Causes of conflict in the workplace

Conflict is a predictable part of everyone’s every day life.  In the workplace, if conflict is repressed or handled badly it can have serious consequences for the organisation.  Knowing what can cause conflict at work can help to avoid it, or identify it early so it can be dealt with positively.  Handled well conflict can:

  • identify where workers are unhappy 
  • lead to improvements in the workplace or organisational processes
  • result in great new ideas

Below are 8 common causes of conflict at work:

Contradictory values of individuals – everyone has their own personal values and they don’t always match our colleagues, especially where the make up of the workforce reflects different generations or cultures.  A difference is values doesn’t necessary lead to conflict, but a failure to accept or understand differing values in a workforce can.

Overload/stress – where staff are overloaded with work, there is a tendency for conflicting pressures – lots of urgent tasks to do.  We are frequently dependent upon our colleagues to do things to enable us to do our own work.  Wherever their goals and priorities are different than ours, there is the potential for conflict.

No clear role boundaries – like all animals, humans are territorial.  Don’t believe me?  Next time you’re on a train – try spreading your possessions over the other side of a shared table.  Or watch your gut reactions if someone ‘invades’ what you feel is your territory.  Lack of clear roles in the workplace can lead people to get territorial about others doing their jobs.

Fickle application of policies – having policies in the workplace is essential, but they need to be carefully applied.  Wherever an organisation applies their policies inconsistently, the staff can end up feeling that some of them have been unfairly treated.

Lack of communication – how many times have you heard people complaining about ‘being left in the dark’; ‘no-one told me’?  Enough said it’s an obvious potential cause of conflict.

Ineffective leadership – like it or not, leaders set the culture for the organisation.  Failing to communicate effectively, distributing work unfairly, consciously or unconsciously playing favourites in the way they apply policies, and a dozen other leadership mistakes can lead to conflict at work.  Not to mention of course, if the personal values or styles of the staff don’t match that of the leader, there’s another potential source of conflict

Clashes of personalities – staff in an organisation will typically bring different backgrounds, experiences, values and meanings to the workplace. Whenever the importance of seeking to understand others personalities is forgotten, conflict is likely to appear.

Too much, or badly handled change – organisational change is a more challenging experience for some than others.  For some it’s an exciting time, for others it’s stressful and troublesome.  Times of change demand strong leaders with an understanding of how to lead through change and how to manage resistance in staff.  And even where change is managed well, if an organisation goes through continual change the staff can experience ‘change fatigue’, where people have less patience and become less able to understand each others personalities and values.

Struggling to cope with conflict?

If you’re experiencing conflict in the workplace, read about our Dealing with Difficult People course here, or our team building courses here.