Workplace disagreements are normal. Healthy conflict can boost understanding, creativity and innovation. But if things rage out of hand, undoing the damage can be costly. Pre-emptive measures, like building trust, recognising the first signs and understanding the real causes can help reap the benefits of conflict without jeopardising performance.
Conflict, like fire, is a good servant but a bad master. It’s beneficial when under control but disastrous when not.
And often it’s not: conflict and strained relationships are among the biggest causes of stress in the workplace. Estimates suggest that up to 100 000 days of sick leave per year, in the Netherlands alone, are the result of conflicts at work.
The indirect costs in terms of health and performance are even greater. People problems can take a huge toll on creativity, productivity, motivation and engagement.
The problem is that the change from a healthy conflict to an unhealthy one is subtle, gradual and notoriously difficult to detect. Many managers we work with are actually quite good at addressing all-out conflicts, but arrive at the scene too late: by the time the situation bursts into flames, a lot of deep damage has already been done. The fire may be out, but the embers are still glowing.
So conflict management requires learning to detect and act on the first signs, like bickering, toxic meetings, a decrease in quality or productivity and clique-forming. But prevention is better than cure: pre-emptive measures focused on treating the underlying causes are critical to creating a culture of healthy conflict.
What are some of the underlying causes?
Sometimes we simply have to spend too much time together. We all have our private dramas and battles, from insecurities to health issues, and these can often play out in our behaviours at work. That aside, there are at least five other reasons we frequently witness that can cause clashes and conflicts at work.
Personality differences: When opposites don’t attract
Very few people come to work to sabotage things; most believe that they are acting in the best interests of their colleagues and the company. It’s easy to forget that other people’s needs are different from ours. For some, quiet focus is crucial, while others need fun and interaction to be productive. There are those who want to share personal information and those who prefer to withhold it.
Awareness of differences in the preferences that drive behaviour is crucial to tackling strained relationships. Encouraging self-exploration increases our appreciation of personal differences, boosting collaboration.
Communication differences: When what I mean sounds mean!
Why does that cheery, detailed email delight some but irritate others? Different personalities communicate differently and their styles and needs can vary quite dramatically. We may think it’s pointless to call or message someone sitting ten metres away. They may think it’s distracting or disrespectful to walk into someone’s physical space.
Remembering that most of us communicate in the way we wish to receive information ourselves is a good starting point: the amount, type, tone, style, complexity and context are all driven by our own, personal preferences. Often, awareness of the impact and the range of possibilities is enough to trigger change.
Differences in personal goals: When perfect isn’t perfect
We’re all familiar with the irritation caused by conflicting personal goals. Some prefer things done; others prefer them perfect. But management can also construct systemic barriers to harmony: conflicting goals are common in nearly all organisations. Quality and productivity are a common target pair—when one team member is tasked with upholding quality and another one with driving productivity—that can become utterly destructive to mutual respect and positive relations.
Sometimes it’s helpful to review the roles of everyone involved. And again, awareness alone is often enough to trigger change. Bringing everyone together to examine full delivery chains, side by side, can deepen understanding of individual roles and provide insight into clashing goals.
Role ambiguity: When assumption is the mother of all mess-ups
Lack of clarity frequently leads to finger-pointing and a culture of blame. Teams across organisations spend huge amounts of time trying to figure out who was meant to be doing what rather than just straightening matters out and moving on. Poorly defined responsibilities can drive people to venture into other people’s domains, increasing the confusion, causing turf wars and eroding respect.
The most common source of conflict around individual roles is assumption. Most people dislike ambiguity, and if communication from management or between team members is inadequate, we fill in the blanks ourselves. Conflict is seldom about what’s explicit or implicit, but more often about what’s tacit. These are things that are difficult to document and get perceived through a filter of variables like values, beliefs, cultures, experiences and gender.
Purposeful communication involves always checking for clarity and shared understanding with the recipient of the communication. Frameworks like Agile and Lean are useful for this and offer structured approaches to reflecting on progress and clarity. Similarly, team sessions that are designed to move the emphasis away from individual roles to shared ones—like boosting client satisfaction—can help remove ambiguity. Focusing on what really matters is often enough to help put individual differences into perspective.
Different camps: When two tribes go to war
Wars between different camps are often the result of communication issues, divergent goals and role ambiguity. Limited resources can also play a role. The consequences of warring factions at work can be stifling. We’ve all experienced this: IT versus business; account managers versus designers; writers versus editors; sales versus production, suppliers versus customers. Sometimes this type of battle is energising, unifying and fun. It indulges the ‘us against the rest’ spirit, and the banter helps us bond and feel supported, valued and understood.
But things can easily become counter-productive. When tribes clash, the best interests of the company often get lost in the fray.
Here, too, purposeful communication and shared goals help. Inspecting delivery chains with a solid focus on client satisfaction can help create a level playing field. It also draws attention away from the internal tribal dynamic. Focusing on meeting client needs helps remind everyone that all projects are different, and so are the requirements that are placed on different teams. Countless companies have benefited from moving away from inflexible function-based silos towards flexible cross-functional or multi-disciplinary teams, based on specific client needs.
So how are things over at your place?
The first step towards minimising the negative impact of strained relationships or conflict is to see them for what they are: normal human dynamics that are likely to be simmering under the surface, if they are not already ‘playing out’ around you.
Understandably, most people are generally reluctant to report on their colleagues unless things are seriously out of hand. And most conflict-ridden teams retain a surprising degree of creativity and productivity until the extent of damage becomes clear. So vigilance is important, and preparedness is better than putting out fires that could have been avoided.
Conflicts are a natural part of complex environments. And recognising that most people prefer harmony is an important first step. Taking measures to deepen trust and understanding of personal preferences will help reveal causes of conflict before they get out of control. With vigilance, preparation and knowledge, diversity and difference can be celebrated, and strained relationships are transformed into dynamic, constructive conflicts that contribute to a balanced, energetic work place.
Taking a pre-emptive approach to conflict is an investment well made.