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Conflict in the Workplace

By Brett Hart, Ph.D.
"By better understanding how conflict and anger arise, and practicing handling such conflict in an assertive way, it can become far less intimidating and be an aspect of work you can learn to manage rather than have it manage you."

One rarely sees David and Susan more than a few feet from each other at work. The thought of Susan increases David’s heart rate, while Susan’s thoughts do likewise every time David is near. The way they look into one another’s eyes tells their co-workers, “You don’t really belong here.” Even their boss feels a bit awkward when the heat between them borders on the inappropriate.

A passionate relationship beginning to bloom? No. David and Susan are two co-workers locked in what seems to be an incurable conflict at work. Their situation illustrates how conflict can affect us at our job. Conflict may not only take a toll on our physical body (as it did on David’s racing heart), but it often occupies our thoughts and causes us a great deal of emotional distress. As we saw in the situation with David and Susan, conflictual behavior impacts not only those involved in the conflict, but also those who have no part in it. As most of us spend approximately one-third of our adult lives in the workplace, conflict in this setting can’t be easily dismissed as unimportant. In fact, failing to address such conflict may have implications for our “non-working” lives. As a result, it becomes important for each of us to understand how conflict arises in the workplace, and what steps we can take to deal with such conflict.


Understanding how conflict arises at work can be very helpful for anticipating situations that may become turbulent. While it may seem, at times, that anything can start a conflict where you work, conflict typically stems from a limited number of causes.

1) Different goals. One such cause is incompatible goals between individuals or groups of individuals at work. For example, imagine a bank teller being told by the head teller that rapid service is an absolute must from this point forward, while the community relation's director instructs all employees to focus their efforts upon quality customer contact. One can imagine how quickly problems could arise between the teller and the head teller if speed is sacrificed for quality time with the customer.

2) Different values. A second source of conflict is the different personal values we bring to work. It takes very little time, for example, for employees who enjoy going to happy hour after work and those who prefer to get home to their family to begin segregating at work. Such distancing often carries with it gossiping, suspicion, and ultimately, conflict.

3) Degree of dependency. The extent to which we depend upon others to complete our work is a third factor which can contribute to conflict. Certainly, conflict would be rare if your task is to copy a report and file it, and you have your own copy machine. However, if you are waiting for someone else to make the copies and the records room is pressuring you for the report, one could see that the opportunity for conflict begins to expand.

4) Available resources. Scarce resources are a fourth source of conflict in the workplace. Whether the resource in question is office space, supplies, the boss’ time, or the budget fund, we all require our share in order to meet job demands. Ask yourself what happened the last time you were unable to gain access to something you needed at work. Perhaps you experienced some of the “symptoms” that David and Susan experienced.

5) Degree of power. The power distribution at work can be a fifth source of conflict. We have all known people who seem to wield their power in inappropriate ways. However, individuals sometimes “step on other’s toes” inadvertently as they try to complete their own tasks. In addition, some individuals or even entire departments may be viewed as providing a more valuable service to the organization than do others. In such a case, resentment can often arise, laying the foundation for conflict.

6) Predictability of policies. A final source of conflict to be addressed here is one with which most people can readily identify: unpredictable policies. Some organizations seem notorious for continually changing their policies. Others have no policies at all, or so it would seem. You may experience this in the form of regular office meetings becoming irregular, or being told that you are violating a policy which you thought you were abiding by a week ago such as the way you dress. In any case, the absence of clear policies, or policies which are continually changing, create an environment of uncertainty and subjective interpretation which can leave one feeling vulnerable and helpless.

Understanding and Handling Anger by Reducing Physical Arousal

Hopefully, some of the mystery surrounding why conflict occurs at work has been removed at this point. However, why each of us personally becomes angry may be a bit unclear. In a sense, we are all like cans of soda. If we get shaken or agitated and pop our top, we explode. In this case, what shakes us up is physical arousal. This may come about from being hungry, hurried, stuck in traffic, having a sore back, etc. You may know you are aroused by your rapid heartbeat, cold hands, muscle tightness, or shallow, rapid breathing. Try to become familiar with how you experience physical arousal.

Some of the following techniques can be useful in reducing that arousal:

1) Breathing exercises. Take a few minutes to slow down and deepen your breathing.

2) Muscle relaxation. Tense and release your muscles.

3) Meditation/relaxation. Find a quiet room and spend a few minutes imagining a peaceful scene.

4) Exercise. take a walk on your lunch hour or break.

Handling Anger by Changing Thinking

The second component which is necessary for anger is known as a trigger thought. Just as pulling the tab of a shaken soda can will cause it to explode, these thoughts are sufficient to “set us off” once we’re aroused. In most cases, these thoughts fall into two categories “shoulds” and “blamers”. In the case of shoulds, we may think that things at work “should” be more equitable, or that a coworker “should” get paid back for what they did. In the case of blamers, we may view others as the cause of our current difficulties.

In either case, these thoughts are irrational because they demand behavior of others that is flawless or which is in accord with only our wishes. When we allow these thoughts to go unchallenged, they can trigger our anger towards others. As a result, it is important to work on recognizing these irrational thoughts and challenge them.

Listed below are a couple of ideas to help you with this:

1) Examine your thoughts. Write out your thoughts when you are angry and ask yourself if they are rational.

2) Talk to someone. Talk to a trusted friend about your thoughts and solicit their feedback.

Handling a Conflict Situation

Of course, some conflicts at work simply require you to confront an individual. The most effective way for you to meet the needs you have is to use what is known as an “assertive” approach, rather than an aggressive or passive approach. Being assertive does require effort and practice, but most find it to be extremely helpful in addressing their needs.

Below are some points you may find helpful when you practice and eventually confront an individual:

1) Make a plan. Think ahead about what it is you want to address.

2) Request a time. Set a time to talk with the individual.

3) Stay focused. Deal with one and only one topic at a time.

4) Be specific. Be brief and specific.

5) Focus on changeable behavior. Phrase your complaint as a specific behavior which the person can recognize and work toward changing (e.g. “I would like you to arrive to work on time,” rather than, “I would like you to be more conscientious.”)

In the end it can often seem easier to simply avoid conflict than confront it. However, this approach will not satisfy the needs you have to make your workplace a productive and pleasant environment. By better understanding how conflict and anger arise, and practicing handling such conflict in an assertive way, it can become far less intimidating and be an aspect of work you can learn to manage rather than have it manage you.


Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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