4 Levels of Conflict and Tips for Managing Them at Work
Updated March 10, 2023
You may experience conflict when working with people with different backgrounds, personalities and perspectives. However, resolving conflict can create powerful opportunities for open discussion, progress and improved relationships. Understanding the types of conflict you may encounter in the workplace can help you identify the best approach to solving them.
In this article, we discuss the different levels of conflict and provide tips that you can use to manage conflict in your career.
What are the levels of conflict?
The “levels of conflict” are four types of disagreement that affect an individual or group of individuals. Each level comes with its own unique challenges and solutions. The four levels of conflict are:
This level refers to an internal dispute and involves only one individual. This conflict arises out of your own thoughts, emotions, ideas, values and predispositions. It can occur when you are struggling between what you “want to do” and what you “should do.”
Example: Reyna is hiring a new member for her sales team. She interviews several candidates and feels strongly that three would make excellent sales representatives, but she can’t decide which one to hire. She delays hiring for a month as she considers the hiring decision.
This conflict occurs between two or more people in a larger organization. It can result from different personalities or differing perspectives on how to accomplish goals. Interpersonal conflict may even occur without one party realizing there was ever conflict.
Example: Tanya has been a digital marketer in her company for four years and always anticipated that she would take the place of the director of marketing when he retired. However, when it was time to fill the role, the company hired another employee who had only been with the company for one year. Tanya was upset with both her former supervisor and her new supervisor, although she never communicated her feelings with either of them.
This level of conflict occurs between members of a single group when there are multiple people with varying opinions, backgrounds and experiences working toward a common goal. Even though they may all want to achieve the same goal, they may disagree about how to reach it. Intragroup conflict can also occur when team members have differences in communication styles and personalities.
Example: A company is about to launch a new product, and Josh and Ashley believe that the best marketing strategy is a direct mail campaign to a targeted audience. Beth and Tom believe that social media ads are a better approach. Adam believes that an influencer campaign would have the strongest impact. Because of the disagreement, no campaign strategy is created and the launch date is only two weeks away. Tension is high, and the delays impact other departments.
This level of conflict occurs between different groups within a larger organization or those who do not have the same overarching goals.
Example: The marketing team at an e-commerce company is promoting an all-new initiative that should help increase the average order value of every order by 15%. They create a timeline and notify customers of the launch date. However, the web developers in charge of creating and implementing the new functionality on the website are behind on schedule, despite their best efforts. The web developers are frustrated because of unrealistic deadlines and the marketing department is frustrated about delaying the launch.
How to manage each level of conflict
Conflict can be constructive in the workplace because it opens employees to new ideas and perspectives and creates opportunities to look for new and unique solutions to problems. Here are some steps to resolving each level of conflict in the workplace.
1. Managing intrapersonal conflict
Intrapersonal conflicts can happen daily, but learning to work through them can hone your critical thinking and decision-making skills. To manage intrapersonal conflict:
Follow your values
Determine how the conflict affects your core values and what matters to your productivity in the workplace. Consider solutions that align with your beliefs and motivations.
Check your company policy
If applicable, review the company policies that relate to the conflict. Follow any procedures already in place, or reach out to a supervisor for guidance.
Write the conflict down
Review the pros and cons related to your conflict and anticipate the outcomes of the optional decisions. Consider selecting the resolution that has the most pros or better outcomes.
Be conscious of time
Keep in mind how much time you have to reach a solution. Consider setting a deadline to ensure the conflict is resolved promptly.
2. Managing interpersonal conflict
Managing interpersonal conflict allows team members to work together in finding a resolution. Colleagues can improve their relationships and even come up with all new strategies or solutions to problems. Here are four steps you can use to resolve interpersonal conflict in the workplace:
Define the conflict
Start by identifying exactly what the conflict is about, including what event started it and how each party reacted to the situation. Look at the situation from each person’s point of view to determine what each party wants and needs from the resolution.
Put the conflict into context
Discuss the conflict’s impacts on each party, the project and the workplace. This step can help each party understand the importance of resolving the conflict and motivate them to collaborate on finding a solution.
Let each party come up with one idea to resolve the conflict, allowing each party to take turns. This step allows each party to identify how the conflict can be resolved amicably. Parties can also brainstorm as a group to create solutions that benefit each party.
Agree on a solution
As a group, determine a solution that positively impacts each party. Consider including goal setting as part of this stage to evaluate and measure a resolution’s progress.
Related: Decision Tree: How It Works
3. Managing intragroup conflict
Managing intragroup conflict can help maintain employee productivity and ensure teams accomplish group goals. Here are three steps you can take to resolve intragroup conflicts efficiently:
Discuss the conflict as a team
Openly discuss what caused the conflict and how each party feels about it. This step ensures everyone is involved in coming up with a solution and can talk through the issue honestly. Have each team member clarify why they hold their position and discuss what information is the basis of these beliefs.
Collaborate in small groups
Break the team into smaller groups consisting of different viewpoints. Analyze the conflict and brainstorm the pros and cons of different solutions. Convene as a team and have groups share ideas they had. Smaller groups can provide more thorough discussions, as fewer people are trying to discuss their side at once.
Reach a decision
As a full team, decide what course of action to take or determine if further brainstorming needs to happen. Make sure everyone is satisfied with the decision and committed to the proposed strategy.
4. Managing intergroup conflict
You can use intergroup conflicts as opportunities for building relationships between teams, brainstorming new and creative ideas and strengthening employees’ beliefs in their abilities to overcome future conflicts. Here are three steps to help get you started:
Discuss the issue with all relevant parties
You may engage in conversation with large groups, such as in an open forum. This situation may work for issues that affect a large group of people and can be used to hear a variety of perspectives, ideas and concerns with a smaller group of stakeholders.
Have a closed meeting with necessary stakeholders
Sometimes, address an intergroup conflict with only a few necessary people, such as team leaders or department heads. This step can come after holding an open forum or be the main resolution tactic.
Gather a variety of possible solutions
Encourage each side to hold meetings to discuss issues as they arise. If possible, you might move team members from one team to another so they can better see an issue from the other team’s perspective. Then, have groups brainstorm solutions that provide the most positive impact. To come to a solution, consider holding a vote to gauge each side’s interest in the proposed solutions.
Tips for managing conflict in the workplace
While you can use the previous steps to address certain levels of conflicts, consider the following tips to help you manage workplace conflict in a variety of situations:
Schedule an appropriate meeting time and place
Ask everyone involved to set aside time to resolve the conflict. Find a quiet, comfortable location where you can talk openly without interruption.
Stay calm and be specific
Remain calm throughout the meeting and try to focus on tangible impacts. Discuss specific details of a conflict so they can be openly addressed.
Use active listening
Consider paraphrasing the other party’s perspective to show your understanding of their concerns and needs. If you are mediating the conflict, this step can help you and the whole group’s understanding of the conflict.
Celebrate progress and successes
Acknowledge the efforts of team members to change behavior or strategy. When the team achieves goals because of the resolution, acknowledge those wins and celebrate them.
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