Business NLP Blog

The Eight Causes of Workplace Conflict (Part 1)

Workplace conflict

Workplace conflicts are a common problem in many workplaces. Unfortunately, workplace conflicts can lead to a number of negative influences not only on individual employees, but the business itself. Conflict in the workplace can lead to negative behaviors, such as physical or verbal fighting, in addition to lower workplace productivity due to job-related stress and dissatisfaction.
Causes of Workplace Conflict
Workplace conflicts, or workplace tension, can be caused by a number of different factors. These factors may be minor, such as an employee who has a consistently cluttered work desk, to major, such as employee who is undermining their co-workers ability to work. In 2000-2002, psychologists Art Bell and Brett Hart conducted a study on workplace conflicts and workplace tension. Their study was intended to root out the most common causes of workplace tension, which would allow employers--and employees--better understand, and hopefully create a successful conflict resolution for, what is causing tension in the workplace. Hart and Bell narrowed down the causes of conflict to eight different factors: conflicting resources, conflicting styles, conflicting perceptions, conflicting goals, conflicting pressures, conflicting roles, different personal values, and unpredictable policies. These eight classifications can be used by employees or employers to help better understand what may be causing conflict in the workplace by looking at the root of the problem rather than what may be happening on the external surface of the issue. Let’s take a look at the first three of these eight conflict classifications.

Conflicting resources

Resources in the workplace include physical resources--such as office supplies or space for meeting rooms--in addition to mental resources, such as assistance from co-workers or a workplace assistant. Employees need access to certain types of resources in order to perform their jobs well.

When more than one person needs access to the same particular resource, this can cause a conflict. For example: An employee is using the only work fax machine to fax ten different important letters from her department to a client. Another employee rushes into the same area and needs to use the fax machine to fax an important document which is due within minutes. Both of these employees require the use of the fax machine, but because one employee is already using the machine and the second employee feels that they “deserve” to use it, due to a time crunch, this can cause a conflict between the two employees.
Employers can help resolve conflicts which are caused by conflicting resources by creating consistent, fair policies regarding the use of physical resources, such as fax machines or office spaces, in addition to providing enough mental resources to support all employees fairly. For example: An employer who sees that employees frequently have conflicts over the use of a fax machine might decide to purchase several more machines for the office, or if that is not an option, create a clear-cut policy towards using the machine, such as “one document per employee at one time,” to allow a faster rotation.

Conflicting Styles

"Styles," in the workplace context, refers to how people work according to their own individual personality and needs. Some people, for example, might create strict schedules and deadlines for themselves in order to get everything done promptly; other people might consistently avoid creating schedules and leave their work to be done at the last minute. Some people might enjoy having strict, structured work times, while others may get work done at their own pace and on their own time.
In the workplace, a conflict of styles may occur when people are working together on a work related project or assignment, or work within the same department. For example: A marketing department at an office firm is given an assignment which requires employees to pair-up and create at least one different advertising campaign per pair. One person in the pair may want to create a schedule and work consistently to ensure that the project is completed well before the deadline, while the other person in the pair is more laid-back and wants to work on the project “whenever,” aiming to get it done just before it is due to be proposed. This can create a conflict caused by the conflicting styles of the employees, who would each get frustrated by the other employee’s desire to work in a different way.
Employers can help reduce or prevent conflicts caused by conflicting work styles by taking individual employee’s styles into consideration when creating groups or pairs. Instead of pairing two employees with conflicting styles, for example, the employers could deliberately pair two employees who both share a strict schedule style of working.

Conflicting Perceptions

Causes of Workplace Conflict
The way people see the world--people, events, and experiences--is called their perception. In the workplace, conflicts of perception may occur for a number of reasons. One common example occurs when an employer gives a certain employee an assignment that would normally be given to another employee. From the employer’s perceptive, they gave the specific employee the assignment because they felt the first employee would be overloaded due to their current work projects. However, the perspective of the person who would have ordinarily been given the assignment may see things differently: they may feel as if they are being slighted, ignored or even punished for some sort of minor infraction because they were not given the assignment. This may then in turn cause a conflict between the employee who would normally have been given the assignment and the employee who was given the assignment, due to the perceived slight on part of the employer.

Conflicts in perception may be resolved by employers and employees encouraging open, clear lines of communication. In the previous example, the employer could have talked to the first employee about why the decision was being made to give their normal assignment to another person—this would have changed the perception of the employee, preventing a conflict between the employee and their employer, as well as between the employee and the second employee.
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