Image of two bighorn sheep fighting

How Great Leaders Handle Internal Conflict

Internal conflict in the workplace is inevitable. When you have a group of individuals with different personalities, ideas and opinions working together, disagreements are bound to happen.

While our natural inclination is to avoid conflict, unresolved conflict never fully goes away. In fact, the consequences of ongoing conflict can turn into a major crisis that can irreparably damage the morale, productivity and success of any organization. What distinguishes a mediocre leader from a great leader is his or her ability to recognize conflict — and address it immediately and effectively.

Effective conflict resolution builds healthy workplace relationships, enhances employee commitment and leads to the consistent achievement of goals.

The following are tools great leaders can use to handle internal conflict in the workplace:

First Things First

Even though people may shy away from it, conflict is a vital component to organizational success. Studies have found that the most effective teams are those in which members feel safe enough to express their differing opinions with one another. A culture where respectful disagreement is allowed can spur innovation, diverse ideas and better decision-making.

Proactive Not Just Reactive

Great leaders shouldn’t just be prepared to deal with conflict when it arises; they should take a proactive approach to help stop conflict before it starts. This can be achieved by:

  • Making sure every team member clearly understands the company’s goals and priorities to avoid ambiguity. Disagreements thrive where there’s ambiguity.
  • Creating a fair management system and being as transparent as possible at all times.
  • Staying informed of tasks, projects and obstacles employees may be facing and troubleshooting — early—as needed.
  • Staying connected by having informal one-to-one conversations with people they manage.
  • Encouraging an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their concerns. Trust is at the foundation of a strong employee-manager relationship. When managers show they actually listen and take to heart the feedback, it helps teams and the company as a whole.

Face Conflict Head-On

No one likes conflict, but once leaders are aware of an issue, they cannot hesitate to put a plan into motion to address the situation.

Knowing When to Intervene

Sometimes, conflicts among employees can be settled without managers having to intervene. Other times, managers need to step in if the situation becomes serious or goes on for too long. Signs that leadership needs to intervene include: increased absences, a noticeable reduction in productivity, increased noticeable stress, or a sudden change in employee behavior or verbal tone. An executive coach can often help new leaders in dealing with internal conflict.

Learn to Listen

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” —Harper Lee

People in leadership roles won’t be able to find an effective resolution if they don’t have a strong understanding of the issues. They need to listen carefully to what each party has to say. Often, conflicts may arise when one individual or group misinterprets the actions of another. When both parties listen to each other, they may even realize they were trying to achieve the same goal through different methods. All parties should be allowed to express their personal needs from the situation and the emotional impact it has on them (encourage each employee to articulate the issue in a calm way). After all involved individuals have finished speaking, the mediator should rephrase what has been said to ensure it was understood.

Come to A Solution

After listening to the issues and focusing on the key takeaways, it’s time to figure out how to best move forward. Identify potential points of mutual agreement and areas of disagreement and collaborate on finding a solution that’ll be best for all individuals involved. When the team comes to a final resolution, create a list of actionable steps that can be taken to resolve the issue. Documenting the conclusion makes the solution more tangible and creates a reference point for people that wish to review the team’s decision on that conflict. Follow-up a few weeks later with each team member to see if things have improved.

Final Takeaway

Conflict in any workplace is inevitable. Yet, when handled quickly and effectively, it can be used as a tool for growth and understanding rather than a distraction that causes discord within the company. Learn about additional challenges leaders can face here.

Our team at Copperbox can share other proven ways to successfully manage team conflict as well as methods to prevent destructive conflict from happening in the first place.

Wayland K. Lum is the Founder and Managing Director of Copperbox. You can learn about Wayland’s work with leaders at, and connect with him at

Step 1 of 3