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What Makes Workplace Conflict So Challenging Now?

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What Makes Workplace Conflict So Challenging Now?

May 03
16:29 2024

The following is an excerpt from the new book Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict: What to Say Next to De-Stress The Workday, Build Collaboration and Calm Difficult Customers.

What’s Making Conflict Harder Right Now?

People have had conflict with one another since, well, there have been people. But to give you the most useful tools, we wanted to find out what’s happening now. So, we created the World Workplace Conflict and Collaboration Survey (WWCCS) to ask people around the world whether they’re experiencing more (or less) conflict at work, what’s causing those changes, and the effects of workplace conflict. We also asked about significant conflicts they’ve experienced and what advice they would give their former self if faced with that conflict again. At the time of writing, we’ve heard from over five thousand people in more than forty-five countries and all fifty of the United States.

More Conflict at Work

If it feels like you’re experiencing more conflict at work over the past few years, you’re not alone. Seventy percent of the people in our research say that they’re experiencing the same or more conflict at work. And, of the thirty percent who said they’ve experienced less conflict, most of this group say they have less conflict because they changed jobs, are working from home, or escaped challenging people. We’d bet that in a lot of these circumstances, those changes made it more peaceful for that individual, but the workplace didn’t improve, nor did anyone get better at conflict. Let’s look at what’s fueling this conflict and making it more intense.


The pandemic sped up changes in the workforce. More than ever before, people want meaning in their work. And work itself is changing. The survey results citing continued overwhelm, economic instability, lower levels of motivation, and poor management are symptoms of this upheaval. Larger organizations have people scattered across seven different time zones. In a world of remote work, many of these people have never met each other in person. If you’re in a matrixed organization, it gets more complicated. Lines of responsibility can be fuzzy, and your priorities or incentives might clash with your coworkers’ goals. But you need your coworkers’ help to succeed at your job. That’s a conflict cocktail.

Since the pandemic, many industries find it more challenging than ever to attract and keep talent. Employees in the education, healthcare, service, and hospitality industries say they’re sick and tired of rude and hostile customers, students, and patients, grueling hours, and impossible demands. And customers complain about long waits, poor service, apathetic staff, and tip creep. Another potent conflict cocktail.

The pandemic-inspired shift to remote work and hybrid teams left many people longing for deeper human connection. And even for those who’ve returned to the office (or never left in-person work), a few years of social distancing left many of us feeling unmoored. Many organizations are still wrestling with the new reality of remote and hybrid workforces. Managers are relearning how to lead and support their teams. Teammates are figuring out how to build meaningful relationships and get work done. These rapid changes and missing human connections fuel conflict and make it harder to solve.


As mask mandates, stay-at-home orders, and online-only schooling fade into the rearview mirror, it’s easy to forget the pandemic’s disruption on nearly every aspect of life. But the COVID-19 pandemic traumatized many people and left scars. The social isolation bruised our psyches. “Choosing our bubble” of people created “us” and “them” dynamics that politics and social media made worse. For many, the pandemic’s hypervigilance, anxiety, and stress created lasting mental health challenges. For others, the resentment of mandates and loss of personal freedoms created another kind of fear and anxiety.

Take the increase in anxiety, stress, and depression, mix in the loss of human relationships, and you get more workplace conflict. And it’s more intense. In chapter 3 we’ll look at why human connection is so important for navigating conflict. For now, it’s enough to say that all the isolation and loneliness people experienced isn’t helping.


We were sad to read WWCCS comments about alarming discrimination and lack of tolerance or inclusion. For many, these trends are getting worse. The pandemic sped up social change and intensified social media impacts, igniting conflict between people and groups and even families. You can’t keep that tension out of the workplace. Let’s break this down a bit.

