Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict in the Workplace
by Mary Rau-Foster

“I have better things to do with my time than to baby-sit with a bunch of feuding children,” complains one manager. “It seems that someone is always mad at someone else, feuding with someone else, or refusing to work with him or her. What is this all about anyway?”

It is all about conflict, a normal and natural part of our workplace and personal lives. Conflict can be helpful in making necessary changes within the home or work environment. However, unresolved conflict can result in feelings of dissatisfaction, unhappiness, hopelessness, depression, and other emotions. It can result in behaviors such as physical or emotional withdrawal, resignation from jobs, dissolution of personal relations, aggression, and even violence.

Communication is both the cause of and the remedy for conflict. Understanding how to effectively communicate, and how to satisfactorily resolve disputes, can lead to a happier, more productive life. Communication and conflict resolution skills must be learned. Most often, poor communication and conflict resolution styles must be corrected and replaced with approaches that are more conducive to creating peace in the workplace and at home.

The workplace setting is fertile breeding ground for conflicts because of the dynamics and interdependency of the employee-to-employee, customer-to-employee, and employee-to-outside vendor relationships. Recognizing and addressing the factors that give rise to the potential for conflict can have a positive impact on workplace and the productivity in the workplace.

It is all about conflict in the workplace. Is it avoidable? Is it preventable? Is it necessary? The answer to all of these questions is “yes.”

Most people fear conflict and see it as something to avoid. In fact, conflict is a normal and natural part of our lives, both professionally and personally. Conflict in the right setting, handled in the right way, can be beneficial. It is through conflict that an awareness of the need for some necessary changes can be made – at work and at home.

Common Sources of Conflict

  1. Unclear definition of responsibility — there will be numerous occasions for conflict to arise over decisions made or actions taken in disputed territory.
  2. Limited resources — time, money, space, materials, supplies, and equipment are all valuable resources. Competition for any of these resources will inevitably lead to interpersonal and interdepartmental conflict.
  3. Conflict of interest — individuals may fight for their personal goals and lose sight of organizational goals. Each individual needs to know how his or her personal goals and efforts fit within the organizational goals and efforts.


Where does conflict come from?

Conflict arises from a clash of perceptions, goals, or values in an arena where people care about the outcome. The breeding ground for conflict may lie in confusion about, or disagreement with, the common purpose and how to achieve it while also achieving individual goals within an organization. In addition, the competition for limited (internal and external) resources will feed conflict.

Interdependency within an organization feeds the lion of conflict. Open communication is the means by which disagreement can be prevented, managed, or resolved. The lack of open communication drives conflict underground and can create a downward spiral of misunderstanding and hostility. Our ability to accomplish our goals and objectives depends on the cooperation and assistance of others, which increases the opportunity for conflict. No one person can do the job without the input of someone else. When the other person is late, has different priorities, misunderstands directions, or is playing office politics, conflicts are created.

Increased interaction is also an ingredient in the conflict mixture. The more often people interact, the more potential there is for conflict. It also requires that people understand other’s points of view, needs, and priorities. Teamwork and increasing levels of participation within an organization will require a greater need for conflict resolution skills.

The basic components of conflict are:

  • two or more persons are involved,
  • there is a perceived incompatibility between ideas, actions, beliefs, or goals,
  • the opposing sides see their way as the only way to achieve their goals and objectives.

Conflict occurs as a result of two or more people interacting together. There are two types of conflict in the work place:

  1. substantive conflict
  2. personality-based conflict.

The substantive conflict can be dealt with by addressing the specific problem that is the subject of the conflict. For example, Lucy can not complete her report until John gets all of the numbers to her. Lucy believes that John procrastinates until the last minute, forcing her to do a rushed job which increases her stress and makes her fear that she will look bad to the boss. John feels like Lucy puts too much pressure on both of them, and sets unrealistic deadlines. As the conflict increases, the productivity and efficiency decrease. Both employees feel bad about this, but are lost as to how to overcome the problem. This is where the parties may need to have a manager intervene and mediate the dispute.

Another example is when two employees must use the same printer. When one has a big printing job and ties up the printer, the other employee is sometimes delayed and can’t get a promised document out on time. In this case, the two parties can be trained how to mediate the dispute themselves. Any problem resolved by and between the two employees can only serve to empower them and to anchor effective conflict resolution techniques that can be used at work and at home.

From time to time, there may be conflict between employees that is simply personality-based conflict. While this particular problem is not one for mediation, nonetheless it must be addressed. In some situations, it may come to the point where both employees are told that they must learn to work together in spite of their differences, or both must leave. Most often this has the intended effect, in that the parties agree that keeping their jobs is more important than continuing to engage in conflict.

There is one other important consideration, and that is the importance of teaching employees how to appropriately talk with each other. The use of good communication skills is essential in keeping the peace at work and home. Unfortunately, most of us are not born with good communication skills and, therefore, we must learn them.

You may ask, “Why not ignore the conflict and hope that it goes away?” Because unresolved conflict costs. The costs include employee turnover and time wasted complaining about or enlisting the sympathy of others in the “wronged employee’s” plight. The costs may also include increased absenteeism, health claims, or stress-related worker’s compensation claims. Unresolved conflict can be costly!

The ability to manage conflicting goals and methods within a limited resource environment is critical. Unresolved or unmanaged conflict can quickly escalate and halt an organization’s progress as people spend time worrying more about conflict than organizational goals.

Many managers employ the ostrich technique in dealing with conflict. They bury their heads in the sand and try to ignore it. However, this does nothing to improve the situation. When conflict is driven underground, it only grows and will stay underground until it is so intense that an explosion may the next step.

The expenditure of valuable resources to address and resolve conflict, and to improve communication in the workplace, may seem to be a luxury. It is not. It is, however, an effective measure to preserve the most important resources in the workplace — happy and productive employees. An investment in educating employees in effective communication and conflict resolution skills is a gift that keeps on giving.

By the way, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Please Note:  This article is for informational purposes only. It is not the intent of Mary Rau-Foster to render legal advice. If legal advice is required, you should seek the services of a competent lawyer.

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