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Navigating Workplace Conflict During the Holidays (and Beyond)

The holiday season is supposed to be full of joy and happiness, and yet it is sometimes the most stressful time of the year, especially at work.  Why?  Around the holidays, there are a lot of stressors, including end of year budgeting and the closing of the books, packing a month’s worth of work into a shortened month, financial stresses (holidays put a lot of pressure on people to spend a lot of money), end of year reviews, bonuses and promotions and holiday coverage—people want to take time off.

Add to that all the everyday stresses of modern life. Social media provides a continuous stream of curated of mostly bad news (doomscrolling, anyone?), and increased political polarization divides people.

Finally, holiday parties can be stressful for both the organizers and the attendees. Mixing work and socializing is hard.

What’s a workplace leader to do?

5 Tips for Leaders to Prevent Conflict at Holiday Parties

1 Prepare for the party. Appoint people to start conversations about shared, happy topics and to encourage participation. Understand that some people are more introverted than others. Find ways to engage everyone in conversation. If your office holiday party takes place during the workday, make sure that employees who must continue working have time enjoy the party as well.

2 Establish ground rules and expectations. Start the party by saying something like, “No conversations about politics, religion, or sexual orientation. We don’t have to talk about work, so let’s avoid hot-button issues.” 

3 Consider eliminating alcohol. Alcohol reduces inhibitions, and we don’t necessarily want people to drop all their filters. One person’s funny anecdote may offend someone else. It’s becoming increasingly common to have alcohol-free events; maybe your holiday party should be one of those.

4 Keep people busy. Structure the social events so that people have something to do that will forestall discussions about topics fraught with risk.  Think about games or raffles, talks and acknowledgements—especially if you have assigned prep tasks, maybe even a slide show with pictures of Covid pets grown big.

5 Make sure everyone feels included. Represent all holidays in your decorations. No one likes feeling left out, so be sure that the physical makeup of the scene is inclusive. 

Bonus tip: Start the party early and keep it short. People are busy outside of work. If anyone wants to keep the party going, they can gather at another location.

5 Tips for Leaders to Prevent Conflict All Year Long

1 Learn to manage people, especially people in conflict. Get trained in the skills of a mediator; learn how to negotiate from a place of interests, not positions; educate yourself about neurodiversity; and learn how to have difficult conversations. Training your staff in these crucial areas helps too; the more conflict resolvers you have around, the better.

2 Take psychological safety seriously. When employees feel empowered to offer ideas and critiques without fear of retribution from supervisors or colleagues, when they don’t need to brace themselves for harsh remarks at the coffee station, and when they can be critiqued constructively, engagement soars—and you’ll have a more productive and happy workplace too.

3 Ask rather than tell. Replace judgment with curiosity. When faced with a difficult situation, use these five magic words: “Tell me more about that.” Take a breath and count to 10 before reacting. The speaker will usually fill in the silence with important information. Don’t worry about forgetting what you were going to say.  Say what feels right after your 10 count. It may be different from your first instinct.

4 Not all conflict is bad. Understand the difference between task conflict and relationship conflict. Another way to say this is to separate the people from the problem. Is this about the job, or the way you are going about the job?

5 Know when to enlist help. Don’t assume that conflict resolution involves solely common sense. While we all have been learning how to deal with others since the day we were born, very few of us study how to negotiate optimally, how to avoid or dampen conflict, and how to resolve it when it arises. 

There’s a treasure-trove of conflict resolvers in the world—a small but significant population of mediators, ombuds, facilitators, and the like. Yet many people assume that they can intuit their way through every kind of conflict. For a lot of people and a lot of situations, that may often be true, but not always.

Recognize that hiring a pro to help resolve a conflict is not an admission of a weakness, but rather an act of strength, wisdom, and courage.

Conflict may be inevitable, but it doesn’t have to get in the way of holiday fun. Preparing to avoid conflict and to manage it when it does arise is important. When it’s done skillfully, it can be an opportunity for growth for both the organization and its employees.

On behalf of JAMS Pathways, we wish you a wonderful, low-conflict holiday season.

Richard Birke is the chief architect of JAMS Pathways and is experienced at resolving complex, multiparty disputes. With over 35 years of hands-on dispute resolution, he draws on experience in a wide range of disciplines, including mediation, psychology, economics, law, communications, negotiation theory, strategic behavior, and diversity, equity and inclusion, to apply the right tools to every client situation. He can be reached at

Disclaimer:  The content is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.  If you require legal or professional advice, please contact an attorney.

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