The Psychology of Conflict in the Workplace

Many of us spend at least 8 hours a day, 5 days a week in the company of this group of people known as our workplace. To understand how conflict shows up in the workplace, consider this: Each of us is shaped by experiences as far back as our early childhood, and (often subconsciously) we bring those experiences into our daily lives, and in the workplace, every day.

One can only imagine what each of us is bringing to the collective table that we can’t possibly know or understand in the other, let alone in ourselves! Is it any wonder conflict happens?

A conflict situation isn’t always what it appears to be

There can be many factors at play in a conflict situation, of which the leaders and individuals involved may not be aware. If the situation is ignored or mishandled, it can escalate quickly and result in long-term damage to a team, an organization or an individual’s career.

Conflict practitioners (ombuds, mediators, conflict advisors) are trained to see the individual dynamic of a group, and they are knowledgeable about the many reasons why people may respond to conflict the way they do. Our role is to address the layers behind the situation, so we can help our clients resolve their conflicts and train them to better manage them in the future, individually as well as in the group.

How our differences can show up in the workplace

Here is a scenario of two very different dynamics that might show up on a workplace team.

Joe is on the tech development team for X Company. He is someone who I would call ‘hyper aroused.’ He gets agitated easily, comes across as aggressive, loud, overly anxious. An issue that may not affect others will disturb him, and he will insist on going to the manager right away about it. It seems to some team members that Joe just wants to stir up conflict, and several people find him annoying and counter-productive. In fact, his hyper-aroused behavior is actually conflict avoidant; it’s just his particular way of coping.

Jane is a team member on the other side of the scale: very quiet, most often sitting in the back of the room saying nothing. She appears to be compliant, and the team leader and members often look at her and think, “Well, it’s bothering Joe but Jane hasn’t said anything so it must be OK with her.” In fact, she’s come to the conflict advisor on this issue to ask, “What can I do to fix this?” She’s not compliant, she just doesn’t feel safe enough in the group to speak up and wants to avoid confrontation with Joe at all costs.

It’s not difficult to see how these two people in their own very different ways could cause annoyance in others, clash with each other and disrupt the team.  And these are just two of the many ways a person may show up in a group.

We at Resologics work with our teams to draw out these dynamics, and to bring forward the strengths and abilities in people. We offer tools to manage the downside of their dynamic and tap into the upside.

In this situation we would facilitate a safe space for Jane to say, “Joe, it’s really hard for me when you appear loud and aggressive. I’ve had bad experiences with those types of people, so I avoid dealing with you. In the future it would be helpful to me if you would do [this] rather than [that].” And Joe would be helped to say to Jane, “It’s really confusing to me when I know you’re not happy with this issue either, yet you say nothing. It’s hard for me to understand and it makes me mad.”

Let me point out here that these aren’t bad people no one would want on their team!  Remember, we all show up with our different past experiences, which have their downsides and upsides. There are of course upsides to what Joe and Jane bring to the team.  For example, Joe is a guy who gets things done and brings the team along with his energy.  We need to help Joe understand where his dynamic is helpful, and how to manage his energy to contribute productively. For Jane, she and the team need to understand how to support her in feeling safe to speak up confidently, so everyone can benefit from her knowledge and common sense.

What can a leader do?

I’m not suggesting that every workplace leader should be responsible for understanding everyone’s childhood trauma. You shouldn’t!  My advice is this:  Be mindful of and appreciate the complexity of your team. When a conflict seems to go beyond your capabilities, you shouldn’t be expected to know what to do. If it feels uncomfortable, it IS uncomfortable. Be prepared to engage people who know how to do this work and can support you, such as ombuds, mediators, or dispute resolution professionals.

Working with conflict constructively is about helping people in teams and organizations better understand each other. To learn to be able to say, “I may not know what it’s like to be you, but now I’m aware that you don’t know what it’s like to be me. Now I have a greater respect for who you are, whatever that may be, and even though it’s not the same as me.” This is an understanding that creates a more respectful relationship, a clearer way of working with each other, and a greater self-awareness of what it is to be human.




Wendy Wood, PhD

As a mediator and conflict resolution professional specializing in facilitation, dialogue, and conflict resolution with high conflict and traumatized individuals, groups, and teams, Wendy has worked at the local, state, national, and international levels rebuilding the capacity to mediate trauma and build conflict resolution capacity. She has worked in post genocide Rwanda; designing trauma-informed conflict resolution practices; in New Orleans post hurricane Katrina; and building trauma literacy and conflict resolution skills for native Hawai’ian social, health and education systems. Wendy holds a Doctorate Degree in Human Science with a specialization in conflict resolution and narrative inquiry, a Masters Degree in Health Sciences Administration, and is a certified mediator from The Center for Dispute Resolution and the University of California, Berkeley.

Resologics provides conflict advising services to organizations to help them avoid disputes, optimize team dynamics for better outcomes, and reduce costs. The resologics team can be reached at 800.465.4141 | |