What is conflict, and why does it happen?

Ever worked in a conflict-free workplace? Neither have we. While some conflict can be minor – useful even for moving things forward and effecting change, most isn’t. Research shows that each of us spends an average of two-to-three hours per week either involved in or dealing with conflict in some way. Having said that, resolving matters isn’t as simple as removing the source of said conflict, especially if the source may not be obvious or isn’t what (or who) you think it is. 

Workplace conflict often isn’t just an argument between team members or overbearing leadership. Thinking it is – or denying that conflict in your workplace exists at all – is the reason some internal discord never gets sorted out for good. Instead, conflict can be far more pervasive, multi-faceted and complex – and therefore damaging – if it is not understood and subsequently addressed correctly. 

So what causes conflict in the first place?

Poor communication

The root cause of most difficulties including conflict in the workplace is poor communication. This can be incidental – some people aren’t taught to communicate properly as children,  especially when it comes to their needs. Whereas others, often managers, deliberately fail to nail their colours to the mast because they’re not really sure what’s going on/going to happen and being ambiguous is a way of appearing as though they are in control of the outcome – whatever that turns out to be. While that may be fine for the individual responsible, keeping things vague can be highly damaging for those working around them. 

Poor communication leads to ambiguity and uncertainty and it can leave people feeling anxious which creates underlying conflict. It can manifest itself in various ways:

  • Unclear job roles – Vague job specs only benefit the company, not the current or prospective hiree. They’re incredibly common in the tech space either because the person writing it may not be technical and they aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for, or they want to attract top talent that can adapt rather than someone who fits in a box. Once someone is in the role, it needs to be defined properly. While there will always be times that someone will need to go above and beyond what is normally expected of them, they are more likely to do this when they have clear boundaries. Failing to do so leaves a person unsure of their responsibilities and therefore unable to push back when asked to do things that conflict with their perceived limits of the role. Being pulled in different directions causes resentment and once built up, leads to conflict. 
  • Misunderstandings – Minor disagreements between colleagues based on assumptions, misplaced expectations and/or lack of accountability and trust can cause conflict and swell if not dealt with appropriately.
  • Lack of clarity around purpose – The quickest way to lose engagement and drive conflict is being unclear about the purpose or mission of particular actions. Whether it’s in regards to someone’s role, their impact on the product/user or wider ambiguity around the company vision/mission, if people aren’t sure what they’re buying into or find out later that they’ve been working on something that doesn’t align with their values, conflict can arise. 
  • Ambiguous or no feedback  – Feedback is not only crucial for someone’s development, failing to give it or being unclear when doing so can give the impression you don’t care about your staff and the role they play; good or bad. Having said that, feedback needs to be constructive rather than critical, even when mistakes are made. The latter will only seek to demoralise reportees. 

Unfairness

Although most people claim to (and indeed believe they) act fairly, this is subjective based on their own experiences, education and unconscious bias. A workplace where unfairness exists and is allowed to perpetuate is a breeding ground for conflict. Even if you don’t think it happens in your workplace, it’s worth paying attention and looking out for the following: 

  • Lack of equal opportunities – If not everyone in your team or the company is being given the same access to training, development or promotion opportunities, or there is a no equal opportunities policy to prevent discrimination from taking place (whether systemic or otherwise) it undermines meritocracy and leads to frustration and resentment.  
  • Unfair treatment – Similarly, unconscious – or even in some cases, conscious and deliberate (i.e. favouritism) bias leads to people being treated differently and therefore unfairly.
  • Inadequate training – Not giving people the right tools, resources and/or training to do their job properly or effectively is both unfair and leads to conflict  by virtue of setting them up to fail. 

Problematic Environment

Remember the saying, one person’s cup of tea is another person’s poison? Well, this can just as easily apply to your working environment – what works for one member of your team, won’t always work for another. Failing to recognise that can lead to underlying problems that can either cause or feed into wider conflict. There are also systemic factors that can create workplace environmental injustice:

  • Confrontation – We’re talking actual arguments or disagreements that happen in the office that make both those involved and the people around them feel uncomfortable. Especially when the issue remains unresolved and people feel they need to take sides or it creates a culture of gossip and back-stabbing;
  • Unexpected or uninformed change Significant changes to management structures/organisational hierarchy, feedback or pay and bonus schemes, especially changes where the people impacted aren’t consulted or their views and concerns are ignored trigger conflict;
  • Poor working environment – Whether it’s noise, inadequate equipment or lack of lighting, physically unpleasant work spaces can lead to exhaustion and builds frustration and leaves staff feeling undervalued or forgotten about;
  • Bullying and harassment – It goes without saying that treatment of this nature is not only categorically wrong but causes conflict by creating a culture of fear and intimidation;
  • Stress and burnoutThe main part of what managers do is manage people. It’s complex, requires a lot of energy and headspace. Dealing with multiple roles, personalities and objectives can lead to stress and burnout, if not done effectively and with the right resources and support;
  • Personality clashes – Conflicts can obviously also arise when people’s characteristics jar with the demands of their role, including those triggered by coworkers’ personalities. Although it is assumed that this is the main cause of conflict in the workplace, this isn’t the case.

