Understanding why conflict occurs, plus three steps to resolution
by Paul White
July 24, 2018

Workplace conflict is inevitable whenever people work together. This article will highlight the different types of conflict that are common in the workplace, and provide some practical steps toward resolution.

Most conflict falls within one of three categories:

Communication cycleFIGURE 1: The Communication Cycle

1. Misunderstanding and/or Miscommunication

Most conflicts are a result of the lack of clear communication between two (or more) parties involved in an interaction. The process of communication is complex, with many steps (see Figure 1).

Given that there are numerous steps in the process, multiple chances exist for a breakdown in communication. In fact, sometimes it seems almost miraculous that clear communication ever occurs.

Diligently working to improve your communication abilities is one of the best ways to reduce conflict. If you can clearly communicate with and understand others, the likelihood of conflict reduces significantly.

A common contributor to miscommunication is the use of an indirect communication style, demonstrated by:

  • Sending messages through another person (“Tell John that …”)
  • Manipulating the established lines of communication (policies, procedures, direct lines of authority) in order to get what you want
  • Avoiding direct person-to-person interaction in order to avoid a difficult conversation; for example, sending a group email instead of talking to the person one-on-one

Indirect communication creates frustration, anger and conflict, and keeps things stirred up in an organization in a way that makes situations difficult to resolve. When people communicate indirectly, a number of problems develop because the recipient reacts negatively to the messenger; the recipient may have questions that the messenger does not have the information to be able to answer; and the opportunity to clarify misunderstandings through dialogue doesn’t exist.

2. Differing Expectations (“Shoulds” and “Should Nots”)

A second source of conflict in work relationships is when colleagues have different expectations for what should happen. Each of us has an informal list of expectations related to how we believe people should behave. These “shoulds” and “should nots” are based upon a combination of our family upbringing, our culture and our previous life experiences. We all formulate an informal list of expectations that we apply to our life experiences.

Our expectations regarding behaviors, such as maintaining eye contact during a conversation or refraining from checking one’s phone during face-to-face conversations, may differ. People become offended, hurt or angry when a colleague does not meet their expectations for what should happen in an interaction. Unfortunately, unless these expectations are shared and a mutual agreement is obtained on the issue, coworkers may continue to break our “shoulds” and create offense.

An effective process for resolving conflicts (and avoiding them) is to discuss the expectations that team members have for one another. Agreeing as a group on appropriate standards for behavior can reduce a lot of hurt feelings and frustration.

3. Differing Goals or Values

In addition to differences in expectations, people can also differ in the goals and values that motivate their behavior. For example, Diane may prefer to get work done quickly, which can result in making errors in the process, while Susan values quality work and will take longer on a task in order to be accurate. If they are working together on a project, tension may arise as a result of the differences in what they value and how they approach tasks.

Conflicts can also occur between departments within an organization due to each unit having a different perspective on what should be a priority of the organization’s focus, energy and resources.

Three Practical Steps for Resolving Conflict

When discussing team dynamics and group behavior, focusing on everyone else and what they should do differently is common. This perspective, however, is deadly to an organization. Blaming everyone else for the problems being experienced will lead to more conflict.

In reality, you can only change your behavior and attitudes, so the most benefit will be obtained by examining your own actions and attitudes first. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Commit to work diligently to communicate clearly with others. This includes both communicating fully and directly with your colleagues, and striving to listen and understand what others are trying to say to you. Check to see if you understand what they are trying to say. This can be done by periodically asking “So I think what you are saying is ____, is that right?”
  2. Clarify differences in expectations. When a colleague is upset or offended, a good place to start is by asking, “You seem frustrated with me. Is there something I did (or didn’t do) that wasn’t what you thought should have been done?” Then dialogue together about your perspectives, and work toward an agreement on appropriate behavior or standards for the situation. Since we all have lived life with divergent experiences, accepting that we will have different values and expectations will lead to resolving differences faster.
  3. Explore potential different values and goals while affirming everyone’s desire to do what is best for the organization. Sometimes individuals (and departments) forget that everyone is working toward the same goal—to serve clients well and to create positive results for the organization. Affirming these common goals together and then exploring how each person (or group) is trying to help reach the goals can lead to a greater understanding and acceptance of different ways to pursue the organization’s goals.

Wrapping Up

The ultimate goal in a conflict situation is twofold: to minimize the damage of the conflict and to work toward repairing the relationship to a healthy level. While conflicts in work relationships are inevitable, moving toward understanding the source of the conflict and learning how to manage it in ways to limit the emotional turmoil created are possible. With a little investment of time and energy, most conflict situations can be resolved and a healthy workplace is possible.