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5 Effective Strategies to Handle Office Conflict

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It is people who make workplaces and it is a known fact that people inevitably bring in their emotions to work. On a regular working day, everything may be going fine, however, in a crisis, each employee will respond differently. This different behaviour or defence mechanism is important so that the person can combat a difficult situation and navigate through difficult feelings and emotions. However, when there is a pattern of behaviour stemming from a defence mechanism, which negatively impacts others, conflicts are inevitable.

Misunderstandings, closed-mindedness, and passive-aggressive behaviour all contribute and add up. The negative effects of workplace conflict can cause work disruptions, decreased productivity, project failure, absenteeism, attrition and termination. Emotional stress can be both a cause and an effect of workplace conflict.

Conflicts rarely resolve themselves. Third-party interventions are sometimes necessary, and this responsibility mainly falls on the managers, HR folks and leaders. Through conflict resolution, and when resolved properly, conflicts can lead to better ideas, better understanding, and better working relationships.

To address conflict resolution, it’s important to first understand defence mechanisms before coming up with any strategies to overcome them. Let’s look at 5 very common defencive behaviours of employees:


Picture this. A colleague frequently says that the boss dislikes me. But what’s going on here? One must take a step back — if an employee expresses a feeling of being disliked, it could very well be a projection of the person’s feeling and not the boss’. That means if the person thinks for a moment “my boss dislikes me”, they may probably have some negative feelings pent up towards the boss too.

Psychological projection is a defence mechanism some employees may subconsciously deploy to cope with difficult feelings or emotions which they feel towards others. It involves projecting or displacing undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else, rather than admitting to or dealing with the unwanted feelings.

Projecting our expectations of others to behave in a certain way or be only the way we think they should, certainly damages a relationship. When relationships suffer at work, many factors such as engagement, morale, motivation and productivity can take a hit.

How do you deal with psychological projection?

Make the person aware they are engaging in psychological projection without of course saying it aloud. Once this awareness comes, they will be more alert of this tendency during future interactions. Encourage introspection. A good place to start is to help examine the negative relationships in their life. Some trigger questions which can be asked are: Who don’t you get along with at work? Or Do you feel as though someone is out to get you? In some cases, speaking about it to a competent person may help examine these relationships more honestly and openly than one can do by themselves.


Denial is one of the most common defence mechanisms when a person refuses to accept reality or facts. They block external events or circumstances from the mind so that they don’t have to deal with the emotional impact. In other words, avoid painful feelings or events. You may see this among your employees who resort to small solutions rather than addressing the big problems. Or it could be an employee who refuses to accept that their strategy isn’t working and effect a change in their approach. The answer is obvious to everyone around them, but they refuse to acknowledge the facts.

How do you deal with denial?

First and foremost, it is important to focus on expressing your concern in an honest and empathetic manner. It is important to be specific. Let him or her know the exact impact of their behaviour and make them aware of your fears and concerns. Instead of pointing fingers, put yourself in their shoes. For instance, use “I” statements —“I feel like” or “I am worried that…”. It is also important to point out consequences of the past, especially if the colleague has a pattern of behaviour to help them take responsibility. Use your own emotions and insight to try and show this person just how serious the problem is. Lastly & importantly, be prepared to offer support in any way.


This involves blocking information flow, or hiding information because of an underlying lack of trust. A breakdown of trust makes the whole environment negative. There is no easy fix and the issues involved are complex. Yet, one thing is certain, developing trust is contingent upon authenticity which must be communicated through thought and action. When the lines of communication collapse or are simply not effective, strategies will not be aligned, business goals will not be met and employee engagement will be low.

How to tackle blocking?

For teams to be cohesive and productive it is critical to communicate extraordinarily well and build high levels of trust. The key is to step back and reestablish trust between the people in question. Leaders must build a model of collaborative communication. One must remember that trust is a two-way street and must be unconditional. Setting on a path to rebuild trust not only requires openness, honesty and genuine intent but also the ability to let go or forgive.


This can be manifested either as anger or emotional breakdown. Screaming, crying, pounding the table or stamping one’s feet are all ways to express anger and dissent. This is not ideal office behaviour, of course, and there are ramifications to these outbursts, but they don’t have to be career-killers either. Some people are more prone to tantrums at work, especially those who lack the emotional skills to process feelings as they’re occurring. These people tend to fall into two categories: those who suppress their emotions and those who let them fester within. While these two look completely different, they both deplete cognitive and emotional resources and result in poor outcomes in terms of problem-solving, interpersonal relationships and overall wellbeing.

How to deal with outbursts?

Witnessing an employee or a boss lose his or her grip is uncomfortable—and even more so when the employee is directly involved in the incident. But, one mustn’t let their own emotions take over. If you take a close look at what happened, why did the employee act the way they did? Steps can be taken to remedy the situation. You should bring the focus back to the problem and explain why an outburst will not resolve it. With the right handling, an outburst could very well be turned into an opportunity.


Like creativity, humour often works best when it violates what is considered to be the norm. One of the key components of humour at work is how it is exhibited, and tolerated, by senior leaders. If the executive team uses appropriate humour, it can make them seem more competent. However, inappropriate humour has nothing but negative consequences, and it further damages the organisation by encouraging others to model the same behaviours. When humour is used to make what’s uncomfortable comfortable it is a red flag. A prime example of this is using sarcasm.

How to tackle reactive humour?

If you spot that a person is acutely uncomfortable in a particular situation, then it is important to address it and have a personal talk with the employee. Acknowledge the elephant in the room and table it immediately. Don’t allow it to snowball.  Also, leaders need to be vigilant of the kind of humour used. Leaders who use aggressive humour, such as teasing employees or sharing dirty jokes, are more likely to pave the way for employees to behave badly, and least likely to build a sense of work engagement on their teams.

The first step in resolving conflict is clarifying its source and associated behavioural patterns. Defining the cause of the conflict will enable you to understand how the issue came to grow in the first place. Additionally, you will be able to get both parties to consent to what the disagreement is and how it is affecting them. And to do so, you need to discuss the needs which are not being met on both sides of the issue. Also, you need to warrant mutual understanding. In any kind of conflict, it is important to face problems and disputes head-on rather than becoming defensive. Conflict resolution has a direct impact on your team spirit. Sense and pick on the cue when a conflict is brewing. Be observant, be present. The key is to be able to recognise when a defence mechanism is at play and learn how to respond more positively.

Yellow Spark helps its client to develop managers who are equipped to handle a variety of people management challenges and run effective teams. To initiate a discussion on a programme suitable for your organisation, write to – contact@yellowspark.in.

Author Profile: Aparna Joshi Khandwala is a passionate HR professional. She co-founded Yellow Spark to work with like-minded people who believe in the power of leadership, which is the only business differentiator in today’s time.