Rapid Social Change

When things change fast or change in big ways, people freak out. Rapid change, major change, and unexpected changes can all increase the likelihood and intensity of conflict. The pandemic was certainly an “all of the above” with rapid, major, and unexpected change. But it also happened alongside several other major changes. Social justice movements reached new levels of unrest and action. Thankfully, as a result, many people and organizations around the world have increased their commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

At the same time, we see other troubling changes: an increase in visible white nationalism, and global warming with concurrent droughts, fires, and floods. Incredible leaps in artificial intelligence threaten to completely upend certain industries and careers. Sudden, significant change often leaves people feeling confused, anxious, and uncertain. You can see the consequences at work. One such example is the Society for Human Resource Management’s analysis of social change and conflict resolution: compared to previous years, 44 percent of HR professionals report intensified political volatility at work in 2020; in 2016, only 26 percent reported increased political volatility compared to prior elections.

Social Media

Social media thrives on conflict. These companies make their money from advertising and so do everything they can to keep people interacting with their platforms. One of the easiest ways to get people to interact is to push their anger and outrage buttons. This is due to what journalist and author Johann Hari, in his bestselling book Stolen Focus, describes as a quirk of human behavior. “On average,” he writes, “we will stare at something negative and outrageous for a lot longer than . . . something positive and calm.” It’s called negativity bias. Hari sums it up: “If it’s more enraging, it’s more engaging.”

Consistent exposure to this version of reality changes people. If you “expose yourself for hours a day to the disconnected fragments of shrieking and fury that dominate social media, your thoughts will start to be shaped like that . . . [you’re] less able to hear more tender and gentle thoughts.” Social media hurts many people’s ability to hear nuance, assume the best, and have a friendly conversation with other human beings. And these trends bleed over into the workplace.

Voices of Experience

Besides the global survey, we’ve also read and talked with hundreds of business and thought leaders to ask them for their experiences and wisdom about workplace conflict. Throughout the book, you’ll find some of these insights in sidebars like this one from accountability expert Nate Regier. He calls us to struggle “with,” rather than “against,” so our conflict creates and builds a better future.

The Path Forward

We don’t share these causes of conflict to discourage you. The point is to understand where the conflict comes from and why it’s happening. When you consider your colleague might be dealing with a ton of unnerving change, it gets easier to show up with compassion and curiosity and look for meaningful solutions.

Nine percent of our WWCCS respondents said the reason they’re experiencing less conflict at work is “improved communication.” Well, that’s a start. Well-intentioned, care-filled words make a difference. And 32 percent of respondents who report less conflict at work attribute the decrease to “improved communication.” That’s our hope for you too—more choices in your communication leading to improved relationships, less stress, and better results.

No matter what conflict you face, there will always be four dimensions that make it more productive. Every Powerful Phrase in this book addresses one of these dimensions. And, when you run into a challenging situation or coworker conflict that’s not in this book, you can start with one of these four dimensions to figure out what to say next.

1. Connection–Do we know one another as human beings?

2. Clarity–Do we have a shared understanding of success?

3. Curiosity–Are we genuinely interested in other perspectives and what’s possible?

4. Commitment–Do we have a clear agreement?

About the Authors

Karin Hurt and David Dye help human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results. As CEO and president of Let’s Grow Leaders, they are known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick.

Karin Hurt inspires courage, confidence, and innovation. A former Verizon Wireless executive with more than two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and human resources, she has a track record of growing leaders, building great cultures, and inspiring high-performance teams. She was named to Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and is the host of the popular Asking for a Friend show.

David Dye helps leaders and teams achieve transformational results without sacrificing their humanity. As a former executive and elected official, he is known for practical leadership techniques you can use right away and growing leaders with the confidence and competence to thrive during turbulence and change. He’s the host of the popular podcast Leadership Without Losing Your Soul and has recently released an inspiring book of personal essays, Tomorrow Together: Essays of Hope, Healing, and Humanity.

To learn more about Karin Hurt and David Dye, authors of the new book Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict: What to Say Next to De-Stress the Workday, Build Collaboration and Calm Difficult Customers, visit

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Email: [email protected]

Phone: 443.750.1249

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