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Work it Out at Work: The Art and Science of Managing Workplace Conflict

In a recent study conducted by the consulting firm CPP, “employees spent 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, equating to approximately $359 billion in paid hours in 2008 in the United States.  With today’s dwindling resources, conflict is not something to be ignored or quashed.  To the contrary, workplace conflict can become an investment opportunity for companies and organizations if the underlying roots behind such conflicts are managed and resolved.  This will reduce turnover costs, sick pay due to employee absence, wasted time in the office, loss of morale, and of course, money. 

Conflict Resolution Training for all Levels of Staffing

With hectic schedules, competing interests, differing goals, unique personalities, and fluctuating budgets, conflict can happen over almost anything at the office.  It does not need to manifest itself in the form of nasty gossip or office bullying.  Instead, it could present itself in the subtle and unsaid challenges; the reoccurring and unproductive conversations or other ways that interpersonal cooperation is undermined.  Given the wide-reaching impacts of conflict, it is important for all employees of an organization to be trained in workplace conflict resolution skills and processes. Conflict management and resolution training is critical because these skills – while simple in theory – are not innate and difficult to practice. 

The contents of workplace conflict management training can be as short or as elaborative as the time and resources of the company or organization permit, but such training should encompass a few key components.  This includes an orientation to the dynamics of conflict and the general types of conflict that commonly occur in the workplace – including interpersonal, organizational, change management, and external factors – and also basic negotiation and communication skills.  By understanding common workplace issues faced across industries and professional levels, employees also become aware that they are not alone.

According to Abby Leibman, Executive Director of MAZON, a Jewish non-profit with a mission of alleviating world hunger, listening skills are critical skills to cover in basic training for employees.  “Most people want to know that you have heard and understood what’s of concern to them – you may not resolve things to their satisfaction but if they feel as if they had their say and it was given some weight they ought to feel better about the result.”  Training focused on active listening skills can help employees better communicate and resolve underlying issues causing conflicts.  For these skills to take root for participants, a significant portion of the training must include experiential components, such as role-plays, interactive exercises, and worksheets.  In this way, employees learn together to practice these skills in real-life situations.  By providing a safe and comfortable environment to practice these skills, employees can also gain trust and confidence in them and in processes such as mediation and arbitration.  Managers, human resource professionals, and supervisors will need to model these skills, and encourage the use of these skills in day-to-day work. 

Promoting Change Management

“Research has demonstrated time and time again that addressing workplace conflict in a positive manner has a strong impact on the bottom line,” states organizational development consultant Marjorie Sims, “and really affects the performance of employees.”  The first step in creating a shared organizational culture is to examine the origins and current state of the organizational culture.  This introspective work includes engaging in discussions with various levels of staffing about the ongoing conflicts within the organization’s culture as well as suggestions for improvement.  Without this introspective work and analysis, those same conflicts will take root and become entrenched within the organizational culture itself – and create ongoing burdens and costs for the company. Creating a shared organizational culture requires HR professionals to spearhead collaboration within an organization, and the skills and techniques learned in the conflict resolution training can help employees work to create a new model. “Positive employee relations definitely create a healthy bottom line,” says Sims, “and the best way to navigate workplace conflict is by cultivating a shared culture.”

So how can executives create such a system?  Investigating the values and goals of employees, clients, and managers alike is important to beginning the process.  A new culture must address how employees will be rewarded for delivering results, and how workplace issues can be resolved efficiently.  Asking and collectively answering these questions can begin the process of creating and institutionalizing a shared workplace culture.  A culture that fosters and encourages employees to negotiate problematic issues before they escalate to bigger problems, and providing a private space dedicated to such conversations along with the negotiation skills covered in the first prong can be one element in the overall conflict resolution system. 

Creating Conflict Resolution Systems

Driving this systems change will involve great leadership and innovation by managers, supervisors, “and it is important for the leadership at the top to promote trainings in workplace conflict resolution, and to implement these tools at work,” says Sims.  This process especially needs the support of HR professionals given their unique positioning in the work environment, and HR “should work with trained conflict resolution experts who can create models appropriate for their unique workplace,” advises Sims.  Regardless of the systems created – whether the feedback loops include mediation, peer review, dialogue, or arbitration – having these systems in place will help to address those reoccurring issues that waste time, induce health costs due to conflict-induced stress, waste opportunities for synergy, and leave employees feeling exhausted and appear to be more difficult than they really are.  In short, these systems changes save employers’ valuable time and money in the long run.


Monya Kian

Monya Kian, M.A. is Program Director at the Western Justice Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to conflict resolution, with a specialty in workplace conflict management training. MORE >

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