How to Navigate Conflict in Your Workplace

To determine how to navigate conflict in your workplace, I’ve recently been pondering on a famous book, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu was a Chinese General who famously documented his military strategies and tactics which thousands of years later through the book, The Art of War, still influences business leaders globally.

The premise of The Art of War is that conflict should be avoided with diplomacy in the first instance, and if it cannot be avoided, it should be dealt with strategically and psychologically to minimise damage.

Some Key Points to Navigate Conflict in your Workplace:

  1. Avoid conflict in the first instance with diplomacy, and
  2. If it cannot be avoided, address it strategically and with emotional insights to minimise damage to others and self.

Through these key points we can begin to see the benefits of Sun Tzu’s wisdom to our workplaces today, specifically, in our approach to the many forms of conflict that are present as we strive to do more with less and navigate the chaos of an ever-shifting landscape of expectations, demands and change.

Take a look at some of the common conflicts below and see which resonate for you. Then explore further as we draw on Sun Tzu’s wisdom to guide us on how to minimise the damage.

Some Common Conflicts in Workplaces Today:

Interpersonal Conflicts
– with colleagues, with team members, with supervisors?

Workload Conflicts
– demand versus capacity?
– reported high stress due to work demands (time pressures, volume, intensity of work)
–  mental energy, fatigue, burnout? 

Conflicting Expectations
– of Boards, CEOs, Executives, Leaders, Funders, Regulators, Stakeholders, Customers, Staff, Talent you wish to attract, Generational?

Conflicting Change Projects, Amount of Change & Priorities
– the pace and volume of change versus a person’s ability to absorb, apply and implement the change: leading to change fatigue, apathy, and exits?

Are These Conflicts in the Workplace Avoidable?

If not – how might you as a leader – take the opportunity to strategically and with emotional insights minimise damage?

The Opportunity For Leaders Amidst Conflict

Being strategic means taking a deep breath and (I’m using a military metaphor for story alignment but also because the “dancefloor” metaphor makes me twitch) stepping off the battlefield and into the General’s tent.

From there, with the map of the land in front of you, consider:

  1. What do you see from this vantage point in terms of the conflicts going on?

  2. Who tells you the hard truth, even when you don’t want to hear it? What are they telling you?

  3. What intelligence (i.e. data, anecdotal feedback, climate, mood, attrition rates, grievances, stress claims, PMS results) do you have, or are you gathering from all fronts to better understand the degree and impact of the conflicts?

  4. How long have these conflicts been going for?  Are they short term or are they constant or worsening?

  5. What is the emotional and psychological impact on your people as a result of these prolonged areas of conflict?

Applying emotional insights means using your emotional intelligence to truly understand and consider the impact of these conflicts on your people.

We know from empirical evidence that the presence of severe, prolonged or unmanaged work stress impacts our mental wellbeing and can increase the risk of a mental injury.

Modern workplaces have obligations under occupational health and safety legislation to prevent such things where they can, and if they cannot to proactively minimise and mitigate the risks associated.

Sun Tzu’s lessons once again:

1. Prevent conflict
2. If you cannot, strategically and with emotional insights minimise damage.

It is a wise leader who ensures they have an accurate picture of all that is happening before them.

It is only through this awareness that they can take the steps required to mitigate the damage and truly understand how to navigate conflict in your workplace.


Tanya Heaney-Voogt

Director & Principal Consultant
MBA, ICFACC, MAHRI, Dip Mgt, Dip Coaching, Prosci® Certified Change Practitioner

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