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Conflict in the workplace is commonplace in any business or organisation, and it can take many different forms, from personality clashes and colleague rivalry to misunderstanding and dissatisfaction with management. However, a workplace that is entirely free of conflict is not necessarily healthy or productive. An element of conflict can be beneficial to a business, for example, to challenge inefficient processes, promote new approaches or increase productivity.

As a manager, turning a blind eye to negative conflict is inadvisable because escalating issues can produce a toxic working environment for everyone. The wrong type of conflict in the workplace is counterproductive and has the potential to damage a business’s aspirations. Therefore, resolving disagreements and challenging inappropriate behaviour in a timely manner is desirable.

Causes of workplace conflict

Personal differences or rivalries

Conflict in the workplace can stem from personal differences among colleagues. For example, interpersonal conflict may arise when team members do not share the same values and attitudes or come from different cultural or family backgrounds. Or there may simply be a personality clash, where two individuals find it impossible to work together. In this case, conflict within the team can escalate quickly as the hostile atmosphere impacts other team members, reducing productivity and employee engagement. There is also a possibility of other team members taking sides, exacerbating the problem. Thirdly, there can be role rivalry, where one colleague resents another’s promotion, new role or responsibilities within the team. The resulting resentment and envy can lead to conflict.

Goal or role responsibilities

All businesses have a vision and a business strategy to help them achieve that vision, broken down by a series of goals and objectives. Often individuals are unaware of the business objectives and how their role or team can affect the outcome. They may strive towards achieving a different goal or purpose. It may be that their role was not clarified initially, which has led to uncertainty or conflict within a team or between departments.

Inadequate or poor communication

Poor communication can affect all levels of an organisation. A lack of clear communication from the top down can contribute to a lack of trust between employees and management. This distrust can lead to conflict at every level of the business. A good two-way communication system is therefore essential for success.

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The organisation itself

Conflict in the workplace can arise from organisational changes, such as when responsibilities or roles are changed to meet the market’s changing needs or broader environment. At best such changes can be unsettling and, at worst, demoralising for those affected. Rivalries can result, especially when an individual’s status has changed, leading to conflict and uncooperative colleagues where such changes have taken place.

The limited resources in an organisation can also contribute to conflict in the workplace. For example, when someone leaves a team, and the company takes a long time to replace the individual or decides not to replace them at all. Or when management believes that employees can and should be reaching goals quickly. The resulting pressure can lead to conflict both within the team and between the team and management because employees feel they do not have enough time or team members to complete their allocated tasks.

Conflict avoidance

Teams need to work together towards a common goal. Team members depend on each other for collaboration and support and need to work together in harmony to hit their targets. Colleagues need to know how to collaborate, so in certain circumstances, letting employees work it out between themselves may be a practical solution.

However, managers should not overlook or avoid handling conflict that negatively affects colleagues and makes it difficult for them to carry out their duties effectively. A manager who is known to be aware of conflict but chooses to do little to resolve it risks losing the respect of their team and management. It is a manager’s job to deal with conflict when it arises, and avoiding dealing with it because it makes you uncomfortable, is not a suitable course of action. Conflict avoidance may lead to a manager being perceived as weak and ineffective. What is more, a leader without a credible reputation could lose the ability to motivate their staff.

Therefore, good timing is key. The best time to act to resolve or eliminate conflict in the workplace is when its impact on colleagues limits their ability to work effectively towards their team goal.

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Conflict prevention

Good leadership is about resolving negative conflict effectively and encouraging positive conflict, and it also involves preventing negative conflict. Recognising, understanding, and respecting the differences between the people in your organisation will help you learn how to prevent and well as resolve conflict. The more you get to know and understand individual team members, the easier it will be to foresee potential instances where conflict may arise and manage the situation accordingly.

Learning how to empathise with every individual will enable you to see any conflict situation from their point of view and assess how it affects them as individuals. People management is about knowing how to support, motivate and professionally develop every staff member. Failing to respect their differences risks disenfranchising them and creating foundations for future conflict.

As a manager, you can choose to set an example of what is and what is not appropriate behaviour within your department. If you are clear about role responsibilities and business practices and encourage team building and personal development, you can effectively reduce the possibility of conflict in the workplace.

At Delphinium, we support your professional development to become a more effective leader. If you feel you would benefit from management training to recognise the signs of conflict and gain the skills needed for conflict resolution, please contact us to discuss your options for further training.

Author: Gemma Rolstone | Published 31st January 2022.