ConflictHow often does a day go by without you experiencing or observing some form of conflict in your workplace? This includes a colleague with a grievance, conflict between two or more of your colleagues, or a problem between you and your boss. Conflict is integral to any work environment. Unfortunately conflict can be quite costly and often stand in the way of creating a productive workplace. So, what is conflict, what causes it and how do we best deal with it?

What is workplace conflict?

Webster’s dictionary defines conflict as a sharp disagreement or opposition of interests or ideas. When people work together, conflict is a part of ‘doing business’. Conflict usually leads to lowered morale, an increase in absenteeism and decreased productivity. It has been estimated that managers spend almost 25 percent of their time resolving workplace conflicts – resulting in a decrease in focus and thus lowered work performance.

What creates conflict in the workplace?

Conflict is a result of a variety of causes. The University of Colorado–Boulder describes some of the primary causes as:

  • Poor Communication: different communication styles can lead to misunderstandings between employees or between an employee and manager. Lack of communication drives conflict ‘underground’.
  • 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.
  • Conflicting Interests: conflict occurs when individual workers ‘fight’ for their personal goals, ignoring organizational goals and organizational well-being.
  • Scarce Resources: too often, employees feel they have to compete for available resources in order to do their jobs. In a resource scarce environment, this causes conflicts – despite awareness of how scarce resources may be.
  • 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.
  • 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.

How do I deal with conflict in the workplace?

Handling and resolving conflicts that arise in the workplace is probably one of the biggest challenges managers and employees face. Typically there are two responses to conflict: run away (avoidance) or ‘battle it out’. Unfortunately, no one of these responses usually leads to resolving the situation. By learning to constructively resolve conflict, one can turn a potentially destructive situation into an opportunity for creativity and enhanced performance. The specific cause of conflict probably determines how to deal with it. Mike Myatt suggests the following general guidelines to help with effective handling of conflict in the workplace:

    1. Define Acceptable Behaviour: Defining what acceptable behaviour is, is a positive step in avoiding conflict. Clearly defined job descriptions inform employees of what is expected of them, and a well-articulated chain of command that allows for effective communication will help avoid conflicts.
    2. Hit Conflict Head-on: The secret to conflict resolution is conflict prevention. By actually seeking out areas of potential conflict and proactively intervening in a just and decisive fashion, it is possible to prevent certain conflicts from ever arising. If a conflict does flair up, one can likely minimize its severity by dealing with it quickly.
    3. Understanding the WIIFM Factor: Understanding other professionals’ WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) position is critical. It is absolutely essential to understand other’s motivations prior to weighing in. If you approach conflict from the perspective of taking the action that will help others best achieve their goals, you will find that few obstacles stand in your way with regard to resolving conflict.
    4. The Importance Factor: Pick your battles and avoid conflict for the sake of conflict. If the issue is important enough to create a conflict, it surely is important enough to resolve. If the issue, circumstance, or situation is important enough, and there is enough at stake, people will do what is necessary to open lines of communication and close positional and/or philosophical gaps.
    5. View Conflict as Opportunity: Hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching or learning opportunity. Where there is disagreement there is an inherent potential for growth and development. Divergent positions addressed properly can stimulate innovation and learning.

Sometimes, avoiding conflict is the easiest way to deal with it. However, ignoring it may just let it resurface in another form. So, next time you are faced by conflict in your workplace, ask yourself what is causing the conflict. Once you have established what the cause is, it is easier to decide on what action you need to take in order to resolve it. By actively dealing with conflict when it occurs, we create a more productive and positive work environment for ourselves and everyone that works with us.

Useful resources:

Cloke, K. & Goldsmith, J. (2011). Resolving conflicts at work: Ten strategies for everyone on the job. San Francisco, CA: Wiley. Maravelas, A. (2005). How to reduce workplace conflict and stress. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press. Myatt, M. Five keys of dealing with workplace conflict, Gatlin, J., Wysocki, A., & Kepner, K. Understanding conflict in the workplace. Resolving workplace conflict.