Workplace Conflict – Causes and Resolutions


Conflict is an inevitable part of any workplace. It is a complex phenomenon that can have a significant impact on individual and organisational outcomes.

Conflict can arise from misunderstandings, differences in opinions, or interpersonal issues. While conflict can sometimes be difficult to deal with, it is important to remember that it is often an opportunity for growth and development. When properly handled, conflicts can strengthen a team and promote creativity and new thinking. Therefore, it is essential to learn how to effectively resolve conflicts when they arise.

Problems Associated with Workplace Conflict

Workplace conflict can lead to a number of issues, some more obvious than others. Even seemingly minor conflicts can fester over time, leading to major organisation issues including decreased productivity, increased turnover, and even legal problems.

These are some of the most common issues associated with workplace conflict.

  • Decreased Productivity

Conflict can be a major distraction that disrupts employees from their work and lowers their productivity. It can also create a tense atmosphere that makes it difficult for people to focus on their tasks.

  • Poor Morale

Workplace conflict can create a negative work environment that can lead to decreased job satisfaction and poor morale among employees. This can result in increased absenteeism, turnover, and low job performance.

  • Damage to Relationships

Conflicts can damage relationships between colleagues, managers, and subordinates. It can also create resentment and animosity, which can lead to long-term damage to the working relationship.

  • Increased Stress

Workplace conflict can create stress for those involved in the conflict, as well as for those who are aware of it. This can result in increased absenteeism, illness, and burnout.

  • Legal Consequences

In some cases, workplace conflict can lead to legal action, including formal complaints and lawsuits. This can result in significant financial costs, as well as damage to the reputation of the company.

Psychology of Workplace Conflict

Understanding the psychology of workplace conflict can help individuals and organisations manage it more effectively. Some of the main psychological factors that lead to conflict include emotions, perceptions, communication and power dynamics.

  • Emotions

Emotions play a key role in workplace conflict. When people feel threatened, they may become defensive, angry, or resentful. Strong emotions can lead to communication breakdowns, misunderstandings, and escalation of the conflict.

  • Perceptions

People’s perceptions of a situation can influence how they react to it. Different people may have different interpretations of the same situation, leading to conflict. For example, two people may have different ideas about how a task should be done, leading to conflict.

  • Communication

Communication is central to workplace conflict. Poor communication can create misunderstandings and escalate conflict, while effective communication can resolve conflicts. Misunderstandings can be caused by differences in communication styles, language barriers, or lack of clarity.

  • Power Dynamics

Power dynamics can play a role in workplace conflict. People with more power may try to impose their views on others, leading to conflict. In addition, people may feel disempowered or marginalised, leading to conflict.

  • Organisational Factors

Organisational factors, such as unclear goals or values, can contribute to workplace conflict. Poorly defined roles or responsibilities, lack of resources, and competing priorities can also create conflict.

  • Individual Factors

Individual factors, such as personality traits, can contribute to workplace conflict. For example, people who are highly competitive may be more likely to engage in conflict. In addition, people’s past experiences with conflict can influence how they approach conflict in the future.

Understanding the psychology of workplace conflict can help managers and organisations manage it more effectively, by addressing underlying emotions, perceptions, communication, power dynamics, organisational factors, and individual factors.

Understanding the causes of workplace conflict is an important step in working to resolve the issues and ensure they don’t continue to arise. So, let’s have a look at a few methods of conflict resolution.

 Methods of Conflict Resolution 

There are several models of workplace conflict resolution that are commonly used by organisations. Some of the most common models include:

  • Collaborative Problem-Solving

This approach involves bringing together the conflicting parties to work collaboratively towards finding a mutually agreeable solution. It encourages open communication, active listening, and brainstorming of ideas.

  • Mediation

This model involves a neutral third party who helps the conflicting parties communicate and negotiate a resolution. The mediator acts as a facilitator and helps parties find common ground and reach a compromise.

  • Arbitration

In this model, a neutral third party, typically an arbitrator, listens to both sides of the conflict and makes a decision on how to resolve the issue. The decision made by the arbitrator is legally binding.

  • Negotiation

This approach involves the conflicting parties negotiating a resolution themselves, without the involvement of a third party. This model can be effective when both parties have a vested interest in finding a resolution and are willing to compromise.

  • Grievance Procedures

These are formal procedures for resolving conflicts that arise between employees and their employer. They typically involve a series of steps, such as filing a complaint, investigation, and appeals, and can lead to a final decision by a neutral third party.

The choice of the model will depend on the nature and severity of the conflict, as well as the goals and priorities of the organisation. 

The Thomas-Kilmann Model

The Thomas-Kilmann model of conflict resolution is a framework used to identify an individual’s preferred approach to managing conflicts. Developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, the model is based on two dimensions of behaviour: assertiveness and cooperativeness. Assertiveness refers to the degree to which an individual tries to satisfy their own needs, while cooperativeness refers to the degree to which an individual tries to satisfy the needs of others.

Using these two dimensions, the Thomas-Kilmann model identifies five distinct conflict resolution styles:

  1. Competing (high assertiveness, low cooperativeness) – individuals who use this style try to win the conflict at all costs, even if it means ignoring the needs and concerns of others.
  2. Collaborating (high assertiveness, high cooperativeness) – individuals who use this style seek a win-win solution to the conflict, trying to find a solution that meets the needs of all parties involved.
  3. Compromising (moderate assertiveness, moderate cooperativeness) – individuals who use this style try to find a middle ground, where each party gives up something in order to reach a mutually acceptable solution.
  4. Avoiding (low assertiveness, low cooperativeness) – individuals who use this style try to avoid the conflict altogether, often at the expense of their own needs and the needs of others.
  5. Accommodating (low assertiveness, high cooperativeness) – individuals who use this style prioritise the needs of others over their own needs, often conceding in order to maintain relationships.

The Thomas-Kilmann model is often used in conflict resolution training and is useful for individuals and teams to identify their preferred approach to conflict management and to learn how to flexibly use different conflict resolution styles in different situations.

The heliotropic principle 

The heliotropic principle, as it relates to conflict resolution, is a concept introduced by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn in their book Diagnosing and Changing Organisational Culture. The heliotropic principle states that individuals and organisations are naturally drawn toward positivity, much like plants are drawn toward sunlight.

In the context of conflict resolution, the heliotropic principle suggests that people tend to be more productive and effective when they are focused on positive outcomes and emotions, rather than negative ones. This means that conflict resolution strategies that focus on positive outcomes, such as collaboration and win-win solutions, are more likely to be successful than those that focus on negative outcomes, such as punishment and blame.

Furthermore, the heliotropic principle suggests that individuals and organisations have a tendency to become self-reinforcing. In other words, if people and organisations focus on positivity and success, they are more likely to achieve positive outcomes and success in the future. Conversely, if they focus on negativity and failure, they are more likely to experience negativity and failure in the future.

Therefore, conflict resolution strategies that focus on positive outcomes not only resolve the immediate conflict, but also promote a positive and productive work environment that can prevent future conflicts from arising. By adopting the heliotropic principle as a guiding principle, individuals and organisations can create a culture that values positivity, collaboration, and mutual respect, leading to better conflict resolution outcomes and overall organisational success.

Professional conflict resolution training courses are a great way to get an objective view of the issues that may be within your organisation and learn valuable strategies for resolving conflicts among team members.

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