Where Does Conflict Come From?

Conflict at work happens a lot.

And workplace discord is a major source of stress for both employees and supervisors. It shouldn’t take you but a few seconds to recall a tense moment you ve experienced at work 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 over 2 hours every week) dealing with conflict in some way — either being directly involved in a disagreement, or managing an issue between coworkers. That adds up to the equivalent of one day per month. (If you are a manager or employer, multiply that times the number of employees you have!)

So, conflict is not only uncomfortable, the cost of workplace conflict is huge. And not only to companies and organizations, but to us as individuals.

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, and loss of sleep.

My colleagues (Dr. Gary Chapman, Dr. Jennifer Thomas) and I have recently released a new book addressing conflict at work entitled Making Things Right at Work: Increase Teamwork, Resolve Conflict and Build Trust . In it, we provide tools and resources to help employees, supervisors and managers both reduce the amount of conflict which occurs and successfully manage interpersonal tensions once they happen.

A reasonable question to ask ourselves is: Where does conflict come from where does it come from? Like any good psychologist would reply, the answer is: it depends. 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 sarcastic remark while inappropriate there is a deeper issue at the root of his reaction that is the real problem. Let me share a few of the sources of conflict we address more fully in the book:

  • First, Misunderstanding / Miscommunication. Probably the most common source of challenges in workplace interactions comes from simple misunderstanding and miscommunication.
  • Second, 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 is another reason tension arises among coworkers.

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.

(Often this is tied into misinterpreting what our colleague said or meant.)

Other starting points of workplace strife also exist, including truly inappropriate actions (like a leader calling out a team member in front of others using derogatory language), or sometimes, we make unintentional mistakes (like mistakenly hitting reply all to an email that includes negative information about a colleague).

Understanding the variety of potential sources of conflict is important. Otherwise, we may invest time and energy trying to resolve the tension in ways that really won t be helpful.

Correctly identifying the true issues creating the problem helps us move beyond thinking that one individual has to be right and the other person is wrong or misattributing malicious motives when none existed.

When you find yourself at odds with a colleague, or you are overseeing two team members who are in a disagreement, slow down and take the time to investigate the issue more fully (versus responding quickly in the heat of the moment.)

This one step can be critical in avoiding making the situation worse and will help you move toward actually resolving the issue.