Like every other human community, organisations are diversified. Employees, no matter how many things they share, still have distinct personalities, mindsets, skills, visions, and behaviours. Such diversity is excellent for business success as it provides opportunities for growth and development. Yet, when employees fail to find common ground, despite their genuine desire to achieve the same goals, conflicts emerge.
Workplace conflicts stem from a variety of sources, such as personality clashes, miscommunication, competition, and differences in values or expectations. If not handled skillfully, these conflicts can negatively impact employee morale and unravel team productivity and overall organisational health. But when employees as well as leaders cooperate to contain these disputes better, they can improve communication, develop stronger relationships, and reach innovative solutions.
This article dives into the complex realm of workplace conflicts, exploring their common causes, various types, and the tangible impact they have on individuals and teams. We will provide a comprehensive guide on practical strategies for resolving conflicts, fostering a positive work environment, and cultivating a culture of open communication and mutual respect.
Workplace conflicts refer to disagreements, disputes, or clashes that arise in any professional setting, often due to differences in opinions, values, beliefs, interests, personalities or work styles among individuals or groups. They may also be a result of competition, failure in communication, or lack of resilience and flexibility.
While inevitable, such conflicts can manifest in various forms, ranging from minor disagreements to major disputes. They can be easily seen in the forms of verbal disagreements, passive-aggressive behaviours, bullying, and sometimes even sabotage. All of these potentially contribute to creating a hostile, or even toxic, work environment.
Types of Workplace Conflicts
Workplace conflicts can take various forms, depending on the source of the disagreement and the parties involved. Identifying the type of conflict can help in determining the most effective resolution strategy. Here are some common types of workplace conflicts.
1. Interpersonal Conflicts
Interpersonal conflicts, or personality conflicts, are those disagreements that arise between individuals due to having unalike personalities and different or opposing values or concepts.
They may be just as simple as employees being unfriendly with one another where each party does not seem to stand the other. They can also be shown in employees being always on edge and ready to get into arguments with their peers. Either way, such situations always lead to poor communication, which has the potential to develop into clashes.
Unfortunately, interpersonal conflicts indicate inflexibility, rigidness, difficulty in accepting others and lack of self-confidence in employees. These are significant issues that must be addressed and fixed immediately, for they do have a huge impact on employees’ careers as well as the companies they work for.
2. Intragroup Conflicts
Intragroup conflicts usually happen between members of the same team or department, yet they are more likely to be caused by the work structure rather than personality differences.
For instance, when competition among team members crosses the limit of what is accepted as healthy competition, it can lead to conflicts. Conflicts within teams also arise when managers unequally assign workload to employees, leaving some feeling both pressured and unfairly treated.
3. Intergroup Conflicts
On a bigger scale, teams and departments as entities, too, can encounter conflicts, which are referred to as intergroup conflicts. The only difference is that these conflicts are usually more complicated and more challenging to resolve, given that they incorporate many individuals.
Intergroup conflicts typically happen due to miscommunication, competition, or contradicting goals. Teams are also more likely to experience disagreements during times of disaster, where each one may hold the other responsible for the mistakes that led to the disaster in the first place.
4. Task, Process, and Role Conflicts
Conflicts may also arise because of the way tasks and general work responsibilities are distributed and executed. Task conflicts are more likely to occur within the team, especially when two or more employees are working on the same task. They may, for instance, disagree over which approach to take to complete the task while being too rigid to explore others’ opinions or ideas.
The same thing happens when the whole team cannot agree on one specific process or method to execute tasks in general. This is quite common when some team members call for trying new innovative methods or tools while other team members want to stick with the traditional way of doing things.
Sometimes, employees may be confused about their job roles and responsibilities, for they were never comprehensively explained to them beforehand. If employees fail to express this confusion and request a clear task explanation, they will inevitably make mistakes. Other times, employees may be given overlapping tasks, which are also a result of improper task explanation and analysis.
All of these lead employees to have what is known as role conflicts with their seniors or managers.
5. Leadership and Organisational Conflicts
While conflicts most commonly occur among employees or teams, it is not true that top management does not experience any conflicts. When managers adopt different leadership styles or management concepts, with each insisting on running the company in a way that does not intersect with that of the others, disagreements happen.
The problem with leadership conflicts, however, is that they often spread to and negatively impact employees, creating tension and uncertainty among them. It also shakes the employees’ trust in their managers and their feeling of security within the organisation.