Bad (Self) Management 

  • Poor or mismanagement – Failing to manage people properly, whether that’s not providing them with everything necessary to succeed, having a superiority complex, being a micromanager or worse, being so hands off that you’re only a manager in title rather than action, will drum up conflict and negative feelings anong reportees which can ripple out into the wider team;
  • Lack of planning/time – Someone who is unable to manage their time proficiently and misses meetings/deadlines and are relied upon by others to provide/pair on things can cause a great deal of conflict when it becomes a regular occurrence;
  • Poor staff selection – Whether this means hiring someone whose personality and/or skills aren’t the right fit for the role or team, or forming a project group that contains people who can’t meet the delivery timescales and/or product and output quality, it adds a great deal of undue pressure on others around them.

It is important to note that not only is the list above not exhaustive, it can be quite common for more than one type of conflict to be present at any one time, especially as some are closely related and can feed into and indeed increase the level of workplace conflict. 

The impact of unmanaged conflict

If conflict isn’t dealt with swiftly and resolved properly, it can lead to additional problems down the line both for staff and the company as a whole that are costly and time-consuming.  

In the short-term, workplace conflicts can affect team morale, job satisfaction and motivation. Your employees may take time off to avoid the problems and those who are responsible for it. They may feel stressed and emotionally drained, which can affect their mental health and result in absenteeism.

Conflict and any corresponding absenteeism or lack of focus/engagement will also impact the product or services you are trying to provide. Customers and clients want consistency and reliability, both of which are compromised by unresolved internal issues.

In the longer term, companies who fail to adequately deal with conflict will see a high turnover of staff and subsequent problems when hiring. Why? Because people talk. When that knowledge and information gains pace and is shared among people outside of the business (i.e. recruiters or competitors), significant damage can be done to a company’s reputation if it is seen as a place that allows chaos and turmoil to reign. 

Models for resolution

In order to prevent the fallout from low-level conflict, you need the tools to resolve it not only quickly, but properly. Luckily there are a number of different models for resolution that can help you do so. While one may work better than the other, the models aren’t standalone and can (and likely should) be used together to find a way through the conflict more effectively.

  1. Transactional Analysis – Coined by Eric Berne, this is what it says on the tin. You need to look at the conflict or ‘transaction’ and work out people’s roles (including yours) in it. Transactions between people contain both direct (speech and phraseology) and hidden (non-verbal communication or unspoken words) parts. When people communicate, they play either the role of the parent, adult or child. A ‘parent’ demonstrates care, controlling behaviour and can/will raise the voice during communication. An ‘adult’ uses objective statements, emotionless discussions, and focuses on the goal and looks for ways to reach it. The ‘child’ displays emotional behaviour, knee-jerk actions and provides excuses rather than reflection and analysis. Notice which one you’re in and which one the other person(s) is in and if needed, shift both to ‘adult’. Do this by: 
    • Focusing on the matter at hand
    • Asking a question
    • Stating the facts as they appear without emotion or blame
    • Asking for the other person’s opinion
    • Appeal to their ‘nurturing parent’ side (if they have one) by asking them for help and support in resolving the issue and showing you care about them by being open with your concerns
  2. Non-violent Communication (NVC) – Mediation doesn’t just happen in the court process, it can also be beneficial for resolving conflicts in the workplace. The aim of NVC – created by Marshall Rosenberg – is to find common ground and agreement between the opposing parties and not a compromise.  In this approach, there isn’t a one-side solution. Instead, the mediator facilitates the conversation and encourages people to be both open but also listen and hear what the other person’s wants and needs.
  3. Interest-based Rational Approach (IbRA) – Reframing the conflict and looking at it as a negotiation process can be helpful. In their book ‘Getting to a Yes’, Roger Fisher and William Ury recommend the following to navigate workplace difficulties and reach a consensus:
    • Separate the people from the problem;
    • Focus on interests, not positions;
    • Learn to manage emotions; 
    • Express appreciation; 
    • Put a positive spin on your message; and 
    • Escape the cycle of action and reaction.
  4. Crucial Confrontations (CC) – A multi-authored methodology, CC consists of focusing on facts, remaining calm, listening to the other person with respect and working to motivate the other person and enable a change in behaviour. It is a good tool for ‘resolving broken promises, violated expectations and bad behaviour’.
  5. Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team – Penned by Patrick Lencioni, the root cause of organisational politics are five key issues that cause team cohesion to fail. These are: Absence of trust; fear of conflict; lack of commitment; avoidance of team accountability and inattention to team objectives.
  6. Using power and authority wisely – While authority is needed, if exercised incorrectly it can be the source and/or facilitator of conflict. It exists in two ways: formal (given) and informal authority (earned) and ensuring that in either case, good leadership is shown, trust is given and responsibility is taken can help minimise internal issues.
  7. Self-management – This form of conflict resolution process is similar to community mediation. Mechanisms include: one-on-one discussion, peer mediation and mediation by a panel. Some self-managing organisations will also use team or individual coaching to work through conflicts. Morningstar suggests the following process by way of example:
    • In the first phase, the two people sit together and try to sort it out privately.
    • If they can’t find a solution agreeable to both, they nominate a colleague they both trust to act as a mediator. The mediator doesn’t impose a decision. Rather he or she supports the participants in coming to their own solution.
    • If mediation fails, a panel of topic-relevant colleagues is convened. Again the panel does not impose a solution.
    • If a resolution is not found, the founder or president might be called into the panel to add to the panel’s moral weight (but again, not to impose a solution).

Remember the model(s) you use will depend on the root causes of the conflict, so you need to take the time to identify these. Failing to do so may lead to the conflict being exacerbated or temporarily resolved only for it to rear its head again in the future. There’s no easy fix and it takes work, but it will be worth it in the long run.

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