What are the causes of workplace conflict?

A quick summary:

  • What is workplace conflict?
  • How to identify conflict at work
  • How to avoid conflict among employees
  • How to diffuse conflict in the workplace
  • Causes of conflict in the workplace
  • Additional causes of workplace conflict
  • Our final thoughts on conflict in the workplace

Workplace conflict is somewhat inevitable, at least in a large majority of working environments. The thought of conflict brings emotions like anxiety, awkwardness and frustration to the surface. Well, we’re here to propose that leaders stop ignoring workplace conflict and start tackling it head-on. 

When we say inevitable, what we mean is, when people are brought together in a working environment, they bring with them their backgrounds, beliefs, ideas and opinions. We’ve all found preferred working styles, and it’s hard to project these onto others. 

For the reasons mentioned above, it’s clear why workplace conflict occurs. To help your company culture thrive on collaboration, help leaders quash team conflict and the overall organisation create a happier workforce, we’re going to explore this issue in more detail.

We’ll start with the basics; what is workplace conflict? Then we’ll look at how to identify, avoid and diffuse workplace conflict. Afterwards, our attention will be on many causes of conflict in the workplace, before delivering our final thoughts.

Similar read: How to encourage work-life balance for employees

Female employee sitting at her desk looking unhappy
What is conflict in the workplace?

What is conflict in the workplace?

While we’ve touched on the meaning of workplace conflict above, what does it really mean? According to the PenninsulaGroup, conflict in the workplace is best described as “conflict that occurs between colleagues… because the individual has opposing ideas, interests or beliefs”. 

The PeninsulaGroup goes on to say workplace conflict and disagreements are part of a business — however, they can spiral out of control. And this is exactly correct. 

Sometimes, these disagreements happen between close colleagues, entire departments or within management teams. Put simply, workplace conflicts are capable of fracturing any relationship in the workplace.

Conflict, like any, can be diffused and avoided. While we’re dealing with difficult coworkers, the nature of conflict remains the same — and we’ve all been involved in one disagreement before, whether it be with friends, family or strangers. 

 The difference between the workplace and our personal life is that relationships have to be resolved, and do so as quickly as possible. While we might never meet a stranger again, or we can avoid an irritating friend for some time, we have to work with colleagues several hours per day, five days a week.

How to identify conflict among employees 

There are various signs and signals that leaders should look out for when identifying conflict. Like any form of people management and leadership, we recommend that leaders truly get to know their employees. 

It’s conscious leadership that sets the best managers apart from the rest. For example, not all signs of conflict in the workplace are obvious. Employees dealing with workplace conflict may experience a reduction in productivity, something you may not pick up on, or attribute to another reason. 

It’s about being aware, actively listening and taking workplace conflict seriously – even if you believe it isn’t a current issue. Other signs and signals of conflict in the workplace include high turnover, and for obvious reasons. When relationships are broken, people aren’t able to collaborate or communicate effectively. 

What’s more, some employees may suffer from an increase in anxiety and stress, as they navigate poor workplace relationships due to team conflict. All in all, some signs are obvious, some not. It’s about learning how to identify the behaviours and attitudes of your employees. 

If you notice anything dysfunctional about your workforce, a particular duo of employees or even within an entire department, speak up. Have a conversation with your employees and find out the next steps towards workplace conflict resolution.

An employee covering her ears with many figures pointing at her
How to avoid conflict at work

How to avoid conflict at work

Next, let’s talk about how to avoid conflict at work. Believe it or not, conflict at work isn’t entirely avoidable. You cannot control the communication between each and every employee; just as you cannot control their ideas, opinions and attitudes. 

That said, there are most definitely preventative measures you can put in place to avoid conflict at work. As we touched on above, we strongly recommend speaking with your team on a regular basis — but not just about projects and progress, but how they feel towards things like culture and wellbeing.

By asking the right questions, you will receive the right answers. Let employees know that it’s okay to share how they feel. If they do not feel comfortable coming forward about workplace conflict, problems are likely to fester.

In addition to one-to-one meetings, we suggest your organisation consider social events and teamwide gatherings – opportunities for everyone to get to know one another. It’s okay collaborating and succeed as a team, but to truly build relationships we must understand people on a personal.

Take Heka for instance, each fortnight on a Wednesday, the team gets together (virtually) to play a game. This might be a quiz or some other team-based activity that we can play remotely. 

The idea is that everyone can have a casual conversation and stand back from their busy schedules. Not only is it good for team morale, personal wellbeing and happiness, but it builds those relationships that will help avoid conflict in the workplace. 

How to diffuse conflict in the workplace

Finally, before we get started on the various causes of conflict in the workplace, let’s discuss how to diffuse conflict in the workplace. While it may sound impossible to diffuse workplace conflict, we’re here to help!

Firstly, it’s important to address the issue head-on. As a mediator in the conflict, you must really dig into both sides of the story. It’s no secret that two individuals will have opposing views or accounts of the workplace conflict — but that’s okay because it’s your job to diffuse the situation no matter what. 

