How to Prevent Conflict Escalation

by | Jul 29, 2020

“How did it even reach this point?”

Have ever asked yourself that question? If so, then you’ve undoubtedly witnessed (or been part of) a conflict that got out of control way too quickly. Or maybe you’ve just been watching the news.

If there’s anything we’ve learned in recent months, it’s that conflict can escalate quickly. And that’s as true in business as it is in politics.

One minute, your team is working hard, reaching goals and achieving new levels of success. The next, a conflict arises. One of your key players finds herself looking for a new job. You’re left scrambling to find a new team member. And everyone’s left wondering what just happened.

If you haven’t experienced an escalated conflict yet, you’re fortunate. But more than likely, a situation will arise that you won’t expect. However, with a few simple actions, you can free your business from most negative conflicts and avoid unnecessary escalation.

Why Certain Situations Escalate So Quickly

At the heart of all escalation is feelings of pain, grief, shame, guilt, frustration, unappreciation, etc. Or it’s a combination of several of those emotions all at once. But it’s always about emotions. Which can be tricky to navigate.

In nearly all business settings, we are on our best behavior. We treat each other (for the most part) with respect. And we’re careful in how we speak to one another. But imagine, for a minute, that you have two people in the middle of a discussion and one makes a statement that the other perceives as being threatening – whether it was intended or not.

That perception, coupled with other pent-up, negative emotions, tends to feed on itself. And the individual who perceived a threat will become defensive. Instead of calming down and thinking through the situation rationally, they may react with an intentional (sometimes passive-aggressive) attack toward the other person.

If cooler heads don’t prevail, then all underlying pain, grief, frustration, etc. and an innate sense of self-protection make their way to the surface. All from a simple communication error.

Bringing escalated conflict to a resolvable level is far more difficult than making sure it never gets out of control. Conflict itself is inevitable. And, if managed correctly, can help your business get and/or stay on track. But there are things you can do to ensure only healthy conflicts take place.

Develop a Culture of Appreciation

By now you’ve figured out that your people are more than just hired help. They are the key to success. And the only way by which you will reach your long-term goals. But do they know that?

We talk a lot about culture at Elite. Developing a culture of appreciation will ease underlying tensions and negative emotions.

Consider these statistics from

A 10-year, 200,000-person study from the O.C. Tanner Institute found that 79% of employees who quit their jobs cite lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving. In that same study, 65% of employees reported that they weren’t recognized once in the previous year.

A global study from the Boston Consulting Group found that of 26 different factors for happiness on the job, appreciation was ranked No. 1.

Are you wondering, at this moment, when you last let your team members know how much you care?

Appreciation needs to be built into your systems. Because when we get busy, we sometimes forget to pay attention and/or let people know what a great job they’re doing.

While you want all positive comments and acts of appreciation to be sincere, there is nothing wrong with:

  • Setting a reminder on your phone to thank someone for their work that day
  • Asking (in all leadership meetings) who in the company is doing a particularly great job – and then reaching out or rewarding them for their efforts
  • Asking an assistant or intern to pay particular interest to employee effort and let you know what they witness
Finally, if you’ve got a larger team, make sure leaders have the time and funds to adequately express appreciation to people regularly. (Taking someone to lunch, giving them a “thanks for all your effort” gift card, etc.)

You can’t do it all. Nor should you. Appreciation should filter from the top (you) and work it’s way down to every member of your team. And it goes a long way in soothing hurt feelings and preventing potential misunderstandings. Just make sure gestures of appreciation are sincere and meaningful.

Detect Problems at Ground Level

In addition to showing appreciation, you (and/or your leaders) should keep track of how team members are acting.
  • Has their work standard slipped recently?
  • Are they spending more time alone instead of engaging with others?
  • Have they become more combative recently?
  • Are they showing up late or calling in sick?
If something is wrong, if negative feelings have developed, the signs are usually there for you to see. If you train yourself to pay attention. (Again, make this systematic until it becomes inherent. Quarterly meetings with each person you lead can help with this as well.)

While no one expects you to be a psychologist, the best way to address less-than-happy team members is to talk to them directly. And the sooner the better. Ask them about their feelings. Give them room to vent their frustrations. Then ask them what might be done to help the situation. But give them a safe space to share their feelings.

Sometimes, it’s not about work. Sometimes a team member is letting their personal life affect their work situation. If that person fits your culture and adds to your goals and successes, support them as best you can. Give them space if they need it. Ease their workload. Give them time to bounce back. A person who feels valued and safe in their environment is far less likely to take offense or create unnecessary conflict. And when they get control again, they will likely reciprocate your kindness with extra effort.

Give Voice to Those Who Hurt

The last suggestion is to take seriously the complaints you hear in the office. Your people need to be heard. Or those negative emotions we mentioned earlier might begin to fester.

Create an environment where concerns can and will be addressed. What that looks like is entirely up to you. Quarterly reviews are always a good time to let individuals air some grievances. Team meetings might be the right time to address unresolved issues. Or you might choose open office hours where anyone can spend time one-on-one with you.

Whatever format you choose, whenever someone makes a complaint, let them know they were heard. Tell them you’ll take their comments under consideration. Most negative feelings can be dissolved simply by giving voice and recognition to people who feel hurt.


With good leadership strategies – like the ones shared above – there will be few (if any) incidents you’re not ready to handle. When conflict does arise, it can be resolved with positive changes for the business and your team.

Remember, YOU control the business environment. Choose open, honest communication and create a setting where your team members feel confident working together and sharing differences of opinion that strengthen your business.


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