How to Quickly Spot Causes of Conflict in the Workplace

Managing the causes of conflict in the workplace is unfortunately a regular thing. If you’re not skilled or averse in dealing with it, then it’s a skill you may well need to develop fast. This article will show you how conflict tends to manifest itself, and what to look out for.

How About 2 Hours of Your Day Lost to Causes of Conflict in the Workplace?

A research study carried out recently by the American Management Association (AMA) identified that managers spend at least 24% of their day dealing with conflict in the workplace.

That’s 2 hours a day over an average 8 hours. It infers that there is a lot of time spent by managers creating harmony amongst teams.

As leaders, the way we handle conflict in the workplace decides whether it causes divisions and reduced productivity, or a coming together and improved processes, culture and increased organisational performance.

It’s essential to be able to deal with conflict and not shy away from it the minute it’s seen. This way, it can be managed effectively and used to improve team relationships and performance.

Sources of Conflict

It’s pretty easy to see causes of conflict in the workplace. The trick is to identify where it comes from and why it has emerged. If you can identify root causes to the conflict, it becomes a lot easier to find a resolution for both parties.

Interestingly, conflict can be seen in the following ways:

  • Conflict amongst team members;
  • Conflict amongst an employee(s) and their manager / managers.

In other words, people can disagree amongst themselves, but they can also have disagreements with their manager or managers.

The latter is often common, as businesses have values and objectives. People have their own values and beliefs of the world, too. It’s all too easy to see a clash over these two elements, of which we’ll explain below.

What is conflict in the workplace? Conflict is a result of a disagreement. Mitali Pathac in his research paper on conflict in the workplace, defines conflict as “Wherever there is a difference of opinion there are chances of conflict.”

This can be wide and vast, then. We can see causes of conflict from a number of sources. One of the best models is from the circle of conflict.

The Circle of Conflict

Gary Ferlong in his 2005 book, The Conflict Resolution Toolbox, identifies that there are 5 key causes to Conflict in the workplace. These can be seen in the ‘Circle of Conflict’ diagram.

  • Relationships – How people get along historically. These can come from stereotypes being played out, strong emotions about others, miscommunication and misunderstanding, and repetitive negative behaviour;
  • Externals / moods – These can culminate from having a bad day to dealing with a chronic illness, economically struggling, or having to deal with stress in one’s life. The more struggle, the more this can spill out into the workplace;
  • Values – Each person has their own standards of behaviour, beliefs and values. If they come across someone with different values, beliefs and behaviours, it can result in conflict and disagreement. Things like a different view of the world, different standard of quality and success, different way of evaluating ideas or improving the workplace can often create conflict in the workplace;
  • Data Conflict– Lack of information and understanding of what to do or how to do it, misinformation or part information, differing views on the data presented, and even the feeling that some are not buying into the information presented, can cause friction. For instance, a team presented by the facts whilst being told that they need to create a step change in how things are done, in order to stay competitive, may react differently. Some may understand and can see what needs to be done, thus buying into this information. Others may not and be sceptical of everything, causing conflict and fall out as the two sides jostle to be heard; 
  • Interests Conflict – Perceived or actual competition over interests. For instance, a team member may work for the team, whereas another seems to be in it for themself and getting rewarded for it. These can stem from psychological interests and procedural interests as well. Things like taking the easy jobs or not partaking in their share of team tasks, can also cause conflict;
  • Structural Conflict – Unequal authority being seen, unequal resources being apportioned, and time constraints imposed can create a divide, too. For instance, not being given enough time and feeling under resourced, is quite a common problem within teams. Differences in how people are treated, like some being listened to by management, more than others, also creates a divide.

3 Root Sources of Conflict

The circle of conflict can manifest from a number of situations and provisional sources.

From starting and growing a team, to managing clear personality spectrums, to leading change and the influences of the work environment, can all cause division and conflict in the workplace.

Here’s an overview of the key elements that you’ll often see conflict in the workplace arise:

Team Development (Tuckman Model)

It can classically be seen during the Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Adjourning phases of team development.

Naturally, as a team comes together, they quickly spot differences in values, beliefs, standards and types of characters. As the team tries to find their position in the group, they squabble and fight, causing conflict in the workplace.

As stated, this conflict can be amongst each other, but also against the leader, as they question and challenge many things whilst team dynamics are being learned and ironed out.

It’s safe to say that this is so natural that it’s something you have to expect and manage as the team builds their relationships and rapport.

We’ve written a guide on these stages of team development and what to do to improve a smoother transition towards a more harmonic team.

Hygiene Factors

Frederick Herzberg identified that we can all be motivated or demotivated based on certain factors in the workplace.

