5 Steps for Leaders to Identify, Assess, and Resolve Conflict


Every organization experiences conflict in one shape or form. Conflict can be constructive, rewarding, or toxic.

Let us not forget, conflict also includes internal and external stakeholder conflict. Unresolved or disregarded conflict can wreck individual, team, and organizational performance, as well as taint relationships with customers and other external stakeholders. Mitigating organizational conflict is paramount to well-being, performance, and relationships.

That being said, let’s take a dive into a 5-step approach for leaders to identify, assess, and resolve conflict.

1) Identify the Type of Conflict

This sounds simple and straightforward; however, accurate identification of the type of conflict impacts the approaches used to assess and mitigate the conflict moving forward. Halvor Nordby (2018), conflict resolution expert, noted that conflict can be bucketed into 1 or a combination of 6 conflict types: interpretation, argumentation, values, conflict of interest, role conflicts, and personal conflicts. The key here is not to assume, but to investigate, explore, and deduct what type and level of conflict is actually taking place.

It’s critical to identify the type of conflict in order to understand and resolve conflict.

For example, an individual may come to you about an issue that he or she is experiencing, and at the surface level, the issue may sound like an intragroup conflict, but upon further discussion, the individual is conflicted with the organizational direction, not with the tasks the group has been assigned. Here, by understanding the context and scope of the issue, the leader can better understand the disconnect, concern, or turmoil the direction is causing the individual.

Here, it may be helpful for leaders to ask the following questions:

2) Confirm the Issue(s)

Conflict resolution cannot happen if the issue at hand is inaccurately assumed or selected. Bottom line—make sure that the issue is clearly identified and confirmed. Regardless of the type of conflict, it is essential that the issue is defined and that the people involved confirm that it is in fact the issue.

Validating the issue creates an open dialogue to ensure understanding of the situation. Keep in mind that, through collaboration, understanding is gained, and in that, additional factors may evolve to identify more issues or things that led up to the conflict in the first place. So, active listening and empathy are paramount in this phase.

In addition to engaging in active listening, it’s important to pay particular attention to what is not being said, i.e., observing nonverbal body language. Likewise, depending on the situation and stakeholders involved, notice variance, such as different stories, perspectives, and/or behaviors.

Here, it may be helpful for leaders to ask the following questions:

3) Understand the Conflict

Step 3 may sound simple, but genuine understanding requires the practice of social and emotional intelligence. The Institute for Social and Emotional Intelligence defines social and emotional intelligence as the “ability to be aware of our own emotions and those of others, in the moment, and to use that information to manage ourselves and manage our relationships.” If we take this definition further, emotional intelligence (EI) is broken down into 4 distinct areas: self-awareness, self-management, social (others) awareness, and relationship management.

From a conflict management perspective, the self-awareness and self-management components of EI are critical to keeping one’s emotions and behaviors in check to understand, mitigate, and resolve conflict.

For instance, if a leader gets frustrated quickly, that may impact whether or not individuals or teams will communicate conflict to the leader for concern of frustrating the leader more. As a result, conflict may stew longer and cause more damage. Being self-aware and having the ability to self-manage helps create an approachable leadership style for stakeholders to come forward about conflict.

Identifying and understanding the impact of the conflict from the perspective of those who are impacted, versus projecting an assumed impact, signals to stakeholders that leadership wants to truly understand the conflict and use that understanding to craft an intentional resolution. Confirming the understanding of the conflict and impact the conflict has caused or may continue to cause lets stakeholders feel heard and understood. Ensure that each stakeholder feels respected, not attacked. It is critical to ensure a safe space to communicate openly and in a respectful manner. 

Here, it may be helpful for leaders to self-reflect:

4) Assess Conflict Impact

Employees arguing while boss calls time out to resolve conflict.

To understand conflict, one must also assess the impact. Conflict isn’t always easy to measure. However, by having a clear understanding of the conflict, leaders can identify how to measure the impact effectively. The approach(es) used to measure conflict will vary depending on the type of conflict, issue(s), and stakeholder(s) involved.

It is helpful to understand the “conflict ladder,” i.e., the levels of conflict. Per conflict resolution expert Friedrich Glasl, as summarized by Thomas Jordan (2000), conflict has several levels: disagreement, polarized positions, barriers to communication, tactics, no contact, conflict creates strategic threat, unprofessional blows, destruction, and conflict abyss.

To measure the impact of conflict effectively, it is critical for leadership to frame the organizational conflict, including the multiple dimensions of conflict. Unmanaged conflict causes quantifiable and nonquantifiable costs.

Examples of conflict impact include the following: productivity, turnover, health, absenteeism, creativity, decision-making, theft, and/or sabotage.

It is important to note that not all conflict is negative, rather, constructive conflict can yield to more meaningful conversations, trust, and development, and may result in positive quantifiable impacts, such as retention, morale, productivity, creativity, and trust.

Here, it may be helpful for leaders to reflect upon the following:

5) Strategize Resolution

Conflict resolution experts Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann (1976) developed 5 conflict management modes: accommodating, avoiding, collaborating, competing, and compromising. The strategies take into consideration the cooperativeness and assertiveness of the parties involved, including desired outcome and relationships.

Similar to the emotional and social intelligence points mentioned in Step 4, self and social awareness are critical to effectively assessing the situation and selecting the most aligned conflict management approach.

There is no one-size-fits-all method to resolve conflict, but there are tested modes and strategies. Being aware and adaptable to different approaches provides a more authentic and meaningful approach to resolve conflict that is within the context of the situation and people involved.

Effective conflict resolution requires an understanding of the issue(s), situation(s), and the people involved. Likewise, it is imperative to understand what resolution looks like to the parties involved, i.e., what each side feels would be a solution. From there, discuss the prospective resolution(s) that are fair to the people involved and implement the solution(s).

Here, it may be helpful for leaders to reflect upon the following:

In Summary

By following the 5 steps outlined above, leaders can identify, assess, and resolve conflict within an organization more effectively—resulting in a happier, healthier, and more productive environment for all employees.


Jordan, T. (2000, October). Glasl's nine-stage model of conflict escalation. Mediate.com. Retrieved from https://www.mediate.com/articles/jordan.cfm

Nordby, H. (2018). Management and conflict resolution: Conceptual tools for securing cooperation and organizational performance. Organizational Conflict. doi:10.5772/intechopen.72132

Thomas, K. W., & Kilmann, R. H. (1976). Thomas-Kilmann conflict MODE instrument. doi:10.1037/t02326-000


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Filed Under: Leadership

About Katie Carpen, PhD, Thought Leader

Katie has 14+ years of experience in higher education, consulting, recruitment, and mortgage finance industries. Her areas of specialty include change management, conflict management, corporate social responsibility, emotional intelligence, leadership, organizational culture, strategy, and work-life-balance. Katie has served as a relationship manager, associate dean, consultant, subject matter expert, and coach. She is currently active in higher education, coaching, and various causes. She enjoys fostering critical, creative, and strategic thinking by applying concepts across a variety of domains.