Conflict is generally defined as relational disputes between two or more parties. It can also be referred to as “a sharp disagreement or opposition of interests or ideas”.

Conflicts will always be present in a workplace and it’s important to seek resolution not just to contain the issues and forget about them. It is a natural and normal part of any human interaction; there is nothing unusual about conflict in itself. It is what we do about it when it occurs which is important.

What is Workplace Conflict?

Workplace conflict also known as organizational conflict is a state of discord caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needsvalues and interests between people working together.

David G. Javitch, Ph.D. (conflict management expert and organizational psychologist) simply defines workplace conflict as tension and believes it offers benefits, as well as disadvantages, in the workplace. Wherever people work together, conflict is likely to arise, and it presents a challenge to which management must respond constructively.

Typically there are two responses to conflict: run away (avoidance) or ‘battle it out’. In either case, we often feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied with the results because no resolution has been achieved. By learning to constructively resolve conflict, we can turn a potentially destructive situation into an opportunity for creativity and enhanced performance.

Understanding the reasons behind workplace conflicts can help HR professionals/Line Managers tackle problems before—or after—a conflict turns into a face-off between departments that refuse to work together or a screaming match between colleagues.

Causes of Conflict in the Workplace

There are many causes or reasons for conflict in any work setting. Some of the primary causes are:

  • Poor Communication: Different communication styles can lead to misunderstandings between employees or between employee and manager. When employees are continually experiencing changes that they were not informed about, or if there are decisions being made that the staff feels he/she should be involved in, this can bring about conflict.
  • Different Values: Any workplace is made up of individuals who see the world differently. Conflict occurs when there is a lack of acceptance and understanding of these differences. For example, if one individual strongly opposes workplace diversity, he may have trouble accepting other workers different from him. To avoid conflict with these workers, he must try to accept or initiate more tolerance of those with differing values.
  • Differing Interests: Conflict occurs when individual workers ‘fight’ for their personal goals, ignoring organizational goals and organizational well-being. E.g. when an employee decides to pursue her own career goals, without regard for the organizational goals and its well-being, it results in strife among her co-workers. This occurs when the employee becomes so focused on achieving her own objectives, she disregards how it affects others within the company and the company itself. Consequently, she may work according to her own schedule and in the manner she sees fit, building resentment in her co-workers.
  • Scarce Resources: Lack of necessary resources can cause conflict among employees, and between employees and management. If employees feel there is a lack of resources needed to do their job, competition will arise among employees for the available resources. The employees who are unable to obtain what they need to perform their duties will begin to blame management for the lack of necessary resources.
  • Personality Clashes: All work environments are made up of differing personalities. Unless colleagues understand and accept each other’s approach to work and problem-solving, conflict will occur. Some employees bring stress from their home life to work, and this can cause conflicts among co-workers and managers. Some personal conflicts arise when employees are unable to accept personal differences, which can involve such things as values/norms, religion or ethnic background.
  • Poor Performance: when one or more individuals within a work unit are not performing – not working up to potential – and this is not addressed, conflict is inevitable.
  • Incompetent Management: Incompetent managers can create conflict in the workplace. A manager who does not understand the job tasks of his subordinates, or is uninformed about the job duties that each employee is supposed to perform, can be responsible for tension and conflict in the workplace. Employees who lose confidence in managers due to inconsistent decisions or bad planning can also become a source of conflict.
  • Personal Problems: If the employee has problems outside of the workplace, such as marital or parental issues, she may take them to work with her. Consequently, if she is short and withdrawn from her co-workers, and if they are ignorant about the cause of her behavior, they will assume that she has an issue with them.

Conflict Management Strategy/Addressing Conflict

There are number of ways that can be utilized to address workplace conflict:

  • Avoidance: ‘Hiding our head in the sand’, hoping the conflict will go away. The avoidance strategy seeks to put off conflict indefinitely. By delaying or ignoring the conflict, the avoider hopes the problem resolves itself without a confrontation.
  • Collaboration: Working together to find a mutually beneficial solution. Collaboration, though useful, calls for a significant time commitment not appropriate to all conflicts.
  • Compromise: Finding the middle ground whereby a ‘little is given and little is gotten’. i.e. both sides of a conflict to give up elements of their position in order to establish an acceptable, if not agreeable, solution. This strategy prevails most often in conflicts where the parties hold approximately equivalent power. E.g. a business owner and partners.
  • Competing: ‘May the best person win’. It operates as a zero-sum game, in which one side wins and other loses, it works best in a limited number of conflicts, such as emergency situations. Most business owners benefit from adopting this strategy in reserve for crisis situations. E.g. pay-cuts or layoffs.
  • Accommodation: Surrendering our own needs and wishes to please the other person.

It is generally believed that either collaboration or compromise are the most productive forms of addressing conflict because there is not a winner or loser but rather a ‘working together’ for the best possible solution.

As we learn to handle conflict in a constructive manner, we are able to appreciate that disagreeing with others is not always a negative or destructive process. Properly handled, conflict can lead to a healthy sharing of ideas and opinions and can ideally allow us to accommodate new concepts and ideas. More often than not, it is not the conflict that is the problem, but how we choose to deal with it that brings us negative results and damaged relationships.

Most of us have been conditioned to view conflict as an unpleasant thing. However, conflict is the manifestation of how people think and behave according to their different personal and social histories. It also occurs as a response to frustration, and some would say as an expression of aggressive and competitive instincts. The most valuable aspect of conflict is the energy that it generates. Conflict will become easier to manage if we see it as inevitable but not necessarily destructive, and as a problem to be solved rather than a battle to be won. By actively resolving conflict when it occurs, we can create a more positive work environment for everyone.