Some typical hygiene factors – or those that can actively cause demotivation, are:

  • Lack of pay;
  • Poor working relationships;
  • Poor relationship with the manager;
  • Policies that can frustrate employees and hamper productivity;
  • A lack of appreciation.

They are just a few. For a greater breakdown into the model and how to negate this impact, check out our article.

Frustration and demotivation through these hygiene factors, can be a big contributor to the causes of conflict in the workplace. The trick is to be ahead of the game, and identify what hygiene factors are evident in your business, and then set aside ideas to overcome them.

Leading Change

Change can cause disruption. Our brains are built to work on stable, repetitive thinking and behaviours. It’s why we create habits.

A habit is merely something that we do many times, until our brain has reconnected neurons to enable us to perform the activity with little thought.

When introduced to a change, whether it be different working hours, working in a different team, doing something totally different to what you’ve done before, or anything else, it creates a period of uncertainty.

This uncertainty can cause a lot of differing feelings, like:

  • Anger;
  • Denial;
  • Frustration;
  • Compromising;
  • Acceptance.

These feelings take us through what Kubler Ross identified as the change curve. Insights has a good introduction article on managing the change curve.

What it does show, though, is that when trying to change a person, team, business or group of processes, as a leader, you have to expect resistance. This resistance will more than likely be the causes of conflict in the workplace during this change initiative.

The Process of Conflict Emerging

Conflict usually develops slowly and subtly over time. It’s often as a result of small disagreements. 

Typical small elements that often go unnoticed, are:

  • Gossiping about others;
  • Whining about unfair conditions or situations;
  • Open disagreement with someone else;
  • Blatantly shutting down someone else’s opinion or efforts.

These are when you as a manager, should jump in to alleviate any differences. If left, however, they can often spiral out of control to full blown disagreements. 

As conflict matures, it goes through different stages:

  1. First, people tolerate the irritants;
  2. Over time, this tolerance fades and resistance replaces it;
  3. Problems then escalate to fall outs and some bitter feuds.

Along the way, the parties involved in this conflict, engage in what’s known as selective perception. This means that they are starting to form biases and stereotypes of that person or people, focused on their shortcomings, not necessarily on really who they are.

Listen out for things like the following clues that could show that selective perception is evident in your workplace:

“She always does that”

“He is lazy”

“Typical, it’s just what they want to try and do.”

There are a lot more examples, but the point is this; we all have biases based on our own perception of the world. When there’s conflict in the workplace, those involved, tend to disregard what’s being said in view of their own beliefs or what they think of that person.

By listening out for clues, you can act on these issues, before things spiral out of control.

Quick Conflict Resolution Tactics

Once you’ve highlighted these emotions and causes of conflict in the workplace, it’s time to objectively address them. So, take your feelings aside, and begin to communicate effectively with the competing parties, to help them see a way forward.

Here are some key pointers to get you started:

  1. Pause and breathe. Never bring opposing parties into the hot seat, when they are both fuming and highly emotional. Let everyone calm down a bit before trying to resolve things;
  2. Address the conflict privately, and reframe from dragging it through the entire team. Treat everyone with respect and confidence. This will help create a safe place to express feelings and differences with each other;
  3. Choose the best place to discuss the conflict. This could be in the office. It could also be over lunch or a coffee break, or even on a walk in the open air;
  4. When communicating, focus on reframing conversations, so they are positive and not confrontational. Going in and saying the wrong things can cause problems and make things worse;
  5. Use active listening techniques. Give feedback as you listen, so you can confirm that what you’ve heard and interpreted is correct. It gives confidence to the other parties that you are engaged in the moment and truly listening;
  6. When listening to conflict, two of the best questions you can ask, to help opposing sides get through it, are:
  • What do you need to do to move forward?
  • Under what conditions could you move forward?

Notice how we are reframing the conversation to get past these biases and possible selective perceptions.

  1. Follow up with a summary email, or another private method, to summarise the outcomes and next steps. Also, hold another meeting to see how things are going, as well. Your job is to help find common ground between all parties.

To Summarise

Overcoming conflict in the workplace is not an easy thing to get right. The problem is that, as we’ve seen, it can come from many different reasons and scenarios. The trick is to jump on clues when you hear potential conflicts arising and simmering away

Understand that they tend to spiral out of control, so conflicts don’t normally go from zero to one hundred overnight. Look for these clues and then help address things as you go.

Never force your opinion, even if the conflict is between an employee and you, the manager. Instead, listen, step in their shoes and ask reframing questions, to help ensure you are not being forceful.

Work on resolution together and you’ll more than likely find that conflict resolution creates many positive experiences and legacies.