How to Prevent and Respond to Workplace Conflict
Conflict has been defined as a "process that begins when an individual or group perceives differences and opposition between itself and another individual or group about interests and resources, beliefs, values, or practices that matter to them" (De Dreu & Gelfand, 2008, p. 6). It is common knowledge that conflict emerges quite often in the workplace. This comes as no surprise considering that even in the smallest of work settings employees and managers alike often have a multitude of differing interests, beliefs, values, and practices, and are interacting with one another with different levels of resources available to them. Nearly everyone who has held a job at some point in life has been affected by workplace conflict making workplace conflict is a key area of daily work life that must be acknowledged and addressed at both the organizational and individual levels.
The purpose of this article is to describe workplace conflict and ways to handle it. First, workplace conflict is described in detail including types, causes, and prevalence. Then, ways to prevent workplace conflict (before it occurs) are described. Finally, ways to respond to workplace conflict (after it has occurred) are presented.
Exploring Workplace Conflict
Types of Workplace Conflict
Put simply, conflict arises when the interests of one party compete with those of another. Within the workplace, these interests may include goals, values, opinions, beliefs, resources, or practices (Dreu, 2008; De Dreu & Gelfand, 2008). As outlined by Dreu (2008), the specific types of interests which may create clashes in the workplace are numerous. For example, resource-related conflicts may be over scarce time, division of labor, budget needs, or job status (Dreu, 2008). Value-related conflicts may be over beliefs in areas like culture, politics, religion, or personal philosophies. Within the scientific literature on workplace conflict, two broad categories of conflict are often discussed as different types of conflict: task and relationship (Dreu, 2008; Sonnentag, Unger, & Nagel, 2013).
Task-related conflicts (sometimes called "cognitive conflicts") are those which are over job functions like duties, deadlines, resources, and workplace policies (Dreu, 2008; Sonnentag, Unger, & Nagel, 2013). For example, a company team may have a problem with the budget cuts made by upper management to their new project. This would be considered a task conflict.
On the other hand, relationship conflicts (sometimes called "affective or socio-emotional conflicts") are those which pertain to the interpersonal interactions between individuals within an organization or company (Dreu, 2008; Sonnentag, Unger, & Nagel, 2013). For example, a co-worker may make a joke that offends another co-worker which in turns creates animosity and strained interactions in the future. This would be considered a relationship conflict. Bullying is a behavior that may be considered a type of relationship conflict. In general, "bullying involves situations where one or more persons feel subjected to negative behavior from others over a long period of time" (Ayoko, Callan, & H"rtel, 2003, p.284). Bullying can create a hostile work environment for victims who may find it difficult to act defensively, particularly in cases in which there is a power imbalance between themselves and the perpetrator of such behaviors. In the workplace, some examples of bullying behaviors include intimidating physical behaviors (e.g., threatening eye contact, shoving), intimidating or aggressive verbal assaults, and spreading rumors (Ayoko, Callan, & H"rtel, 2003). Those affected by bullying at work may experience decreased productivity, increased stress, and negative feelings like humiliation, shame, sadness, and anger.
Between task-related and relationship-related conflicts, in some situations it may be hard to distinguish which type of conflict is occurring, as overlap between these two types is frequent depending on the situation. For example, if two people in the human resources department of a company disagree over the revisions to policies and procedures manual, the conflict may originate as a task-related conflict and create a relationship-related conflict as well. While there is overlap in some cases with these categories, the distinction is helpful for exploring workplace conflict and its impact. Both types of conflict have been shown to have negative effects on the psychological well-being of employees and workplace productivity (CCP Global, 2008; Sonnentag, Unger, & Nagel, 2013).
Causes of Workplace Conflict
As stated earlier, the basic cause of all conflict is the interests of one party competing with those of another. At work, conflict can be caused by any number of competing interests. The literature often identifies some of the major causes being poor communication, poor job performance, scarce resources, differing values, goals, and personalities (Gatlin, Wysocki, & Kepner, 2008; University of Colorado Extension, 2008). One large-scale international study found that specific causes of workplace conflict identified directly by workers were personality and ego clashes (49%), stress (34%) and heavy workloads (33%) (CCP Global, 2008).
In workplace settings, conflict has been categorized a number of different ways. One source has identified eight major cause categories including: conflicting needs, conflicting styles, conflicting perceptions, conflicting goals, conflicting pressures, conflicting roles, differing personal values, and unpredictable policies (Gatlin, Wysocki, & Kepner, 2008). The following briefly describes each of these.
Conflicting needs may also be thought of as competition over resources. Conflicts may arise over resources like time, money, supplies, space, status, and time or attention from management. Another cause of workplace conflict is conflicting styles which is often about personality differences. Problems can occur over the way that people prefer to accomplish tasks or interact with one another. For example, some workers may prefer not socializing or distractions during certain hours and keep their office door shut while others may see this as unfriendly or even rude behavior.
