Understanding Workplace Conflict

August 7, 2023 9:00 am Published by
Two coworkers argue while a third coworker buries his head

Conflict at work happens – a lot. And it is a major source of stress for both employees and supervisors. It’s easy for most of us to recall a tense moment in our workplace — to remember the discomfort of watching a not-so-friendly disagreement in a meeting. Or to relive the sting of a critical comment made in front of your colleagues.

One study found that, on average, each employee spends 2.1 hours every week (or one day per month) dealing with conflict in some way. Either being directly involved in a disagreement, or managing an issue between coworkers.

The cost of workplace conflict is huge – both to us as individuals and to our organizations. In addition to the time lost doing productive tasks while we are engaged in (or thinking about) a conflict, there is the personal cost of the stress it creates – headaches, upset stomachs, high blood pressure, loss of sleep.

My colleagues, Dr. Gary Chapman and Dr. Jennifer Thomas, and I wrote Making Things Right at Work: Increase Teamwork, Resolve Conflict and Build Trust to help employees, supervisors and managers both reduce the amount of conflict which occurs and successfully manage interpersonal tensions once they happen.

Why Conflict Happens (or … where does it come from?)

When tensions arise at work, the first thing we must remember is that the behaviors displayed are not necessarily the actual problem. For example, when Robert cuts off a colleague in a meeting with a curt remark – while inappropriate – there is a deeper issue at the root of his reaction that is the real problem.

Let me share a few (but not all) of the sources of conflict we address more fully in the book:

  • Misunderstanding / Miscommunication. Probably the most common source of challenges in workplace interactions comes from simple misunderstanding and miscommunication.
  • Dissimilar Personality and Communication Styles. We need a diverse array of personality types in a work setting to avoid the dangers of “groupthink.” Since we perceive events differently and communicate our views in distinct ways, misunderstanding one another can easily occur.
  • Feeling Offended or Disrespected. Our response of feeling offended or disrespected comes from the experience of not feeling treated appropriately by others. Either they did something we think they shouldn’t have or they didn’t do something we think they should have.

Other sources exist: truly inappropriate actions (a leader calling out a team member in front of others using derogatory language), or sometimes, unintentional mistakes (hitting “reply all” to an email that includes communicating negative information about a colleague).

Understanding the variety of potential sources of conflict helps us move beyond right and wrong thinking, and misattributing malicious motives when none existed. Additionally, being able to examine the possible source(s) of a disagreement between two team members, assists us in identifying the true source of the problem (for example, a misunderstanding of their roles within a project), and leads to the ability to resolve the real issue(s) creating interpersonal stress.

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August 7, 2023 9:00 am

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