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Leading Through Conflict

Finding win/win solutions that improve both relationships and work processes

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Most people avoid conflict, thinking it to be unpleasant, uncomfortable, and largely unnecessary. Unfortunately, when working closely with people, some level of conflict is unavoidable. As laboratory managers, we need to use a constructive approach to conflict to help us resolve issues between people and to find better outcomes. One way to use unavoidable conflicts at work is to see conflict as a tool for continuous improvement.

What is conflict to you?

My initial response to conflict was that it was something I wanted to avoid. I thought that if I found the right balance of respect, trust, and collaboration with the people around me, I could avoid conflict altogether. Experience has taught me that this approach was both naïve and impractical. I have learned that it’s not conflict that I dislike, it is unresolved conflict that bothers me. By using a more positive approach to conflict, keeping an open mind, using my hard-won listening skills, and seeking win/win outcomes, one can use conflict, not as a means of harming the other person, but as a means of improving relationships and work processes.

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Conflict between individuals has many different sources. Two broad categories are substantive conflict and affective conflict.1 Substantive conflict involves issues of substance. It is often objective, and is driven by an issue over facts. Affective conflict involves emotions, feelings, or treatment within a relationship. It is often subjective, and is always driven by feelings. As conflict arises, substantive conflicts can often develop affective traits.

Workplace conflict can arise from a large number of different sources. The increasing pressures of time and resources in the modern workplace set the stage for a wide variety of conflicts, including:

  • Scarce resources
  • Difference in approach
  • Increased pace
  • Personality differences
  • Change
  • Lack of alignment
  • Unclear roles
  • Competition
  • Teams/teammates
  • Difficulty of the work
  • Decreased security/stability
  • Exclusion
  • Uncertainty/changing goals
  • Poor communication

As laboratory managers we need to develop strategies that will help resolve the conflicts to realize the potential benefits that conflict can bring. We need to advocate for confrontation to identify and surface the conflict, so that it can be examined and resolved. We need to avoid collusion that will enable unspoken agreement to deny or hide conflict. Collusion allows bad habits and dysfunction to play out in the workplace.

In our positions as laboratory managers, we can always make the conflicts in our groups or teams worse. Good managers will work hard to use conflict resolution to make improvements. However, we have all probably seen or experienced the following negative behaviors at some point in our careers:

  • Personal attacks
  • Loss of control
  • Embarassing others
  • Arguments
  • Wrong assumptions
  • Poor planning
  • Condescending behavior
  • Poor listening
  • Lack of personal accountability
  • Avoidance
  • Unfair manipulations
  • Focus on one outcome
  • Defensive behavior
  • Poor timing
  • Overly emotional

A new view of conflict

To move from conflict as unwanted disruption to important element in improvement, we need to change our views of conflict:2

  • Disruption
  • Outgrowth of diversity
  • Negative
  • Possibility to improve
  • Battle
  • Part of a healthy relationship
  • Isolated
  • Help clarify relationships
  • Right v. wrong
  • About differences
  • Good v. evil
  • Seeking a better result

To make this change, we need to monitor and (possibly) change our behavior in and around conflict. We can model and demonstrate constructive behaviors to enable more positive conflict outcomes, or we can fall back into non-supportive behaviors that will certainly make conflict issues worse. Behaviors we want to learn, grow, and demonstrate include:

  • Listening
  • Engaging in healthy debate
  • Doing what needs to be done
  • Explaining benefits
  • Explaining methods
  • Seeking win/win
  • Supporting the other person

Non-supportive behaviors can lead to worsening relationships and negative outcomes. Behaviors we need to avoid and discard include:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Impatience
  • Lack of self-control
  • Intolerance
  • Avoidance
  • Seeking to win for ourselves
  • Passive-aggressiveness

Of course, communication is vitally important in all relationships. Misunderstanding driven by incomplete communication is often a root cause of workplace conflict. As laboratory managers, we can learn to communicate more effectively and teach more effective communication techniques to our staff. Perhaps the most effective communication tool in our toolbox is active listening. We can prevent miscommunication and the conflicts that arise from it by ensuring the information we transmit is clear. By clarifying receipt of the information, we can avoid such pitfalls as information loss, distortion, assumed understanding, information overload, incomplete definitions, and vagueness. If we add an appreciation for difference to our communication toolbox, we can also avoid miscommunication issues such as delivering the message to the wrong person, asking the wrong questions of the wrong person, personality-driven differences, and stereotype issues.

A win/win approach to conflict

A much more powerful way to view workplace conflict is through the lens of win/win. The essence of win/win is seeking outcomes that look positive to both parties engaged in the conflict, and using the differences between staff members to find winning outcomes. The benefits of seeking win/win are many. Some of the most important benefits include:

  • Wise agreements are discovered
  • Valid interests are addressed
  • Conflicting issues are resolved
  • The common good is served
  • Time and energy are used efficiently
  • Improvement occurs

At the very least, seeking win/win outcomes should result in no further damage being inflicted on or by the parties involved.

