Introduction

Quickly identifying and resolving workplace conflicts is a continual challenge for commercial and public sector executives. Today, workplace conflict among employees is commonplace and an anticipated condition with the constant introduction of new technologies, processing complexities, governmental regulations, and different employee generational behaviors.

Wherever two or more people come together, there are unavoidable stressful situations that predictably lead to conflict! On balance, two people are not likely to agree on everything, all the time. The goal is not to avoid conflict but to resolve the disagreement rapidly and effectually.   

Conflict is a routine slice of life and is as normal as sleeping and eating. As human beings, we are so unique from each other with different needs that it is impressive we don’t have more disagreements. No one it appears is immune to cope with circumstances where factions, differences of beliefs or attitudes, or worse, transpire into a conflict between colleagues in the workplace.

Webster’s Dictionary defines conflict as a sharp disagreement or opposition of interests or ideas. A strife for the mastery; hostile contest; battle; struggle; fighting.

As workplace disagreements materialize into serious clashes, there is a likelihood of lowered employee morale, increased absenteeism and malingering, attrition, decreased productivity, and possibly litigation. Recent research reveals that a failure to successfully manage conflict is costing many organizations one full day of productivity per month or two and a half weeks annually. Also, managers expend about 25% of their day resolving conflicts among their employees.

CPP Global Human Capital Report highlight:
“The majority of employees (85%) have to deal with conflict to some degree and 29% do so “always” or “frequently.”

Effectively managing workplace conflict is a priority responsibility that management must proactively address in setting policies and coaching to avoid where required and quickly resolve conflict situations. Additionally, internal processes and governance should be capable of rapidly identifying and mitigating conflict. Being defensive is essential in preventing individual disputes that may destabilize employee cooperation, productivity, and impact customer fulfillment and satisfaction.

Conflict Lexicon 

Personal Conflict

Conflict is a condition that makes people feel threatened because another person or persons confront their thoughts, judgments, or perspectives. At the center of all conflict-inspired threat is fear. Commonly, fear sets in motion two kinds of individual responses:

  • Aggressively try to resolve the dispute.
  • Avoid the conflict, hoping that it will resolve itself or go away.

The below statements commonly amplify the definition of “Conflict.”

  • Conflict arises from differences, both large and small. It occurs whenever people disagree over their values, motivations, perceptions, ideas, or desires. Sometimes these differences appear trivial, but when a conflict triggers strong feelings, a deep personal need is often at the core of the problem.
  • A conflict is more than just a disagreement. It is a situation in which one or more individuals perceive a threat, whether real or feigned.
  • Conflicts, when ignored, continue to fester. Since unresolved conflicts involve perceived risks to people’s well-being and survival, they stay open until settled.
  • People respond to conflict conditions based on their sensitivities of the situation and belief system, and not necessarily to an objective review of associated facts.

Workplace Conflict

Workplace conflict is a state of discord caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needs, values, and interests between people working together. Conflict can be positive or negative. However, research and experience suggest that conflict is negative in most manifestations.

Workplace conflict may include disputes between peers, supervisor-subordinate conflict, or intergroup disputes generally caused by disagreements over control, status, and resources.

Conflict conditions take many forms in organizations such as:

  • Relationship Conflict
  • Role & Responsibility Conflict
  • Formal vs Informal Organization Authority Conflict
  • Process & Task Conflicts
CPP Global Human Capital Report highlight:
“Half of all employees (49%) see personality clashes and warring egos as the primary cause of workplace conflict. Stress is second, selected by a third (34%) of workers as the prime cause of disagreements, while a similar percentage (33%) identify workload pressures as a key factor.”

Anger as a Conflict Trigger 

Anger is an emotion we feel, like sadness, fear, joy, and happiness. Anger is a feeling that is recognized as normal and healthy and serves the function of letting us know when all is not right in our world. Two conditions generally cause anger:

  • Frustration: Not getting what we want, especially if we are expecting to receive it.
  • Feeling that others do not respect us or care how we think or feel.

When we feel anger as a slight annoyance, it is simple to handle our response. When anger builds in strength, contingent on our prior experience and ability, it can become progressively hard to control.

