What is conflict resolution?

Conflict resolution describes the methods businesses use to peacefully mediate and resolve disputes between employees, managers, vendors and others.

Conflict is an important part of collaborating within a business environment. Properly approached, conflict allows teams and individuals to acknowledge and evaluate new ways of thinking, while also uncovering issues and stimulating positive cognitive growth. After all, if an idea cannot stand up to sincere criticism, then it should not be allowed to move forward.

Unfortunately, workplace conflict is not always so beneficial or altruistic. And when conflict becomes personal or crosses the line into unproductivity, it can cause considerable damage. Unhealthy conflict creates a divisive work environment. It harms employee morale and makes it difficult to complete tasks properly. Unchecked, conflict can easily lead to employee absenteeism, increased turnover rates and even customer attrition—making a serious dent in your business' bottom line.

Conflict resolution exists to provide HR teams leaders and others within your organisation a proven set of methodologies for addressing disputes in the workplace. Conflict resolution strategies must be capable of handling disputes between employees, departments, management, and any other associations or groups within the business.

What may be defined as a 'conflict' includes a broad range of disputes and disagreements. That said, most workplace conflicts can be classified as one of the following:


Substantive conflicts, also known as task conflicts, arise from disagreements among individuals collaborating to reach a common goal. Substantive disagreements may stem from conflicting views on the task itself, how best to approach it and each role in the solution, and are further exacerbated by differing options, ideas or experience. These conflicts are more tangible and relate to specific problems to be solved.


Affective (or interpersonal) conflicts stem from differing personalities and other incompatibilities and are not directly related to any specific task. These kinds of conflicts are most often characterised by negative feelings and emotions, such as frustration and anger.

Conflict in the workplace can come from many multiple sources, including:

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Unfair treatment
  • Unclear roles or responsibilities
  • Ineffective communication
  • Restricted opportunities
  • Insufficient training
  • Unanticipated changes
  • Incompatible business values
  • Conflict avoidance (ignoring problems rather than working to resolve them)

Your company cannot exist without collaboration. When conflicts arise and are expressed in non-productive ways, that collaboration breaks down. Rather than facing a common problem to be solved, conflicting parties begin to view each other as the problem. This creates misaligned priorities and prevents the work from progressing. Effective businesses rely on conflict resolution to identify and implement positive solutions, realigning priorities and bringing everyone involved together to face the real problem head-on.

With the right approach to conflict resolution, your business can expect the following advantages:

Improved workplace efficiency

Working through conflicts in a productive way not only helps team members remain professional, but it also gives them the opportunity to evaluate different viewpoints and strategies that might have been overlooked when they were frustrated. This helps ensure that teams are taking the best, most efficient paths to success.

Reduced absenteeism and turnover

Most employees do not thrive on conflict; they prefer a peaceful work environment where they can perform their tasks without having to worry about becoming involved in a dispute. Addressing and resolving conflict in an appropriate way helps ensure that your most valuable talent doesn't abandon your organisation just to get away from the stress.

Enhanced employee performance

Anxiety is not conducive to productivity. Embattled employees have less time and energy to apply toward their work. At the same time, stress has been shown to decrease activity in the prefrontal cortex, effectively reducing an individual's ability to make intelligent decisions. Quickly resolving conflicts eliminates this stress and gives your people the chance to focus on the tasks at hand.

Improved culture and reputation

How effectively you address conflicts has a direct impact on employee satisfaction and your overall company culture. This likewise helps inspire retention and productivity among your staff, but one additional benefit is an improved reputation. Happy employees like to share their positive experiences with others, which can help your organisation develop a positive reputation among customers and prospective hires.

Increased customer retention

Employees aren't the only ones who pick up on the stress associated with negative conflict. Resolving interpersonal and task-related disagreements quickly helps ensure that the people that you do business with have a positive experience with your company.

How you approach a conflict and the outcome you determine will depend heavily on the strategy that you employ. Most conflict resolution strategies fall into one of the following four categories:

  • Arbitration
    An objective third party is brought in to listen to both sides of the conflict and make a final decision. This strategy resembles a courtroom, with the third party acting as final judge in the proceedings.
  • Mediation
    Mediation likewise includes an objective third party, but rather than rendering judgement this individual works directly with the parties involved to explore options, consider possibilities, and find a resolution that everyone involved is willing to pursue.
  • Negotiation
    Similar to mediation, negotiation works to create a solution that both parties can agree on. The difference here is that negotiation takes the form of tradeoffs and concessions, with both sides revising certain demands in exchange for specific compromises.
  • Litigation
    In certain rare situations—such as discrimination or harassment—workplace confrontations may only be resolved in court.

