Resolving Conflicts at Work: Information for Supervisors

During your time at the university, a conflict may arise in your workplace. This page is intended to provide supervisors with resources to resolve conflicts effectively.The presence of conflict is not necessarily a negative thing. If conflict is effectively resolved, it can lead to personal and professional growth.

Avoiding conflict is often the easiest way to deal with it. It does not, however, make it go away. Rather it pushes the conflict underground, only to have it resurface in a new form. By actively resolving conflict when it occurs, we can create a more positive work environment for everyone.

In its commitment to ensuring a positive work experience, the University of Oklahoma provides several resources helpful in understanding and resolving conflicts. Supervisors and employees must attempt internal, informal resolution of a conflict.  However, if your own attempts at resolution are not successful, HR Employee Relations may be able to help.

If needed, the university provides a formal dispute resolution process. The policy and form can be found below.

Workplace Conflict info

Managers play a key role in establishing a safe and secure workplace by setting expectations about workplace behaviors and actively and promptly working to resolve conflict that occurs. Workplace conflict may occur when people’s ideas, decisions or actions relating directly to the job are in opposition, or when two people just don’t get along. Conflict in the workplace may be productive if it leads to positive change, but can also be stressful and unpleasant. Resolving disputes and clashes at work is important for supervisors and employees.

Sources of Conflict

There are many causes or reasons for conflict in any work setting. Some of the primary causes are the following:

  • Poor Communication: different communication styles can lead to misunderstandings between employees or between employee and manager. Lack of communication drives conflict ‘underground’.
  • Different Values: any workplace is made up of individuals who see the world differently. Conflict occurs when there is a lack of acceptance and understanding of these differences.
  • Differing Interests: conflict occurs when individual workers ‘fight’ for their personal goals, ignoring organizational goals and organizational well-being.
  • Scarce Resources: too often, employees feel they have to compete for available resources in order to do their job. In a resource scarce environment, this causes conflicts – despite awareness of how scarce resources may be.
  • Personality Clashes: all work environments are made up of differing personalities. Unless colleagues understand and accept each other’s approach to work and problem-solving, conflict will occur.
  • Poor Performance: when one or more individuals within a work unit are not performing - not working up to potential – and this is not addressed, conflict is inevitable.


Addressing Conflict

There are a number of ways that can be utilized to address workplace conflict.

  • Avoidance: ‘hiding our head in the sand’, hoping the conflict will go away.
  • Collaboration: working together to find a mutually beneficial solution.
  • Compromise: finding the middle ground whereby a ‘little is given and little is gotten’.
  • Competing: ‘may the best person win’.
  • Accommodation: surrendering our own needs and wishes to please the other person.

It is generally believed that either collaboration or compromise are the most productive forms of addressing conflict because there is not a winner or loser but rather a working together for the best possible solution.

Conflict Resolution

Arriving at a positive resolution of conflict is always the ultimate goal. In resolving conflict, it is important to make sure you do the following.

  • Clearly articulate the causes of the conflict – openly acknowledging there will be differing perceptions of the problem(s).
  • Make a clear statement of why you want the conflict resolved and reasons to work on conflict.
  • Communication of how you want the conflict resolved.
  • Address the issues face-to-face (notes, email correspondence, memos are not a productive way to resolve differences).
  • Stick to the issues. In trying to resolve conflict, it is tempting to resort to name calling or bring up issues from the past. It is important to address specific behaviors and situations if change is to take place.
  • Take time out if necessary. In the resolution of a conflict, our emotions may interfere with arriving at a productive resolution. If this transpires, take a time-out and resume resolving the conflict at another designated time.


Avoiding conflict is often the easiest way to deal with it. It does not however make it go away but rather pushes it underground, only to have it resurface in a new form. By actively resolving conflict when it occurs, we can create a more positive work environment for everyone.  Employees must attempt to resolve disputes internally, informally using the Staff Dispute Resolution Process as outlined in Section 3.21 of the Staff Handbook. Employee Relations is available to assist at any step in this process.


Positive Feedback

Giving feedback to employees doesn't have to be difficult. Positive feedback, when you tell people they've done well, should be easy. For example:

  • Thanking people for doing a job well
  • Commending them for solving a problem for you
  • Discussing progress with teams and praising their commitment
  • Celebrating successes when everyone's combined efforts have paid off

This is the kind of feedback that everyone likes; the kind that motivates people to perform well consistently. Here are some more practical strategies for improving feedback at work.

  • Give feedback to encourage people to continue "putting-in" great effort, or to help them through setbacks, or when people lack confidence or skills. 
  • Respect people for the value of their time, their work and their commitment. Show your respect with words that make employees feel good.
  • Try saying, "You're right!" when someone successfully challenges an idea or work practice. Ask, "Can you spare a few minutes?" when you need to interrupt someone at work. Then wait for the positive reactions.

Coaching is the Best Kind of Feedback

Coaching is based on mutual respect, strict confidentiality and trust. A coach believes that people are able to change the way they operate and achieve more if they are given the opportunity and are willing to do something about it.
Questioning is a fundamental skill of coaching. A coach asks questions to:

  • Assess where the person might need help
  • Discover how s/he can best help
  • Help people find solutions for themselves.
  • Avoid feedback that however unintentionally criticizes the employee rather than their actions. 

If you leave them feeling humiliated and resentful, they will be even more reluctant to change. You can't ignore the problem if something is obviously wrong, but there is a difference between criticism and constructive feedback.

