Workplace Conflict

When work colleagues are not getting along, the consequences can be costly. Productivity and creativity tend to decrease as people focus on their distress rather than their work.

Workplace conflict can stem from personality or style differences and can also originate in personal problems such as substance abuse, childcare issues, and family problems. Organizational factors such as leadership, management, budget, and disagreement about core values can also contribute. These issues can affect not only your work life, but your personal life as well. Individuals experiencing workplace conflict may feel stressed, anxious, angry and even depressed.

Common Signs of Workplace Conflict

  • Employees do not like coming to work
  • There’s an overall negative attitude in the workplace
  • Employees feel they are not respected or valued
  • Frequent unresolved misunderstandings and arguments occur
  • Low morale
  • Employees do not feel they are making a contribution
  • Employees talk behind each other’s backs
  • Tension is high
  • Employees feel unsafe at work

If you have questions or concerns about these issues, or any others, please contact us to arrange an appointment.

Preventing or Discussing Conflict

Differences among colleagues are inevitable and can be a source of strength and creativity for a well-functioning team able to invite and harness diverse perspectives, identify gaps and work together for a common goal (see Diversity). Often however, direct communication and problem-solving strategies to resolve conflicts are missing. This can lead to conflict.

If you are clashing with a colleague, remember that just having differences do not require conflict to resolve them. As experts in the mediation and conflict resolution field have found, finding common ground , brainstorming solutions and seeking a ‘third way’ may meet both your needs.  It is important for you to first try to listen hard to hear the other person’s perspective.

See the  ARTS of communication from AACH for a sample discussion for how to broach a conversation about a difficult interaction with a colleague.

You may be able to have a positive impact setting an inclusive and respectful tone with your leadership style and in the meetings you hold. See Building Team Relationships with RESPECT by Crosson et al, for language that conveys respect and inclusion for differences while also encouraging people to work together for common goals:

What/Why Specific Phrases to use
RESPECTAttentive listening.  Appreciate each contribution. Value diversity. Maintain unconditional positive regard. Builds members’ confidence and team relationships. “Everybody’s perspective is really important.”“I admire your openness and appreciate that you’ve brought that point up.”

“I’m impressed with the strength of your convictions.”

“I know how hard you all have been working.”

EXPLANATORY MODELElicit team member’s thoughts and feelings on what they think is the issue “Can you help me learn more about your perspective?”“What are some feelings about this possibility?”
SOCIAL CONTEXT: STRENGTHS, STRESSORS, SPIRITUALITYHow does team member’s life, values and purpose affect their participation? “What about this change would affect your life?” What matters most to you and makes work meaningful?”

“What do you think we need to think about to make this work for the team, and for you?”

POWERInvite active participation. Be aware of microinequities. Flatten the hierarchy. Trust in the collective wisdom. It is important to get everyone’s input.”What else do we need to consider?”

“Other voices?”

EMPATHYPut into words the significance of team member’s concerns so they feel understood. Recognize and address emotion. I can imagine being frustrated about this.”Any group in our shoes might feel the same.”
CONCERNS AND FEARSUnelicited concerns could derail the working solution. Their silence does not mean agreement. Changes can cause difficulties, what worries you the most?”“…other concerns?”
TRUST/TEAM ALLIANCEIdentify common vision, Value joint problem solving. If trust is created, honest discussion and cooperation is more easily achieved. “What are common goals we can all agree on?”“What are the strengths of our team that are going to help us figure this out?”

“Let’s take a quick check, how are we doing right now with relation to our goals/ agenda…?”

All rights reserved . Julie Crosson, MD, Marla Rowe Gorosh, MD and Carol Mostow, LICSW. Jan 2010 / Rev 7-11CM American Academy on Communication in Healthcare. Do not use without permission from
Building Teams with RESPECT is adapted from a model developed at Boston Medical Center and published by Mostow C, Crosson J, Gordon S, Chapman S, Gonzalez P, Hardt E, Delgado L, James T, David M. Treating and Precepting with RESPECT: A Relational Model Addressing Race, Culture and Ethnicity in Medical Training JGIM Suppl May 2010

Exercises that illustrate how workstyles can vary also can help individuals understand friction stemming from differing personality styles. (See for a free on-line personality inventory based on Myers-Briggs). Your group may be interested in inviting a trained facilitator to learn more about how these differences play out in the work place.

Know Your Limits: a word of caution

As soon as conflicts become heated, seek the support of the Employee Assistance Program (Password: LMEAP) or Faculty and Staff Assistance Office, or the BU Ombudsman.

We don’t always know the impact of our own behavior on others nor the buttons that may be pushed for somebody else. Sometimes it is an outside pressure on our colleague that may be fueling the conflict we experience (see Dealing with Distressed Colleague and Workplace Safety for more information).


Employee Assistance Program (Password: LMEAP) – free, confidential counseling via toll-free phone line or in person for BMC employees and eligible dependents.
BMC Human Resources – non-confidential services for BMC employees

Faculty and Staff Assistance Office – free, confidential counseling and referral service for faculty, staff and their families with locations on both Medical and Charles River campuses
Office of the Ombuds – confidential, impartial, problem-solving resource serving faculty, staff, and students on the Charles River and Medical Campus.
BU Human Resources – Human Resources available to prospective, current, and retired employees of Boston University on both the Medical and Charles River campuses.

Help With Difficult Boss Problems – features completely free access to over 1200 articles and resources on solving problems with difficult managers.
The American Academy on Communication in Healthcare is at the forefront of  resources, research , training and conferences regarding relationship-centered healthcare communication skills helpful for use with teams and colleagues as well as with patients. For more information, contact AACH at