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How to Address Workplace Conflict

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Christopher H. McKinney, Sr.
December 12, 2022

Many people seek leadership roles because of what they perceive as the “glitz and glamor” of being in charge. They often have dreams of being the go-to person and making the clutch decision in the last moments to catapult the team to success. And while that remains a possibility, what leaders often encounter and experience far more often, on a recurring weekly basis, is conflict. In fact, in research conducted by the Myers-Briggs Company, the data shows managers/leaders spend over 4 hours a week dealing with conflict.

“Conflict is like cancer; … left unattended, it becomes more pernicious… more widespread.”

My mantra is “leadership is relentless” because there is always something to address, and commonly it is workplace conflict. In a Forbes Magazine article, Mike Myatt stated, “… leadership and conflict go hand-in-hand. Leadership is a full-contact sport, and if you cannot or will not address conflict in a healthy, productive fashion, you should not be in a leadership role.” I whole-heartedly agree! 

In this article, I will outline practical steps to help senior leaders successfully address workplace conflict.

Acknowledge It

If you are like most people, you do not enjoy conflict. Most people, myself included, would prefer to avoid conflict, but as leaders, we cannot. Like bad news does not get better with time, neither does conflict. Conflict is like cancer; when left unattended, it becomes more pernicious and widespread. It will not solve itself. 

“… we can easily conflate feelings with facts and escalate a situation.”

Write Down the Issues

Take time to write down what you perceive as the issues causing the conflict and the impacts of the conflict. This is essential because our minds tend to amalgamate things and remember them more exaggerated than they may have occurred. It is also critical to note how the conflict impacts operations, performance, or both. This is the main thing. This is why you must address the conflict.

If you do not write down the issues prior, it is very easy to allow anxiety and emotions to cause you to forget key points.

Separate Feelings From Facts

Ensure the issue(s) you address are fact-based and not driven by emotions. The simple thought of engaging in conflict causes one’s heart rate to increase as anxiety rises. At this point, we can easily conflate feelings with facts and escalate a situation.

“When dealing with conflict resolution, less is more.”

Consolidate and Reduce the List

After you have written your initial list, walk away and come back a day or two later. Pick up your list and go through it with a fine-tooth comb to ensure it does not contain any “synonyms”. You want to avoid criticizing someone for the same thing using a different word. This can come across as piling on. Getting a person to take constructive criticism is already challenging, and this would make the task more difficult. Stick to the most important topics. In a Harvard Business review article, Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote, “It’s easy to become aggravated by other people’s actions and forget what you were trying to achieve in the first place.” Keep the main thing the main thing.

Be Clear and Direct

It is vital that you remain clear of your feelings in this step. Please stick to the script and address in a very concise manner all of the issues surrounding the conflict and the negative impacts it causes. When dealing with conflict resolution, less is more.

“There is never a wrong time to do the right thing.”

Tie Corrective Measures into the Big Picture

A good friend and former Town Manager of Sudbury, MA, Henry Hayes, often says we must prioritize the “Big I” (institution) over the “little I” (individual). This is not to dimmish the individual, as the individual is important, but the individual cannot put the institution at a disadvantage. Help the person to see how the “Big I” benefits if they adjust and how the “little I” also benefits.

Encourage Compliance

It would be best if you had an idea of what you will do next but not a decided action plan. At this point, there is no need to threaten with the following action, yet the individual needs to know that you will take the next appropriate step if they fail to comply with the path forward. Keep your cards close to the vest and hold the line.


In the unfortunate event that the individual does not comply, you must take swift, decisive action. Now while I said “swift”, “swift” does not mean haphazardly. Ensure you seek wise counsel (H/R, legal, etc.) before you act, but you must act. If you fail to act, your credibility is at risk. Others are watching to see if you will tolerate the inappropriate behavior or if you will hold the line. Push past the feelings of anxiety and do what is right. There is never a wrong time to do the right thing. Do the right thing because it’s right. There are so many positive ripple effects if you do.

Author: Christopher McKinney Sr. is the CEO of 10X Leadership Consulting (10XLC). 10XLC is a premier consulting company that identifies and diagnoses issues that impede the development and growth of organizations. He also served as the CEO of a Regional Planning District (COG) supporting four rural South Carolina counties and 12 cities/towns. Prior to service at the COG, he retired from the USAF after 30 years as a Command Chief Master Sergeant overseeing a workforce of 8,500 military and civilian personnel and the morale, and welfare over 31,000 families and retirees. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @10XLC; Facebook: @10XLC; www.10XLC.consulting

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