Discuss specific behaviors instead of making character judgments. Talking about a "bad attitude" is unlikely to be helpful because the person won't know what they need to change. Telling someone they are incompetent or lazy is a personal attack on their character and will probably lead to an emotional response. Get more information about about coaching and giving feedback in workshops provided by HR Learning & Organizational Development

The key to giving compliments is conveying your sincerity so that the recipient of the compliment is truly flattered and appreciative of the compliment. An insincere compliment does not convey the same message. If you are giving the compliment for your own personal gain, your lack of sincerity will result in the person receiving the compliment not really feeling touched by your words. To ensure that your compliment is received with the sincerity that you intend, try these tips.
  • Keep your compliment simple and specific.
  • Offer your compliment in a timely manner.
  • Sincere compliments are spoken from the heart and are not premeditated.
  • Consider giving your compliment in writing or in front of others.
  • Truly believe in the compliment you are giving.
  • A sincere compliment stems from a genuine feeling of admiration and appreciation.

Learning how to give feedback and criticism in a way that the person you are talking to will take it in and learn from it may be a leader’s greatest tool for building an effective team. These are the tools that the best of the best use to make their teams strong.

Consider the tips below the next time you offer a team member constructive criticism so they won't go running for cover or say, "No thank you." Instead they will see it as an opportunity to grow and your team will grow along with them.

  1. Take an honest look at where you're coming from. If there's some anger or resentment toward the team member, then you're probably not the best person to offer them advice.
  2. Start and end with a compliment. Find something good to say about your team member, this will help him or her take in your advice. At the end of the conversation, it will help your team member to feel that they aren't a failure or that you're not angry.
  3. Listen to your own voice. The tone of your voice can communicate as much (if not more) than the words you choose. If there is an edge to your voice it will be harder for your team member to take in your request.
  4. Eye contact is important.  It helps both of you stay focused and it communicates sincerity. It will also help you stay on topic. If you're working on the computer or busy with something, stop what you're doing and look at the person you're speaking to.
  5. Choose the best time and place. Never give criticism in public, in front of another person, or when you or your team member may be too tired or hungry to deal with it appropriately. If you're physically uncomfortable you may not be in the best frame of mind to talk about a difficult subject.
  6. Do your best to avoid hurting anyone's feelings. Use a softened start-up followed by a gentle suggestion. For example you could say, "I really like the way to talk to your supervisor, you would get a better response from your team members if you spoke to them in the same way.
  7. Talk about the behavior not the person. Feedback is not about insulting someone's behavior; it's about telling him or her how to be better. For example, you would never say to a child, "You are a mistake." Instead you would say, "You made a mistake."
  8. Use gentle humor if possible. If you can deliver criticism in a light-hearted manner, it will be received in a much more positive way. Humor doesn't diminish the seriousness of the feedback you are giving, it actually helps the person receiving the direction to open up and take it in.
  9. Work with your team member to improve the situation. This will help him or her to make the appropriate adjustments sooner rather than later. It will also strengthen your bond as a team. Making changes is easier if you have someone supporting you.
  10. Don't harp. Once you have asked for what you need from your team member, let it go. If you have to ask someone to do something four times, I can promise you that the person in question has heard what you have to say. If you've reached an agreement or agreed to disagree, let it go and move on, holding a grudge is a waste of time.

Most people say they’re OK receiving constructive criticism. But few people really are. Criticism of any kind hurts, even if it’s done properly.

When someone reacts poorly to constructive criticism, they usually do one of the following.

  • Get angry
  • Get defensive
  • Get quiet and tune out

The key for the person giving the constructive criticism is to be prepared with the following responses.

  1. “I understand.” Don’t respond to anger, defensiveness and quietness with the same emotions. Keeping an even keel and expressing your understanding is important. Bring things back to the performance or behavior that is problematic.
  2. “So, what you’re saying is…” A well-practiced technique in communication is to repeat what someone has said, in summary form. It makes people truly feel like you’re listening (hopefully you are listening).
  3. “We can work together on this.” Constructive criticism is useless without focusing on solutions. You can’t provide criticism and then say, “off you go, figure it out.” Make it a “we” task not a “you” task.

Sometimes, there’s nothing you can say to make the situation better. It may be time for a break. Suggest a follow-up meeting, providing each person a chance to reflect, and figure out how the constructive criticism will be handled.

Giving Feedback in Difficult Situations

Some situations may have you feeling anxious and finding the right words to say at that moment may not come easily. So, next time you are about to face a really difficult situation, try these steps:

  1. Prepare yourself – checking facts and positions, dealing with feelings.
  2. Approach the situation constructively – using the right words that you have prepared.
  3. Deal with excuses – respectfully.
  4. Make sure people can do what they say they will. 

You may find these guidelines useful when receiving negative responses.

  • Listen without interruption – you may learn something of real value.
  • If you hear something you don't agree with, simply say, "That's interesting!" and discuss it at the end.
  • Ask questions to clarify what exactly went wrong; what you did or didn't do.
  • Acknowledge what is true, but don't necessarily change your position – you may have good reasons for your actions.
  • Before taking any action, ask for time to think and then get back to the person.

Remember, feedback doesn't always have to be negative. Start by looking for occasions when you can give positive feedback and remember to plan carefully for the occasions when you have to give negative feedback – and make it constructive. Try some of these ideas and see what happens.