Five causes of workplace conflict

When we find ourselves in conflict it’s easy to focus on our feelings of anger and frustration, rather than trying to identify the causes of the conflict. Sometimes, conflict occurs in the workplace because individual roles and responsibilities have not been clarified. But sometimes the causes of conflict run deep. Let’s look at five different causes of conflict—and how to address them.

Conflicts are likely when different areas of the organisation have competing interests. For example, if Sales promises more than Manufacturing can deliver, conflicts arise. Similarly, in complex organisations where specialists focus on narrow areas of expertise, some of these people may expect their needs to be given priority. Again, this can lead to conflict. These are clearly cases when roles and relationships have not been clarified.

Conflicts are also likely when people work under pressure. Most people accept that they will need to work at high tempo from time to time. Such periods are usually followed by some acknowledgment of the extra effort they have made, and some time-off in lieu. But it’s easy for working under pressure to become the norm, when it’s actually the result of poor planning or inadequate resourcing. Either way, the responsibility rests with managers to address the issue, before it leads to outbursts of conflict.

Conflict can also arise when people care passionately—perhaps too passionately—about their work. For example, some members of an environmental organisation may hold doctrinaire views about the value of green power, leading to conflict with other members who oppose the establishment of wind farms, also on environmental grounds. In this case, the organisation would do well to develop a shared set of values. This may involve some difficult conversations about personal values, and what these values mean in practice. In the long run, however, the time taken to clarify these values will be worth it.

Conflict can also erupt when people with different personalities work together. Most of us just assume that our way of interacting with others is best for everyone. But if an extravert does not give an introvert the space needed to process a new idea, or if an analytical thinker discounts the contribution of a more caring team member, this can lead to conflict. Investing in team development can prevent these conflicts from arising in the first place.

Finally, there are those conflicts which arise from our personal histories. Many people have experienced some kind of psychological trauma in their lives. Without realising it, they may be drawn to people and situations which enable them to act out their personal dramas. If the acting out involves workaholism, it may pass unnoticed, or even attract positive attention. But at other times such acting out can turn rough. If you suspect this to be the case, speak with Human Resources or your Employee Assistance Provider. The staff member involved needs your help, not condemnation.


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