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What is Workplace Conflict?

Source | Myron Curry

The workplace is your second home. In fact, some of you probably spend more time at work than you do at home. You are indeed fortunate if you have the opportunity to work in a job which you find challenging and interesting. But, however satisfying your job is, there always seem to be some type of conflict.

Workplace conflict happens regularly between team members, departments, managers, suppliers, vendors and sometimes customers. If you are a manager, then the problem of workplace conflict becomes a major issue as you are confronted with it on a regular basis. As one manager complained, it seemed like they were spending more time mediating between people who behaved like spoiled children rather than creative and productive individuals.

What Is Workplace Conflict?

Conflict in the workplace can be defined as a strong difference of opinion that occurs in the workplace. It may start out as a simple complaint or just a difference of opinion. In many cases, such issues are either solved gradually or they die a natural death. However, statistics show that these differences are consuming a large portion of a manager’s time and happening more frequently. These situations may escalate to such a degree that the two concerned parties can no longer work together. They begin to object to the ideas and functions of one another purely on the basis of personal bias.The spirit of open minded camaraderie that is so essential for a productive environment is completely lost. The concerned employees suffer; the manager has to spend time mediating between the two sides instead of focusing on more productive management responsibilities. The employees involved in the conflict may feel uncomfortable working together and the performance of the entire team suffers as a result.

The definition of conflict in the workplace has varied and each serves to bring out the different viewpoints regarding this ever present issue. In 1998, Professors Gilbert and Kreikebaum have the opinion that even if one party senses or anticipates a disagreement justifiably, conflict may said to exist. On the other hand, Donahue and Kolt (1992) says that conflict is “……..A situation in which independent people express (manifest or latent) differences in satisfying their individual needs and interests and they experience interference from each other in accomplishing these goals”.

Can this universal definition of conflict be applied to workplace conflict as well?

The dynamics the workplace is somewhat unique which makes workplace conflict different. Before starting to tackle the issue of conflict in the workplace, you have to keep the following characteristics in mind:

  • While some people work because they love the job and truly care, many other need stronger motivation to put in their full effort in the job.
  • You do not get to choose your colleagues. Yet, you have to spend a lot of time with them, often in a high pressure situation. This is definitely a recipe for conflict.
  • The work environment is a hierarchical structure and employees are interdependent with one another. So, perceived inefficiency on the part of one employee is going to affect the job quality of others.
  • There are a number of dynamics operating in the workplace. Interdependence exists between colleagues, between the employee and the manager, the employee and the customer as well as the employee and outside suppliers. Whenever this delicate balance is upset, workplace conflict is the inevitable result.
  • Increases in the volume of interactions accompanied by a lack of open and definite communication are another vital ingredient in workplace conflict.
  • People with different personalities, cultures and styles must often work together in an interdependent way. Personality clashes as well as a clash of ideas consequently set the ground for workplace conflict.

The result of all the above factors can cause a disruption of work environments and the creation of the workplace conflict.

According to one study by Thomas and Schmidt in 1976, a typical manager spends almost 30% of their time resolving workplace conflict issues. This was followed by another similar study by Watson and Hoffman in 1996 which showed that this time workplace conflict has actually escalated to 42% of a mangers time in recent years.

The fact is that workplace conflict can arise from a series of reasons including differences in work-styles, background and gender, personalities, and skill level. When these types of conflicts go unresolved, they may turn into a much bigger problem down the road.

The ability to address workplace conflict in the early stages is an important component to resolving the issue. Unanswered or unmanaged conflict can escalate can disrupted an organization’s growth as workers start spending more time entrenched in conflict than they do working on organizational goals.


About the Author:

Myron Curry is the President of Business Training Media, a leading provider of conflict resolution training material for improving management and employee productivity.

Subscribe to his free Workforce Management Newsletter that’s jammed packed with informative articles, tips, case studies, white papers, downloads and more.

Article Resource: Business Training Media

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