What is the conflict resolution process?

As mentioned above, good conflict resolution does not mean the absence of conflict; it simply means that conflict is addressed in a positive and productive way. Although every business is different, faces diverse types of conflict, and will likely need to tailor their approach to meet their own unique needs, the following process is a tried-and-true approach to resolving most conflict in the workplace:

  • Recognition that a problem exists
    Before any conflict can be resolved, it must first be identified. The parties involved and any mediators must be made aware of the problem.
  • Agreement to find a resolution
    In most cases, both sides of the disagreement will need to work together to put aside their differences and find a solution. This generally starts with a simple agreement that each party will do their part to reach this goal.
  • Understanding of perspectives
    Resolution begins with understanding. Allow each party to share their views and opinions free from antagonism.
  • Identification of triggers
    Knowing what factors (such as specific actions, phrases or approaches) led to conflict can help prevent future issues from getting out of hand
  • Mediation from objective parties
    A representative from management or the HR department may be necessary to keep the process professional and help everyone involved focus on the goal of finding a solution.
  • Willingness to compromise
    With the issue identified and both sides having shared their views, it is now essential that each party understand that finding a solution may mean compromising on some area. If both parties are willing to compromise, then they will likely be able to meet in the middle with a satisfactory resolution.
  • Planning
    Everyone involved should work together to create a plan for addressing the differences that led to the conflict.
  • Monitoring the impact of any agreements for change
    With a plan in place, it must now be monitored closely to determine how effective it is. Plans may need to be revised before they lead to positive resolutions.
  • Disciplining or terminating employees who resist efforts to defuse conflicts
    In some cases—such as those associated with harassment or discrimination, or when one party is unwilling to work towards a solution—the issue may need to be escalated. This can involve disciplinary action, including employee termination.

As a mediator responsible for promoting positive conflict resolution, you will need to develop and apply certain essential skills. Here, we highlight several areas of competency that may play an essential role in addressing and resolving workplace disputes:

Respectful assertiveness

No conflict may be resolved when those involved are unwilling to address the problem. Those who are respectfully assertive are capable of facing down issues, expressing personal needs and defending their own rights without neglecting or trivialising the thoughts, feelings or needs of others. Assertive communication helps promote positive dialogue.


Most conflicts stem from a misunderstanding of the emotions or concerns of others. Empathy allows you to place yourself in another's shoes, gaining a better understanding of their perspective, and thus allowing you to take their wants and needs into account as you work towards a solution.

Emotional self-awareness

Understanding others' emotions is only part of the equation; you must also be capable of objectively assessing your own emotional state. This will allow you to recognise how your feelings may be impacting your judgement.

Fairness and objectivity

The primary purpose of conflict resolution is to create a solution that both parties find acceptable and that allows them to move past the disagreement in a productive way. To facilitate this outcome, conflict mediators must be fair, impartial, and willing to consider the needs of everyone involved.


Conflict often creates high-stress situations where intense emotions may threaten the resolution process. Self-disciplined mediators manage their emotions to remain composed and objective-focused even during intense situations.


When emotions run high, the ability to keep focused on the goal will help everyone continue working towards a positive solution.


Perhaps the most fundamental skill associated with conflict resolution is the ability to listen. Never forget that those involved in the conflict are reasonable human beings—be attentive as they express their concerns and share their motivations to pave the way for a more empathetic, collaborative approach to problem solving.

Conflict is a natural and often-essential part of collaborating within a business environment. But when conflict stops being productive, successful organisations apply conflict resolution strategies to help get everyone back on track working towards their goals. How your business approaches workplace conflict can have a significant impact on your workplace culture—and your bottom line. This is why it's essential to have the right HR tools, resources and support. HR Service Delivery makes this possible.

Don't let conflict disrupt your business; Demo HR Service Management from ServiceNow and bring your people together like before.

Dive deeper into ServiceNow HR Service Delivery

Learn more about what ServiceNow could do for your organisation.

Loading spinner