Consulting and Training on Ethics in the Workplace
Fraud in the Retail Industry on the Rise

Dealing with Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict Can Interfere with Productivity and Affect Morale

Imagine you arrive at work one day ready to accomplish several goals as manager of your department and the first person to greet you is Sarah, the team leader of the sales division for widgets, who states emphatically that she can no longer deal with Jacob, a team member, because he is lazy and inconsiderate. You call Jacob into your office and he proclaims that Sarah is out to get him because he made an off-colored comment about her sexuality. Jacob maintains that he does his job well and that should be the bottom line with respect to his performance evaluation. What would you do?

Conflicts in the workplace are often fueled by emotion and perceptions about somebody else’s motives and character.  Understanding conflict and how it can be used for effective resolution strategies is important for effective communication and productivity in the workplace. 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.

Reynolds and Kalish, organizational consultants in mediation, collaboration and conflict resolution, note that managers spend at least 25 percent 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.

Although conflict is often viewed negatively, it can lead to enlightenment if solutions are reached. The first logical steps in resolving conflict is to identify the problem and then identify what caused the conflict. Art Bell suggests six reasons for conflict in the workplace and Brett Hart discusses two addition causes of conflict. Here is a summary of their observations.

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 the budget fund) to complete their jobs, it should come as no surprise when the “have-nots” gripe and plot against the “haves.”

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. 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 work style.

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).

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.

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, 2002).

Cause 6. Conflicting Roles

Conflicting roles can occur when an associate is asked to perform a function that is outside her job requirements or expertise or another associate is assigned to perform the same job. This situation can contribute to power struggles for territory.

Cause 7. Different Personal Values

Hart observes that conflict can be caused by differing personal values. Segregation in the workplace leads to gossiping, suspicion, and ultimately, conflict. 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. The absence of clear policies or policies that are constantly changing can create an environment of uncertainty and conflict.

Let’s return to Sarah and Jacob. You investigate and find out that Sarah asked Jacob for sales projections and financial data by last Friday. Supplying these figures was taking up a large amount of Jacob’s already packed schedule. Jacob felt there was no reason to rush the projections because they weren’t due to management for another week. Why not give me and my staff an extra three days, he asked Sarah. You come to believe that Jacob was testing Sarah’s authority as a relatively new manager who had replaced Jacob’s good friend.

Here is what not to do. Don’t ask other employees about the situation. It will just create a more difficult work environment for all that might lead to choosing sides. Keep it to the three of you. The workplace environment is often contentious in the first place because of differing goals, perspectives and personalities. Don’t add fuel to the fire.

Here is what you should do. Make sure Jacob knows that he is expected to carry out directives of his supervisor even if he disagrees. What would happen if every employee picks and chooses what to follow and what not to follow? Chaos would ensue in the workplace. Jacob also needs to be told to avoid making personal comments about others in the workplace. At the same time you should tell Sarah to act on perceived inappropriate comments immediately and not let them fester. Sarah also needs to be sensitive to deadlines set and make sure they are realistic. You want employees to buy into your goals – goal congruence – because it makes for a more productive workplace. The important point here is to bring employees into the decision-making process to maximize buy-in. If you take this step, performance should improve as would workplace morale.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 26, 2011