Workplace conflict is an inevitable aspect of any organisation, stemming from a variety of factors and circumstances, and erupting when individuals perceive that their interests, values, or expectations have been compromised or challenged.
Understanding the causes of workplace conflict is crucial for effectively managing and resolving them. Additionally, it is essential to assess the costs associated with workplace conflict, as it can have far-reaching implications for both individuals and organisations as a whole.
In an interaction with People Matters, Sanghamitra Bhattacharyya, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, and Director, Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Gurgaon, delves in to the underlying causes and significant costs of workplace conflict and offers actionable advice to effectively handle conflicts with co-workers or managers.
What are the typical factors that contribute to workplace conflict?
Conflict, defined as “any kind of opposition or antagonistic interaction” between two people/groups/ entities, is essentially a matter of perception, and arises when one of them perceives that the other party has negatively affected, or about to affect, something that the first person/entity cares about. Hence, anything that has the potential to give rise to this perception can lead to conflict.
There could be a variety of factors and reasons that could lead to workplace conflict, that could be broadly grouped under “Communication-related’, “Organisational structure related” and “Personality-related”.
- Under communication-related reasons could be inadequate or unclear communication by managers and colleagues that leave scope for individual interpretation, anxiety, and possible perception of some negative outcomes. Similarly, unclear organisational rules and policies/procedures that leave scope for individual employees to interpret the rules in their own way might lead to unreasonable expectations and possible disappointment, if such expectations are not met or are violated.
- Structural reasons could include overlapping or unclear job boundaries where one person might feel that some other colleague is trying to ‘encroach’ into or interfere with his/her work-space; competition for limited organisational resources – multiple employees vying for access to money, human resources, prized projects, time, proximity to leaders etc; interdependent tasks, especially in a sequential chain of operations where one person’s output is dependent on another’s quality of input; extreme time pressures to submit deliverables on tight deadlines; and collective decision-making or decision-making by consensus, which, though by and large desirable, can escalate to unmanageable proportions and hence perceived conflict if differences of opinions are not managed properly.
- Personality-related reasons could include factors such as an incompatible personality or value systems (a person’s personality/values might be at variance with organisation’s or other members’, thereby leading to unmet expectations or a feeling that one’s beliefs have been violated, and contentious difference of opinions arising as a result), and workplace incivility from co-workers, largely from those personalities that are more prone to bullying/manipulating/intimidating others, thereby resulting in resentment, anger, anxiety, and contentious exchanges or conflict with co-workers.
What are the implications and consequences of workplace conflict?
While an optimum level of functional conflict is a desirable thing in organisations, too much of conflict, especially when it escalates to dysfunctional, relationship-oriented levels, can lead to heightened stress, political infighting among employees, dissatisfaction, lack of teamwork, lowered productivity, even turnover – all of which have negative financial implications for the organisation, in addition to negative psychological and emotional toll on employees, further aggravating the overall costs.
What are effective approaches with co-workers or managers for managing conflicts?
Conflict, per se, is not bad for an organisation. In fact, modern management approaches suggest that every organisation needs some optimum level of conflict to be present, in order that creativity, innovation, diverse viewpoints, and new ideas may result, and the organisation continues to grow.
However, this optimum level of conflict needs to be controlled to task-related differences of opinions, for it to result in functional and positive outcomes for the organisation.
In case the contentious exchanges and differences arise from relationship or personality related issues, with personally hurtful acts and comments which result in denigrating and/or hurting individual sentiments not related to the work/ job, the result can become dysfunctional and often escalate to annihilatory levels of conflict, breakdown of work relationships, negative outcomes such as political behaviour, incivility, and even resignations by affected parties.
Hence, a ‘bouquet’ or ‘menu’ of strategies are suggested, for conflict resolution under various types of situations. For example:
- In cases where conflict has arisen because of (i) trivial issues, (ii) conflicting parties have both become agitated or heated and there is a danger of both sides doing something that they might regret later, or (iii) when more information is needed to settle the differences, it might be better to ‘avoid’ the conflict by walking away. Sometimes this might be a temporary measure to come back to the fray in a cooler frame of mind, and with more information.
- In cases where (i) one of the conflicting parties/ entities find themselves in a weaker position of having insufficient or incorrect information, (ii) when the issue is more important to the other party, or (iii) when one party needs to build some ‘social credits’ or ‘favour’ to be cashed in later, he/she might decide to ‘give in’ or ‘accommodate’ the other party’s viewpoints.