Conflicting perceptions refers to the various ways in which people view and interpret workplace situations. Oftentimes, perceptions of the same situations are vastly different from one person to the next and this can be a cause of conflict in the workplace when the viewpoints do not align, or misinterpretations occur. Conflicting goals occur in the workplace between teams/departments and individuals. For example, it may be one department's goal to keep budgets as low as possible which may conflict with the goal of another team whose goal is to ensure that workers have ample access to resources needed to perform job duties.
Conflicting pressures refers to the conflicts that are caused by the competing needs of one person or unit from others. For example, a worker might have more than one deadline on a given day and work owed to more than one client. Conflicting roles refers to the various roles expected of different people in the workplace. Roles may conflict and give rise to conflict when they exceed job duties or expertise, for example.
Different personal values may cause conflict in the workplace when differences in culture, religion, political views, or personal philosophies contribute to negative behaviors like gossip, harassment, negative comments, and undermining the work performance of others. Finally, unpredictable policies has been described as a cause of conflict that arises when "company policies are changed, inconsistently applied, or non-existent" (Gatlin, Wysocki, & Kepner, 2008, p. 2). Policies surrounding job duties, vacation time, and dress codes, for example, should be clearly outlined and communicated, and consistency over time may help reduce conflict stemming from policies and procedures.
Prevalence of Workplace Conflict
CCP Global conducted a major international study of 5,000 full-time employees which helped shed light on the prevalence of workplace conflict (CCP Global, 2008). The study included nine countries: Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. The following chart displays responses from study participants regarding their perceptions of the frequency of workplace conflict. Most noteworthy, this study found that 85% of employees deal with conflict in their workplace and nearly 30% deal with it on a regular basis ("always" or "frequently").
Figure 1: Employee-reported frequency of workplace conflict
Source: CCP Global, 2008, p. 8
Ways to Prevent and Respond to Workplace Conflict
As with many problems in life, perhaps the best strategy for handling conflict in the workplace is to prevent it before it occurs. There are a number of things that both employees and individuals can do to help prevent conflict before it occurs. One suggested strategy is for companies and organizations to define acceptable behavior in the workplace (Myatt, 2012). For example, at the organizational level having documents that clearly define things such as standard operating policies and procedures, dress codes, and what constitutes unacceptable behavior (e.g., sexual harassment) is a good way to communicate to all parties what expectations which may go a long way toward preventing conflict.
Another suggested way to avoid workplace conflict is for individual employees to consider the importance of their needs and desires and carefully "choose one's battles" so to speak (Myatt, 2012). At times, it may be best to let go of something unless it is necessary to address the issue which may lead to conflict. Stopping to consider the importance of an issue before acting may help avoid problems and may even allow for an issue to be resolved on its own, over time.
At the individual level, it has also been suggested to consider the "WIIFM factor" or the "what's in it for me" factor regarding an issue (Myatt, 2012). Since everyone in the workplace has their own motives and agendas, considering this factor before taking certain actions may encourage more cooperation, collaboration, and harmony. This requires a shift in thinking and acting that helps others around you meet their goals and get their needs met instead of just focusing on your own goals and needs. Asking yourself a simple question like "What goal is s/he trying to reach right now?" would be an example of the WIIFM factor.
In nearly every workplace setting, despite the best efforts to prevent conflict it will inevitably occur at some point. Moreover, the bigger the company or organization, the more likely it is to occur given the higher number of competing needs and interests. When conflict does happen, it can represent an important opportunity to not only solve a problem but show all parties involved that their interests do in fact matter. In fact, many researchers and authors on the topic have even suggested that conflict may be viewed as a positive event in the workplace if it is handled well. According to Myatt (2012), "hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching/learning opportunity. Where there is disagreement there is an inherent potential for growth and development" (p.1).
Broadly speaking, conflict in the workplace is generally handled in a small number of ways (CCP Global, 2008; University of Colorado Extension, 2008). It may be handled using avoidance in which the involved parties "bury their heads in the sand" so to speak and do not acknowledge the conflict, let alone work to solve it. In some cases, avoidance may help with conflict if it lasts temporarily and gives you time to calm down and consider different angles of a particular conflict. However, prolonged avoidance often leads to worsening on conflict (CCP Global, 2008).
Workplace conflict may also be handled using collaboration in which everyone involved comes together to find solutions that help benefit all. Yet another strategy is compromise . This involves interested parties give up some of their needs or desires to help resolve conflict (CCP Global, 2008).
Workplace conflict may also be handled using competition in which the involved parties battle against one another leaving a "winner" and "loser" at the end. This strategy may be useful in cases in which relationships with others is not critically important or short-terms goals are more important than long-term ones. However, "taking a competitive approach may get you what you want short-term, but it will probably be at the expense of the long-term relationship" (CCP Global, 2008, p. 29). Workplace conflict may be handled using accommodation in which one or more parties abandons their needs or desires in order to appease others.