A win/win approach is possible, and it works. Here is a basic recipe for addressing conflict in your laboratory using win/win techniques:

  • Be objective
    • Keep the discussion around the facts. Keep it in the realm of substantive conflict.
  • Refuse to get defensive
    • Recognize the power of reciprocity.3 Others will often mirror our behavior. If we can stay positive and open, the others involved may too. Just try smiling during the conflict!
  • View the other side as a partner
    • What are they bringing to the conversation that can help make things better?
  • Look for common benefits
    • What do they actually need or want? Are there benefits to the common good?
  • Explore all sides of the issue
    • What is driving the other side of the issue? Are there related issues on which we can agree? What new lines of inquiry can be found and explored?
  • Be collaborative
    • Contribute your thoughts, ideas, and needs to all sides that are discovered.
  • Avoid power struggles
    • Are you expressing your ideas, or forcing your points through based on your position, grade level, or personality? Are you treating everyone in the room as your equal, with an equal right to have ideas and be heard?
  • Look out for the other person’s best interest
    • Are you willing to help with their need or grievance?
  • Maintain the other person’s self-esteem and self-confidence
    • Maintain positive interactions. Focus on the facts. Support the other person.
  • Invest in the relationship
    • Enable the current conflict to make the relationship better. Enable a closer working relationship and improved trust to grow from this conflict.

By using these techniques, we can surface and examine the issues driving the conflict. Once the conflict is being discussed, we need to drive for a win/win resolution for the conflict. To best enable the conflict to be resolved, we need to create an atmosphere that will be effective. This positive atmosphere contains several different elements:

  • A safe environment where thoughts and ideas can be shared and valued
  • A willingness to clarify perceptions
  • A focus on individual and shared needs
  • Shared power
  • A willingness to look at both opportunities for the future and learning from the past
  • Creation of options and choices
  • Development of action items that can be accomplished
  • Mutual benefit agreements

Figure 1: Showing approach to managing conflict for different stakes in a conflict vs. commonality of interest of the participants in the conflict.Prioritization is a key element of what all laboratory managers do. Prioritization is also needed for conflict management. Managing through the win/win process takes time, energy, and commitment. One way to prioritize the time to invest in conflict management is to look at the stakes of the conflict compared with the commonality of interest between the people.1 Figure 1 shows an approach to conflict for different stakes vs. commonality states.

For middling-to-high stakes and middling-to-high commonality of interest, win/win conflict management techniques are suggested. Avoiding the conflict is only reasonable when the stakes are low and the overlapping interests are low. Competition may erupt when the stakes are high and common interests are low.

One other key aspect of conflict resolution is required. We must act with courage. Disagreements, hurt feelings, and miscommunications will always happen in workplaces involving human interactions. It is part of our duty to the staff we serve to take the initiative to make things better. This means we cannot shy away from the hard conversations required to surface and examine disagreements and stop old habits that result in conflict avoidance or win/lose outcomes. Bob Goff said, “Courageous people feel the same fear everyone else does. They just decide not to live like they’re afraid anymore.”4

A few examples

Hopefully, a few examples will help illustrate how to use these tools.

Stakeholder complaint

You receive a complaint from a key stakeholder. She has been waiting on specific results for three days beyond the due date. She has called and emailed, but has not received a response from the responsible person. The delay is holding up her project.

  1. Reach out to all members of the responsible team immediately
  2. Determine the status of the work
  3. Call the stakeholder with an update
  4. Seek anything that can be done to help the stakeholder recover from being late
  5. Conduct a lessons-learned session to prevent this from happening again

Staff disagreement

You receive a complaint from one of your staff. He lets you know that his colleague stole his idea and reported it to your boss in his weekly update meeting. He needs you to fix the situation.

  1. Meet with both staff members individually to hear both sides
  2. Verify statements with other teammates
  3. Meet with each to remind them of each other’s contributions
  4. Find a win/win outcome that addresses each person’s needs and enables them to continue to collaborate as teammates

Leading through conflict

In the hallway, you overhear a prejudicial joke told by one of your staff. Despite your staff being 50 percent female, one of the staff thought it was funny to share his library of dumb blonde jokes.

  1. Immediately interject into the conversation
  2. Ask the joke teller why he thinks the joke is funny
  3. Take the time to talk to the group about the importance of respecting everyone on the team
  4. Reinforce the requirement for personal responsibility around respect in the workplace

Resolving a tense disagreement

You are leading a tense meeting to prioritize decisions about capital investment in the department. Because there is never enough capital investment to satisfy everyone, the prioritization meeting shows raw nerves and harsh words among the team members.

  1. Call a time-out and let tempers cool
  2. Elevate the conversation to what the whole department is trying to accomplish
  3. Re-center the conversation on the strategic goals for the department
  4. Brainstorm ideas to find new ways to obtain new investment in the department


Conflict is natural between people. We can find the positive value of the conflict by finding superior outcomes and reinforcing the positive relationships between people. This requires an awareness of the diversity between people, issues, and interests. When we prioritize problem solving over selfish victory, generate actionable alternatives, and use positive communication, we can deliver win/win outcomes to our teams. Win/win thinking will fundamentally change your team’s approach to conflict, and improve both the working relationships in the team and the quality of the outcomes delivered by the team.


The author would like to acknowledge colleagues past and present at Intertek and Air Products. He would also like to thank engineering chief colleagues Bill Fiske, Don Hubbard, and Danielle Melaragno, all of whom contributed to this article. The author greatly benefitted from attending a “Resolving Interpersonal Conflict” training course developed by Dr. Katheryn Woodley at Penn State University Allentown. Some of the key learnings were incorporated into this article. The author also recommends the book How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress by Anna Maravelas.


1. Dr. Katheryn Woodley, “Resolving Interpersonal Conflict,” a Penn State Management and Development Program.

2. Dudley Weeks, “The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution,” G.P. Putnam’s Sons (NY) 1992.

3. Linda and Charlie Bloom, Psychology Today blog “Honoring the Rule of Reciprocation,” October 2015, 

4. Bob Goff quote via Twitter @lovedoes 15 September 2012.