- In situations where the conflicting entities are equally powerful (e.g. top management vs workers’ union, etc), but fighting for different, complex and important ends, a long-drawn conflict might result in a drain of organisation’s resources, and loss of revenues, which would be harmful for all. Hence, an expedient solution under time pressure might be that of ‘compromise’ where both entities decide to sacrifice a part of their ‘asks’ in order to meet half way and resolve the deadlock temporarily.
- In certain situations, conflicts arise because of unpopular actions being taken, which, while beneficial for the rest of the organisation, might be personally harmful or have negative consequences for an individual. Sometimes, a show of accommodation or respect might be falsely perceived by one party to be a sign of weakness in the other party, in which case it would be necessary to put up a firm show to avoid being taken for granted. In such situations, it might be advisable to take a ‘competing’ approach and stick to ones’ own stand come what may, till the end. Of course, this could probably sometimes result in permanent breakdown of relationships, to the point of no return.
- Finally, an ‘integrative’ approach would be a win-win situation for all, where both parties’ concerns are addressed in a collaborative and respectful manner through discussions. Such a strategy would be feasible when the issues of both parties under conflict are too important for the organisation to be ignored, when relationships need to be improved through a show of respectful collaboration, and when merging both viewpoints can act as a crucible for better ideas to emerge. However, while this would be an ideal approach, this is time–consuming and requires substantial efforts from both parties, along with training in collaborative conflict resolution.
How can conflicts stemming from differences in personality or work style be effectively managed?
Personality conflicts can be one of the biggest challenges in the workplace. Conflicts can usually be diffused by acceptance, understanding, appropriate action, and professionalism. It is imperative to remember that while one cannot control the behaviour of other people, one can control one’s own reaction to it.
Hence, some important points to keep in mind are:
- One’s own way of thinking is not necessarily right, and one’s personality is not necessarily the “normal” one.
- Different people have different perspectives to the problem/issue under discussion or disagreement, and despite those perspectives being different from one’s own, are probably equally valid. In fact, different personalities, if handled correctly, can come out with innovative and different ideas and solutions.
- Be aware of one’s own biases – try and avoid the fundamental attribution error of assuming that the other person’s/other people’s behaviour is because of their personalities and not the situation itself, while assuming just the opposite of oneself.
- A “me versus them’ situation is to be avoided, by focusing on the root cause of the conflict, rather than allowing superficial perceptions of hurt to cloud one’s judgement.
Some strategies to deal with personality related or work-style related conflicts are briefly mentioned here:
- Sometimes a personality conflict can be defused by a little bit of kindness, acceptance and understanding. When we are able to accept personality differences, it often defuses defensiveness and friction.
- It is not necessary for coworkers to like each other to work together effectively. It is important to stay professional, conduct oneself in a professional manner, not take remarks personally, and be calm and courteous during interactions.
- Maintain an appropriate tone of your communication - whether in person, via e-mail or over the phone, so that it comes across as neutral and not hostile or intimidating.
- Focus on and talk about evidence-based behaviour, events, not one someone’s personality characteristics.
- Listen carefully, and try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes - empathise.
- When personality conflicts do arise, it is important to determine directly with the other person what the real issue is – whether it is just a difference of opinion, or is there a more serious underlying problem? It would be a good idea to address the problem with the other person directly.
- However, if you have been unable to resolve a personality conflict that is interfering with your work, it may be necessary to bring it to the attention of management. Sometimes, mediation by a third party might be necessary to defuse conflict. Sometimes it may be possible to restructure and assign the conflicting individuals to different projects or teams, or in more extreme cases, for one of the parties to be transferred to another department or division to eliminate contact.
How can conflicting parties' needs be balanced while simultaneously upholding the company or team's overall goals and objectives?
It is important to ensure a ‘good’ resolution of conflict which fosters respectful debate and yields mutually agreed-upon, beneficial and functional outcomes, both for the individuals/entities and for the organisation. A ‘bad’ resolution, on the other hand, occurs when conflicting parties are unable to move past their differences, and get locked in an increasingly stressful and debilitating impasse, killing productivity and stifling innovation.
Some points to keep mind for ensuring a ‘good’ resolution include the following:
- Looking beneath the conflict - A dispute may actually be about hidden, often unconscious - beliefs, biases, prejudices that people hold about others.
- Determining the facts and stating the other's argument and demands to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
- Being sensitive to the other's position and perspective, and seeing the conflict through his/her eyes.
- Avoiding generalised personally disparaging remarks and sticking to facts and specific, data-based evidence.
- Resisting aggression or forcibly imposing one's values and opinions on another – unless the situation really calls for it.