The Causes of Workplace Conflict

Posted in : HR Updates on 20 January 2016
Joanne Kane
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According to Benjamin Franklin, "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes". And possibly workplace conflict. Research by CPP, who publish the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, indicates that 85% of employees, at all levels, have experienced workplace conflict and employees spend an average of 2.8 hours per week dealing with it.

But is all workplace conflict the same? Is it always a bad thing? In the first of a series of seven articles on Workplace Conflict, Joanne Kane, HR Director at Headstogether Consulting, looks at the causes of conflict, how to recognise them, and how acceptance and management of conflict can be just as important as dealing with it when it turns into open dispute.

The causes of conflict are complex, often interrelated, and don't lend themselves to easy definitions. However they generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • External Influences
  • Interpersonal Factors
  • Conflicting Interests

External Influences

It's often assumed that conflict is caused by stress, change or uncertainty, and that's true. But in reality, the precursor to all of these factors is usually an external influence that's having an impact on an organisation. A recent very direct example is the reaction to the announcement of the Northern Ireland government's austerity agenda. The First Minister announced the reform of Stormont departments on 2nd March 2015, and the first public sector strike took place on the 13th. Stress, change and uncertainty, all brought about by a purely external influence.

Clearly austerity is a factor that is always likely to have a negative impact on employees as a group. But it's important to realise that an external influence can be positive for employees as a group, whilst still causing internal conflict. Picture a business that's expanding and creating a new division to pursue a new market opportunity. Conflict could arise from the perception that resource is being unfairly allocated to the new venture, or through positioning and competition between employees for roles within the new venture. In fact many managers would view the type of conflict that gives rise to internal competition as potentially a good thing, if properly managed.

Not all external influences are foreseeable, but it pays to be on the lookout for factors that might lead to internal conflict, so that an organisation can consider early on the right way to manage it.

Interpersonal Differences

Internally, the most obvious and widely recognised causes of conflict are interpersonal differences. These are things like different working styles, personal values and increasingly, as workplaces become more diverse, cultural differences. It doesn't take too much imagination to anticipate how interpersonal differences can create conflict that ultimately results in workplace disputes. But conflict, if it's respectful and properly managed, can also be a vital element in team working.

Creativity, innovation, and leveraging different perspectives are key elements of effective team working that depend on a degree of managed conflict between individuals. The alternative can be "groupthink", when individuals censor themselves, or are censored, because keeping unanimity and avoiding conflict has become all-important. What's sacrificed is the process of making optimal decisions through exploring and challenging all of the alternatives.

A textbook example is the collapse of Swissair, which was a highly successful company that began to think it was invincible. For 6 years the board went on a spending spree, buying up a string of foreign airlines and significantly overreaching itself. A culture had grown up in which this strategy was believed by the group as a collective "truth" and challenge, if it ever came, was quashed. In 2001 Swissair collapsed and it's fleet was grounded.

Managers can use a range of strategies to promote healthy conflict and avoid groupthink. For example publicly reframing managed disagreement as healthy and positive, giving employees permission to question the consensus recognising them for doing so, or even tasking a team member with the role of devil's advocate, to ensure that challenge always takes place.  

Conflicting Interests

Wherever there is an allocation of resources, individuals in different roles will have conflicting goals. For example, the distribution of workload across an employee group, or competition between employees for resources like office space, funding, or even the boss's time. Employees also have conflicting personal goals. For example a salesperson's goal might be to sign up a new contract before a month-end sales deadline, whereas a credit controller's goal might be to thoroughly vet the new customer first. In this case though, it's important to realise that these conflicting goals might serve the higher interests of the wider organisation; the credit controller providing checks and balances to avoid the sales person taking on an undesirable customer.

Taken to its logical conclusion, an organisation might choose to actively promote conflict between employees in the form of open competition. A fast growing new industry is the "gamificaton" of the sales process. Using specially designed online platforms, companies are essentially turning the sales process into a computer game where competition is open, real-time and visual, and "real world" achievements win online points, that can be cashed in for incentives. Ironically, it's in this type of environment where conflict is perhaps least likely to progress into open dispute. The rules are set up-front and are known, understood and at least implicitly accepted by the participants, whose personality type might perhaps allow them to thrive in an environment where conflict is the norm.     

So think about the true nature of the causes of conflict. Clearly conflict that has or is likely to lead to outright dispute between individuals or groups is undesirable, and is to be anticipated and avoided. But in some circumstances conflict can be managed to optimise team performance. Sometimes it serves a useful purpose operationally, and might in fact have been engineered within the business model. Understanding these factors is key to arriving at the right approach.

In subsequent articles in the series Joanne will look at what happens when conflict progresses into outright dispute, how to manage and ultimately resolve disputes, and how to avoid the pitfalls along the way.

This article is correct at 20/01/2016

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Joanne Kane

The main content of this article was provided by Joanne Kane. Contact telephone number is +44 (0) 7785 995698 or email

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