Understanding Conflict in the Workplace1 - EDIS

Understanding Conflict in the Workplace1
Julie Gatlin, Allen Wysocki, Karl Kepner, Derek Farnsworth, and Jennifer L. Clark2
Imagine this: it appears you have an easy day ahead of
you at your workplace. Your schedule is not overbooked
and things seem to be running according to plan. Upon
arrival at work, however, you discover your department’s
budget has been reduced and new objectives, which you
find questionable, have been identified. Your co-workers
do not share your point of view. To make matters worse,
a report you need within three hours will not be available
until the last minute. How should you handle this situation?
Understanding conflict and how it can be used for effective
resolution strategies is important for effective communication and productivity in the workplace.
Impact of Conflict in the Workplace
Webster’s Dictionary (1983) defines conflict as sharp
disagreement or opposition of interests or ideas. In other
words, what I want does not match what you want. When
conflict occurs in the workplace, it can reduce morale,
lower work productivity, increase absenteeism, and cause
large-scale confrontations that can lead to serious and
violent crimes.
Managers spend a significant portion of their time resolving
workplace conflicts. This obviously affects the productivity
of both managers and associates (employees) and can have
a far-reaching impact on organizational performance.
Credits: Fuse/Thinkstock.com
Conflict is a challenge facing both employers and associates.
This document explores the type of conflict most managers
and associates would likely encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Eight Causes of Conflict
Although conflict is often viewed negatively, it can lead
to enlightenment if solutions are reached. The first logical
steps in resolving conflict are to identify the problem and
then identify what caused the conflict. Ask yourself: What
do the affected parties desire and why are they dissatisfied?
Art Bell (2002) suggests six reasons for conflict in the
workplace: conflicting needs, conflicting styles, conflicting perceptions, conflicting goals, conflicting pressures,
and conflicting roles. Brett Hart (2009) discusses two
additional causes of conflict: different personal values and
1. This document is HR024, one of a series of the Food and Resource Economics Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date June 2002.
Revised October 2015. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
2. Julie Gatlin, former graduate student; Allen Wysocki, associate dean and professor; Karl Kepner, emeritus professor; Derek Farnsworth, assistant
professor; and Jennifer L. Clark, senior lecturer, Food and Resource Economics Department; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.
The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to
individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national
origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension office.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County
Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.
unpredictable policies. This brings the potential reasons for
conflict to eight.
Cause 1. Conflicting Needs
Whenever workers compete for scarce resources, recognition, and power in the company’s pecking order, conflict
can occur. Since everyone requires a share of the resources
(office space, supplies, the boss’s time, or funding) to
complete their jobs (Hart 2009), it should come as no
surprise when a less satisfied employee submits a complaint
(Bell 2002).
Cause 2. Conflicting Styles
Because individuals are individuals, they differ in the way
they approach people and problems. Associates need to understand their own style and learn how to accept conflicting
styles. Personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs Personality
Type Inventory (MBTI), can help people explore their
instinctive personality styles (Bell 2002). An example of
conflicting styles would be where one worker works best in
a very structured environment while another worker works
best in an unstructured environment. These two workers
could easily drive each other crazy if they constantly work
in conflict with one another and do not learn to accept one
another’s workstyle.
Cause 3. Conflicting Perceptions
Just as two or more workers can have conflicting styles,
they can also have conflicting perceptions. They may view
the same incident in dramatically different ways. Bell
(2002) gives an example of what might happen if a new
administrative assistant were hired in the organization. One
associate might see the new hire as an advantage (one more
set of hands to get the job done), while another associate
might see the same new hire as an insult (a clear message
that the current associates are not performing adequately).
Memos, performance reviews, company rumors, hallway
comments, and client feedback are sources for conflicting
perceptions. What was meant gets lost in a firestorm of
responses to perceived wrongs (Bell 2002). Resentment and
conflict can also occur when one department is viewed as
more valuable to the organization than others (Hart 2009).
Cause 4. Conflicting Goals
Associates may have different viewpoints about an incident,
plan, or goal. Problems in the workplace can occur when
associates are responsible for different duties in achieving the same goal. Take, for instance, the scenario of a
patient being admitted to a hospital. The business office
Understanding Conflict in the Workplace
is responsible for documenting financial information and
pursuing payment, whereas the nursing staff is responsible
for the patient’s physical assessment and immediate admission. Both objectives are important and necessary, but may
cause conflict (Bell 2002).
Hart (2009) offers another example. Imagine a bank teller’s
dilemma in a situation where he is being given conflicting
responsibilities by two of his managers. The head teller has
instructed the staff that rapid service is the top priority,
whereas the community relations director has instructed
the staff that that quality customer service is the top priority. One can imagine how quickly problems could arise
between the teller and the head teller if speed is sacrificed
for quality time with the customer.
Cause 5. Conflicting Pressures
Conflicting pressures can occur when two or more associates or departments are responsible for separate actions
with the same deadline. For example, Manager A needs
Associate A to complete a report by 3:00 P.M., which is the
same deadline that Associate B needs Associate A to have a
machine fixed. In addition, Manager B (who does not know
the machine is broken) now wants Associate B to use the
unbeknownst broken machine before 3:00 P.M. What is the
best solution? The extent to which we depend on each other
to complete our work can contribute greatly to conflict
(Hart 2009).
Cause 6. Conflicting Roles
Conflicting roles can occur when an associate is asked to
perform a function that is outside his job requirements or
expertise or another associate is assigned to perform the
same job. This situation can contribute to power struggles
for territory. This causes intentional or unintentional aggressive or passive-aggressive (sabotage) behavior. Everyone
has experienced situations where associates have wielded
their power in inappropriate ways.
Cause 7. Different Personal Values
Conflict can be caused by differing personal values. Segregation in the workplace leads to gossiping, suspicion, and
ultimately conflict (Hart 2009). Associates need to learn to
accept diversity in the workplace and to work as a team.
Cause 8. Unpredictable Policies
Whenever company policies are changed, inconsistently
applied, or non-existent, misunderstandings are likely
to occur. Associates need to know and understand company rules and policies; they should not have to guess.
Otherwise, unpredictable things can occur, such as
associates dressing inappropriately or giving out wrong
information. The absence of clear policies or policies that
are constantly changing can create an environment of
uncertainty and conflict (Hart 2009).
The next time a conflict occurs, take a moment and ask
yourself this series of questions:
• What might be the cause of the conflict?
• Is it because you or someone needs a resource?
• Is someone’s style different than your own?
• How do others perceive the situation?
• Are goal and action-plan priorities in order?
• Is there conflicting pressure?
• Is an associate concerned about role changes?
• Is the conflict over differing personal values?
• Is there a clear company policy about the situation?
Once a cause is established, it is easier to choose the best
strategy to resolve the conflict.
Bell, A. 2002. Six ways to resolve workplace conflicts. San
Francisco, CA: University of San Francisco.
Hart, B. 2009. “Conflict in the workplace.” Behavioral
Consultants, P.C. http://www.excelatlife.com/articles/
Webster’s Dictionary. 1983. “Conflict.” New York: Websters.
Understanding Conflict in the Workplace