learned, it’s hard to work as a team if everyone isn’t on the same page. Her difficulties arose in large part from an enduring source of conflict: poor communication.
Impressed by her expertise, the office’s director had wrangled an increase in salary and shifted the position’s duties. However, the director only discussed her hire with the other staff as a side note during a lengthy meeting, and even then, described how the changes to the position would affect the team’s day-to-day work in vague terms. As a result, when Maria showed up on her first day, she and her co-workers had different ideas about her role.
When sharing instructions, expectations, or other important information, managers need to consider how much information the conscious mind can hold at one time. Research has shown this capacity, called working memory, is quite limited. To make communication more effective, consider keeping it succinct (brief and to the point), specific (using words with clear meanings), and generous (considering the recipient’s understanding).
While a lack of information created much of the tension at Maria’s new job, it wasn’t the only problem. Her intense, hard-driving style also irked other employees, who preferred a more laid-back, collegial approach. Under better circumstances, such personality differences can be a source of strength for a diverse team. However, in this situation and others like it, they can feed conflict.
To defuse this tension, managers can emphasize shared goals and experiences. A sense of shared purpose can have powerful effects. Even working independently but alongside someone else can encourage bonding. In Maria’s case, for example, the director might discuss how her expertise complements that of the other employees and describe how they can better fulfill their department’s goals together.
Dealing effectively with personality conflicts also means fostering a climate of psychological safety. When personalities clash, everyone must feel free to speak up so they can move toward a resolution. Keep in mind, however, that what employees need to feel psychologically safe can vary: While some may not hesitate to share their perspectives, it may take more work to convince quieter employees to speak frankly.
Whether in terms of race, ethnicity, age, or some other trait, diversity can strengthen businesses — if everyone feels included. Often, however, employers fall short in this regard. A survey in the U.K. found that nearly half of people said their employers undervalue the perspectives of people in underrepresented groups.
Exclusion can play out in many ways. Perhaps sales training materials are geared toward men selling to men, ignoring the perspectives of female reps. Maybe a dress code prohibits head coverings without any accommodation for religious beliefs. Regardless of how it happens, being excluded activates brain regions that respond to social interactions and distress, leading directly to engagement of our threat circuitry.
To build rapport with those who feel marginalized, leaders need to listen deeply, unite widely, and act boldly. The first step, truly listening, means creating an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking openly without fear of consequences. Done right, listening deeply can reduce feelings of unfairness and foster a sense of being heard and validated. It’s also key to understanding how someone else perceives a situation. Getting another person’s perspective, a crucial step to resolving conflict, means asking questions to learn while also acknowledging how power dynamics can influence a situation.
Acknowledging others and their viewpoints can go a long way to fostering a sense of belonging, also known as relatedness. In doing so, leaders expand the “in-group” and shrink the “out-group,” with the goal of making everyone feel included. And once they deeply understand the frustrations of those who feel excluded, leaders can take action to address them, reinforcing a sense of belonging.
When handling these and other causes of workplace tension, keep in mind that conflicts usually have something to teach us. The director of Maria’s office may realize he needs to clarify her role so the team can truly benefit from her expertise. Or, by taking employees’ recommendations into account, a company’s leadership may come up with a flexible work policy that attracts new talent. When managed effectively, conflict — like any difficulty — can represent an opportunity for productive change.