As you try to bring peace to a workplace conflict, it’s worth remembering to encourage compromise. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree. Finally, use your influence as a mediator to stay positive and try to minimise any negative emotions involved.

A male colleague throwing paper at another colleague and causing a workplace conflict
Causes of conflict in the workplace

Causes of conflict in the workplace 

Below, we’re going to discuss the causes of conflict in the workplace. This ranges from unrealistic expectations, clashing personalities and poor leadership. We’ve identified these causes as some of the most common reasons for workplace conflict. 

Don’t worry, however, we’ve also included a list of other causes of conflict in the workplace below. It’s by understanding the causes and recognising the ways to diffuse and avoid conflict that we can create better teams and cultures.

Unrealistic expectations of others 

We all have deadlines. They don’t just help us achieve our goals and make progress, but they adhere to the wider plan for a business. In fact, expectations keep us motivated and push us to succeed. Without them, we may become stuck in a rut, unsure of how much we should be achieving. 

That said, it’s when unrealistic goals or expectations are set that workplace conflict arises. This doesn’t necessarily mean that managers are creating this conflict, as it could be a disagreement between colleagues or entire departments. 

Think about it, the workplace is full of collaboration. One team produces a piece of work and passes it across to another team, who may pass it on to a senior team before being signed off. 

Because collaboration is so ingrained in businesses, it’s important that expectations are kept realistic, attainable and agreeable. We can’t expect the world from our colleagues, but we must push them to become their best — find this balance and unrealistic expectations shouldn’t occur. 

If you feel that the expectations set do not sound realistic, it’s important to speak up against them before it’s too late. By communicating this, you’re letting others know just how you feel. If you don’t, coworkers may expect you to perform a certain task or meet a deadline – this lack of communication could bring about workplace conflict. 

Clashing personalities 

Personalities are a funny thing. But it’s important to remember that it’s simply human nature. We’re all different, and that is also what makes collaborating with others so special. Through our backgrounds, ideas, thoughts and opinions, a group of employees can create a product, service or solution that is groundbreaking. 

If we were all very similar, from a personality standpoint, we’d never think outside the box, suggest unique ideas or achieve anything for that matter. There are so many different personality types — 16 to be exact, according to FormPlus.

As a leader, you should make it known to the wider team that everyone is their own person, and that’s okay. Employees should be educated on this concept; we can’t always see eye-to-eye on every matter, but it’s being able to put our differences aside and work effectively with one another.

When personality types do clash, a mediator (a manager in this case), should explain the above in a way that both parties will listen. This should help diffuse the situation and improve the relationship. 

Personality clashes also happen when new employees join a team. This can create a team conflict, as it unbalances/unsettles the existing team. This comes from the old-age notion that people don’t like change. 

When two employees are typically in agreement on their opinions, ideas and beliefs, the introduction of a third employee’s thoughts and ideas may create a problem. But as we've explored, conflict in the workplace can be diffused. 

Poor management and leadership 

Finally, let’s talk about poor management and leadership. Relationships between managers and their teams don’t always work out. We’re always hearing about bad managers and poor leadership from places are friends and family work. We may even experience a poor manager ourselves – many of us have. 

It’s important, as a leader, that you understand how to become a great manager. Without the right skills to motivate and support your people, relationships could turn sour and workplace conflict may arise. 

It’s surprising just how little training some leaders have received in people management. While it may be more cost-effective to allow employees to “learn on the job”, this lack of education and training can have detrimental effects on everything from retention, engagement and general job satisfaction of a workforce. 

A combination of these issues is where workplace conflict begins. In a study reported by PeopleManagement.co.uk, it was discovered that two in five employees leave a job due to a bad manager. Managers play a huge role in the progress and success of a team or business. We recommend that employers invest in the learning and development of their managers. 

Other causes of conflict in the workplace 

In addition to the causes of conflict in the workplace mentioned above, below, we’ve listed some of the reasons people fall out with one another. It’s important you assess the atmosphere and relationships of colleagues in your team against both the list above and the following points.

Similar read: How to tackle loneliness at work for employees

A female employee giving her two colleagues a stern look and creating a workplace conflict
Our final thoughts on workplace conflict

Our final thoughts on conflict in the workplace 

Conflict in the workplace exists in many forms and for many reasons. We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again; it is inevitable. But accepting this truth makes workplace conflict much easier to deal with. 

We can’t expect complete equilibrium in a team forever. There will always be disagreements or ideas on what’s best for a business. In most cases, workplace conflict comes from wanting the best for a business – and it’s a risky game. The outcome of wrong decisions can have financial consequences.

Conclusively, however, we encourage leaders not to turn away from workplace conflict and instead address problems head-on. If an organisation is to take the social wellbeing of their team, and their employee wellbeing strategy seriously then workplace conflict must be dealt with properly.

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