Anger is a significant obstacle to overcome when resolving conflict situations. It is crucial to identify and understand the underlying anger conditions and triggers. These elements will help determine the extent to which conflict escalates or de-escalates and forms the basis of a sustainable resolution. It is challenging to resolve the dispute if one or more of the parties are still angry!

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
Mark Twain

Workplace Conflict: Causes, Sources & Consequences

All workers have needs and certain expectations at work, and conflict could arise in the workplace when people feel that these are not being met or ignored. The fundamental causes and sources, and consequences of workplace conflict follows in the below tables.

Organizational Influenced Conflict 

Employee Rooted Conflict

Unresolved Workplace Conflict: Consequences

“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
Benjamin Franklin

Conflict Resolution Approaches 

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Resolution Model, as  presented below, was designed by two psychologists, Kenneth Thomas, and Ralph Kilmann, to explain the options in handling conflict.

Conflict situations are those in which the concerns of two or more individuals appear to be incompatible. In such circumstances, generally, people exhibit two standard Behavior Dimensions shown as axes on the Model:

  1. Assertiveness (vertical axis): the extent to which the individual attempts to satisfy her/his concerns.
  2. Cooperativeness (horizontal axis): the extent to which the person attempts to support the other person’s interests.

The two Behavior Dimensions provide five Conflict Resolution Methods as outlined below.

  1. Competing is Assertive and Uncooperative. This approach pursues a person’s concerns at the other person’s expense. This method where the person argues her/his position, including the capability to aggressively explain views and beliefs, their rank or status, or economic sanctions. Competing means that the person stands up for their rights and defends a position which they sincerely believe is correct.
  2. Collaborating is Assertive and Cooperative. This approach is the opposite of Avoiding that covers an effort to work with others to identify a resolution that fully satisfies everybody’s concerns. It includes an examination of the conflict to identify the root causes and underlying needs and wants of all involved people.
  3. Compromising is moderate in Assertiveness and Cooperativeness. This approach is an expedient and mutually acceptable resolution that partly satisfies all parties. In some conflict situations, compromising might entail splitting the difference between all of the positions, exchanging concessions, or agreeing on a middle-of-the-road solution.
  4. Avoiding is Unassertive and Uncooperative. This approach delays a resolution, by the involved person until a later time or retreats from making any decision.
  5. Accommodating is Unassertive and Cooperative: This approach is the opposite of Competing when the person disregards his/her concerns to placate the interests of the other person within self-sacrifice. Accommodating is a form of selfless generosity, obeying another person’s direction when it’s not preferable to, or yielding to another’s point of view.
“Listen first. Give your opponents a chance to talk. Let them finish. Do not resist, defend or debate. This only raises barriers. Try to build bridges of understanding.”
Dale Carnegie

Conflict Resolution & Soft Skills

Since conflict will always be present in the workplace, it is vital to develop the skills to control a problematic conversation or interaction appropriately.

Conflict competence is the ability to develop and use cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills that increase positive outcomes while reducing the likelihood of escalation or harm. Conflict management skills are a range of interpersonal and communication soft skills needed for reaching an agreement between two or more parties that already have a disagreement or dispute.

The soft skills that support conflict resolution are shown on the below graphic. 

Conflict Resolution Principles  

There is a high probability for instances of conflicts when a group of people with different personalities and behaviors work together. Successful organizations recognize the strategic importance of quickly identifying and resolving the conflict by setting-up formalized programs to support employees who are unable to diffuse unhealthy workplace situations. 

The principles recognized as the most important to successful conflict resolution encompass the below:

By customizing and applying the Conflict Resolution Principles to their organizational environment, managers will be able to establish a positive conflict-free workplace in which creativity and innovation are encouraged and rewarded.

CPP Global Human Capital Report highlight:
“Seven out of ten employees (70%) see managing conflict as a “very” or “critically” important leadership skill, while 54% of employees think managers could handle disputes better by addressing underlying tensions before things go wrong.”

The Way Forward

Knowledge Compass consultants successfully help clients plan, develop, and set-up workplace conflict resolution strategies, policies, and processes. 

Knowledge Compass provides consulting services with the use of an array of Frameworks, Analyses Tools, and Interactions from their Best Practices Consultant Toolbox.