The 3 most common causes of conflict in the workplace

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Causes of conflict in the workplace abound when we work in diverse, creative and passionate teams. We are all highly interdependent in getting our work done in a high pressured, uncertain world in which resources are scarce.

Conflict may be inevitable, but it should never be ignored.

At the same time, many organisations actively try and control events to prevent conflict.

Conflict is often seen as taboo, and as a sign of poor leadership, but in fact, conflict often results from an unwillingness and lack of preparation for how to deal with it when it arises, and so it festers nonetheless.

So why not create a more mature culture in which conflict is expected, even welcomed? Not in a random and unskilful way, but in a way that you look out for it, acknowledge it when it arises, and nurture it so that conflict fosters collaboration and belonging!

Here’s a brief look at 20 different causes of conflict at work:

  • Personality clashes

  • Micromanagement

  • Poor leadership styles

  • High pressure & Financial difficulties

  • Poor leadership styles (> link to blog)

  • Unfair treatment

  • Unclear job roles

  • Inadequate training

  • Poor communication

  • Poor work environment

  • Lack of equal opportunities

  • Different work styles and values

  • Bullying and harassment

  • Lack of cultural sensitivity

  • Political and racial intolerance

  • Unhealthy workplace competition

  • Perceived and actual inequities of resources

  • Mergers or acquisition,

  • Significant changes to products, organisational charts, appraisals or pay systems

  • No accountability towards companies values

The above is not an exhaustive list, and the nuances to the above list are infinite. The situations in which good people find themselves in conflict with each other are far too many to control.

Acknowledging that the presence of conflict is not the problem, but actually inevitable, opens up for more discussion around how to engage with conflict, rather than making it taboo.

What is the relationship you and your team have to conflict? How does it show up there?

Is conflict openly acknowledged and dealt with skilfully, or is it avoided, dealt with unskilfully and left unresolved?

In this blog, I will focus more on these three factors as causes of conflict in the workplace:

  1. Avoiding Conflict

  2. Being unskilful with Conflict

  3. Unresolved Conflict

Changing our mindset toward conflict as a source for innovation and new ideas is paramount to working better together. We need each other to collaborate so that we can all achieve our goals in these challenging times.

Conflict has the potential to tear us apart or to help us solve the most unsolvable challenges in the most creative and inclusive ways.

Of course, conflict also has a massive impact on the work environment:

  • Absenteeism

  • Turnover

  • Low productivity

  • Disengagement

  • Delaying or preventing the completion of change initiatives

One study by Porath and Amir Erez, a management professor at the University of Florida, showed that people lose the ability to concentrate after being treated rudely. Cognitive skills dropped 30 per cent in the experiments they conducted.

Knowing that conflict is inevitable, and also that conflict has a negative impact on the organisation’s ability to achieve its essential goals, should hopefully initiate action.

Being more conscious about the fact that conflict will arise, we can be more curious about what is preventing teams and organisations from dealing with conflict more effectively?

(1) Avoidance of Conflict:

The biggest challenge in most teams is that conflict is perceived as negative. We have been taught that conflict at work is bad. We most likely all have experienced situations where conflict has caused more harm than good.

So we want to prevent it or avoid it at all cost. Most teams sit with some sort of conflict that never got creatively talked about. The impact of this influences the way the team functions as it carefully navigates these hot topic(s).

Many organisational values are in place to prevent or avoid conflict. The purpose of most values is to get along fine. To be nice to each other and to make sure that there are no misunderstandings.

Teams lack the courage to bring ‘the elephant’ into the room and, and most organisations lack the stimulus and the skill to bring these topics to the agenda.

Conflict avoidance doesn’t do anyone any favours!

(2) Unskilful Conflict:

In many situations, conflict cannot be avoided. It finally comes to the surface in a meeting, and that which has been sitting just below the surface in teams has now found itself into the conversation and quickly dominates the agenda.

The underlying frustrations then show themselves through hostile and toxic behaviour such as blame, criticism, contempt and defensiveness.

In these situations, we are not able to slow things down and listen. We are not able to cultivate curiosity and to explore differing views.

Unskilful conflict often gives people the rationale to avoid conflict, which means that the cause for conflict remains unresolved, perpetuating the pain in the team.

(3) Unresolved Conflict

Unresolved conflict is the source of much pain to the people and the organisation.

Most teams and organisations have not spent time in discussion on what to do when conflict arises, mostly unskillfully, and remains unresolved.

We don't trust each other in being able to come around the table and deal with something that is uncomfortable and has caused pain for the team. Our avoidance strategies have failed us and our unskilful ways have created exactly the type of situation we wanted to avoid.

What next?

A systemic approach to shifting the psychology of the team or organisation provides strategic support for dealing with conflict.

Organisations need to create a new narrative around conflict. A narrative that understands the unavoidability of conflict as well as the creative process that conflict invites us to. A narrative that sees organisations as a complex system of relationships that is the organising energy of the organisation.

We cannot control teams to not have conflict. We cannot control all aspects of conflict when it arises, so we need to learn how to harness the presence of conflict so that we can process conflict to benefit team members and the team.

We can rely on Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI™) to support us in nurturing this creative narrative. The 5 principles of RSI support the paradigm shift that harnesses the practical reality of high performing teams. Here is some more information about the benefits of Relationship Coaching in organisations.

We can get together and co-create new agreements about resolving conflict, and the more we empower teams or departments with this co-creative process, the more relevant and helpful these agreements are for the teams and the team members dealing with the specific conflict in their day to day work.

One key factor to working with conflict more skilfully, and harnessing its benefits, is to slow down. Slowing down enhances our ability to observe what is happening, to re-anchor ourselves in our agreements and values and to open ourselves up to our innate ability to be at choice.

The other key factor in assisting the movement from conflict to creativity is to be able to step into the others, ‘the opponent’s’, shoes. This powerful move quickly assists in breaking down barriers and helping everyone shift from stubbornly staying stuck in their point of view.

Are you looking to build high-performance teams that embody a culture of innovation, creativity and collaboration? Click the button below 👇 to download our free ebook to find out how!

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