Of these five broad strategies, collaboration and compromise are considered the most desirable and productive (CCP Global, 2008; University of Colorado Extension, 2008). Overall, all workplace conflict should be tackled head on and as soon as possible. This helps minimize damage to important relationships and may make conflict easier to resolve.
The large-scale international study conducted by CCP Global (2008) on workplace conflict produced specific recommendations about handling conflict for both employers/organizations and individual and leaders. For employers and organizations, six strategies are suggested. First, it is recommended that clarity is aimed for in order to minimize conflict. This entails creating transparency, open communication, and good role modeling of company policies and expectations.
Second, training is recommended as a way for employers and organizations to handle conflict. This entails specific skills training on effective communication and handling conflict as well as psycho-educational training on different styles and one's own personality and working style. Third, it is suggested that employers and organizations do not ignore conflict and avoid behaviors like holding secret meetings and delaying important decisions (CCP Global, 2008).
Fourth, it is recommended that employers and organizations invest energy into relationship building and productivity when difficult times (e.g., difficult economic conditions) arise given conflict may appear more easily during such times. Fifth, conflict can be managed by spreading accountability for conflict management across all parties within a company or organization. This helps share the responsibility of this task across everyone, not just managers and leaders. Finally, a key strategy for conflict management suggested for employers/organizations is to keep an eye out for tipping points , or points in time when small issues build up and evolve into major conflicts (CCP Global, 2008).
For individuals and leaders, the CCP Global (2008) study recommended five major strategies for managing workplace conflict. First, one must understand that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to handling conflictual situations and interacting with different parties. Second, it is suggested that one avoid negative assumptions about others and seek to understand underlying emotions in others with whom conflict has arisen. Third, the urge to compete against others should be avoided and replaced with recognizing the strengths in others and potential for collaboration. Fourth, it is suggested that one keep in mind the power of reputations and to avoid "burning bridges" whenever possible. Finally, individuals and leaders should learn their own weaknesses as early as possible in their career and avoid "transference" or the tendency to dislike the traits in others that you dislike about yourself (CCP Global, 2008).
The purpose of this article was to detail the issues involved with workplace conflict and provide ways for individuals and employers to handle it. The main types of workplace conflict were presented along with the usual causes of it, and overall prevalence. Specific strategies for workplace conflict prevention and response have been offered as well. Overall, it is clear that workplace conflict cannot be eliminated in most cases. However, effective strategies can be employed to manage it and even use it to promote positive outcomes in the workplace.
Ayoko, O., Callan, V., & H"rtel, C. (2003). Workplace conflict, bullying, and counterproductive behaviors. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 11(4), 283--301.
Brubaker, D., Noble, C., Fincher, R., Park, S., & Press, S. (2014). Conflict resolution in the workplace: What will the future bring? Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 31(4), 357-386.
CCP Global. (2008). Workplace conflict and how businesses can harness it to thrive (Report). Retrieved from https://www.cpp.com/pdfs/CPP_Global_Human_Capital_Report_Workplace_Conflict.pdf.
CCR International. (2014). About workplace conflict: The cost of conflict. Retrieved from http://www.conflictatwork.com/conflict/cost_e.cfm.
De Dreu, C. (2008). The virtue and vice of workplace conflict: Food for (pessimistic) thought. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29(1), 5-18.
De Dreu, C.K.W. and Gelfand, M.J. (2008). Conflicts in the workplace: sources, functions, and dynamics across multiple levels of analysis. In De Dreu, C.K.W. and Gelfand, M.J. (Eds), The Psychology of Conflict and Conflict Management in Organizations, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New York, NY, pp. 3-54.
Gatlin, J., Wysocki, A., & Kepner, K. (2008). Understanding Conflict in the Workplace (University of Florida Extension Report). Retrieved from http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/HR/HR02400.pdf.
Jameson, J., Bodtker, A., & Linker, T. (2010). Facilitating conflict transformation: Mediator strategies for eliciting emotional communication in a workplace conflict. Negotiation Journal, 26(1), 25-48.
Myatt, M. (2012). 5 Keys of Dealing with Workplace Conflict (Forbes article). Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2012/02/22/5-keys-to-dealing-with-workplace-conflict/.
Sonnentag, S., Unger, D., & N"gel, I. (2013). Workplace conflict and employee well-being: The moderating role of detachment from work during off-job time. International Journal of Conflict Management, 24(2), 166--183.
University of Colorado Extension. (2008). Resolving workplace conflict. Retrieved from http://hr.colorado.edu/fsap/healthtips/Pages/Resolving-Workplace-Conflict.aspx.
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