How tech leaders can manage conflict in the workplace

A telephoto shot of a businessperson holding their head in their hands in a boardroom, as people argue around them to represent conflict in the workplace.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Personality clashes, disagreements, and conflict in the workplace are inevitable when people from various backgrounds are brought together to work on a project. However, what starts out as a slight difference of opinion can easily snowball into full-blown disruption that affects the wider business.

Workplace conflict costs UK companies $36.3 billion (£28.5 billion) per year, which works out to around £1,000 per worker, according to research [PDF] ReWAGE published in 2023. The advisory group has estimated that 9.7 million employees in the UK have experienced conflict, with 9% of employees taking time off work due to stress and anxiety associated with the conflict. 

Companies spend $152.8 million (£120 million) annually trying to resolve conflict through internal discussions and a further $178.3 million (£140 million) is spent on meditation, while £589m ends up being lost due to a drop in productivity and presenteeism. 

It’s clear that conflict can impact the bottom line negatively if companies don’t have a handle on it. But the problem is that leaders often aren’t provided with the appropriate conflict management training and neither have they been equipped with the skills to be able to identify, address and resolve disputes before they become a bigger problem. 

Luckily, there are a number of steps leaders taking to mitigate and prevent workplace conflict.

Conflict in the workplace: Creating accountability 

Tech projects can be difficult and complex, which is why having the right support structures in place is essential, says Drew Morahan, head of business change and design at managed services provider Codec. “Being able to lean on your team when you are in the trenches means you have a built-in mechanism for navigating the hard times.”

Morahan recommends setting out your stall as a team with regards to roles and responsibilities from the outset, as this should encourage team members to take accountability for their actions and decisions and communicate openly. It means team members should be able to resolve differences between them without having to escalate the problem up the chain or get the HR department involved. 

“Having honest conversations about a difference of opinion isn’t easy, but if teams can come at these scenarios from a place of empathy and non-judgement, they are far more likely to reach a resolution in-project. Escalation paths are there for good reason, however I would always advocate for in-project resolution where possible. This gives the team the best possible chance at rescuing the relationship,” Morahan adds.

This goes right the way up the chain of command, as those in even the most senior positions can but heads with peers if left without a clear understanding of their responsibilities. For example, CIOs and CTOs can collaborate on difficult projects such as digital transformation to keep teams in the loop and prevent digital transformation burnout

Conflict in the workplace: Managing different personalities 

Conflict often occurs in the workplace when there’s a failure to understand or accept different personality types. If you take the time to know the different personality types that are in your team, though, then you’ll get to know how each team member prefers to communicate, interacts with others and reacts to change. 

“Respecting the different personalities to allow all voices to be heard, especially if there’s a mix of extrovert and introvert or quieter personalities, means giving everyone the chance to share their views,” says Simon Collin, CTO of Nmblr, a strategy platform for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. 

Having a better understanding of personality types can make it easier to stop potential conflict from flaring up by allowing you to spot changes in behavior. For example, a team member being quieter than normal may not get your alarm bells ringing, but they could be behaving this way because they’re afraid to speak up about an internal problem. Or someone who is appearing less committed than usual could be feeling micromanaged, Collin adds. 

With a better grip on the personalities within their workforce, leaders are better able to respond to workplace conflict as it arises and also to maintain effective communication with their team members. A failure to do so can erode trust between leaders and their teams, enabling problems such as shadow AI use and eventually contribute to toxic work environments. In these circumstances, the mental health of workers suffers and firms can begin to experience high staff turnover.

Conflict in the workplace: Flipping mentoring on its head 

With more and more of Gen Z in the workplace, there are now four generations of employees working together, which has created “fertile ground for disagreement,” says Gemma Collins, performance and development director at Grayce, a consultancy providing change and transformation support to global tech companies. Many of this cohort started their careers during the pandemic and in hybrid or remote work environments, have a completely different approach to work than older employees, who are more likely to be resistant to change and new ways of doing things.

Collins recommends reverse mentorship, whereby the junior members of the team take on the role of mentor to senior team members, who can then better understand their younger colleagues and cultural shifts. However, reverse mentoring is only truly effective if it’s a two-way street and there are opportunities for both parties to share knowledge and advice. 

“Reverse engineering can help to develop richer, more useful perspectives by removing some of the traditional hierarchical barriers to shared learning,” says Collins. “By embedding it as a tool, tech companies can unlock the vast knowledge, experiences, and skills of their emerging workforce. Not only does it strengthen relationships, but it can also contribute to a more inclusive culture where all employees feel accepted and heard.”

Rich McEachran

Rich is a freelance journalist writing about business and technology for national, B2B and trade publications. While his specialist areas are digital transformation and leadership and workplace issues, he’s also covered everything from how AI can be used to manage inventory levels during stock shortages to how digital twins can transform healthcare. You can follow Rich on LinkedIn.