Another type of workplace conflict that may emerge in a company is that caused by the structure and policies of the company itself. Some of these may be unfair, causing a lack of transparency or asking employees for too much without giving as much in return. These are commonly known as organisational conflicts.
Impact of Workplace Conflicts
In this context, unresolved workplace conflicts potentially impact companies on all levels, starting from individuals’ self-esteem and teams’ coherence and moving up to overall productivity, work environment, and business success. Here is an in-depth look at how workplace conflicts can impact businesses.
1. Lowered Employee Morale
Employee morale refers to the overall outlook, attitude, confidence, and satisfaction that employees feel at work. When employees have high morale, they are motivated to work harder, are more productive, and are likely to stay with the company longer. In this sense, employee morale is strongly tied to workplace conflicts.
Ongoing conflicts typically create a stressful work environment, leading to increased stress and anxiety among employees. Employees involved in or affected by conflicts may experience job dissatisfaction, which potentially leads to disengagement, increased absenteeism, and turnover. High turnover rates lead to increased costs in recruiting and training new employees.
2. Decreased Productivity
Stress immensely affects employees’ physical and mental states. While it can cause sleep disorders or deprivation, which lead to low energy and badly affect overall health, stress makes employees lose their focus, encounter memory problems, and experience unpleasant changes in behaviour. Stressed employees are more likely to lose their temper and get into conflicts faster than others.
So yes, it is a vicious cycle. Workplace conflicts lead to stress, which leads to more workplace conflicts!
This, as you may have guessed, turns employees away from their tasks, leading them to develop the nasty habit of procrastination. Their productivity and efficiency genuinely decrease, which causes poor performance, affects their overall evaluation, and may even lead to getting sacked.
3. Negative Team Dynamics
Team dynamics describe the way team members collaborate to complete their tasks and set out the direction of the entire team’s behaviour and performance. They are typically shaped by the nature of the work, the different personalities within the team, work relationships, and the environment in which the team works.
Besides all the success, creativity, innovation, and satisfaction they may lead to, team dynamics both affect and are affected by workplace conflicts.
Conflicts create barriers among team members and make it hard for them to communicate with one another and share ideas openly. They can erode trust within a team, and effective collaboration then becomes a daily challenge no one seems to be able to overcome.
This leads to a lack of unity, which itself can develop into conflicts, resulting in a divided team and a toxic work environment.
4. Hindered Creativity and Innovation
All of this negative impact on employees’ performance and their collaboration with one another may actually develop a fear of failure and make employees more reluctant to take risks, let alone experience new things.
As conflicts constrain the exchange of ideas, they suppress diversity and creativity and hinder innovation, all three of which are indispensable factors for success.
5. Damaged Reputation
In a hiring process, employers are not the sole party that investigates the other. Recruits, too, study and learn about the companies they are applying for and check if they create a sound, positive working environment for them. If it proves to applicants that a company has a toxic environment, they are most likely to turn the offer down or not even apply in the first place.
Recurring conflicts do damage organisations’ reputations, and in a world like today’s, this is too fast to spread in the industry. Besides having its own employees resign, toxic workplaces face massive difficulty in attracting new and top talent. It does not even stop here. Workplace conflicts potentially affect client relationships and business opportunities.
Conflict Resolution Strategies
Proactively addressing and resolving workplace conflicts is not only crucial for minimising their negative impact, but it also effectively helps in fostering a positive work culture and environment and maintaining a harmonious and productive workplace. Here are various strategies that companies can employ to manage and resolve workplace conflicts.
1. Open Communication
In order to resolve a conflict between two parties, each must be able to speak openly about it. Companies should encourage honest and respectful dialogue between employees, teams, and leaders in order to understand the different perspectives, clear misunderstandings, and find common ground. Each party should also pay full attention to the other, listen carefully, and make a genuine effort to understand and validate their point of view.
To do that, employees should feel free to communicate their needs and expectations clearly to each other, which will not only resolve current conflicts but will also prevent further ones in the future.
2. Negotiation and Compromise
As conflicting parties vow to sit down and talk, they must keep the aim of resolving the conflict in their minds throughout the entire process. As they strive to reach common ground for their very own best as well as the company’s, employees need to negotiate to reach an agreement that satisfies both parties.
This typically requires both parties to collaborate and make concessions so they can reach a mutually acceptable solution. Doing this will teach everyone to cooperate, develop problem-solving skills and choose the best for the business over their own.
When conflicting parties fail to communicate or reach a joint agreement, it might be a good idea to involve a neutral third party to facilitate discussion and help find a resolution that satisfies them. This person, or group of people, should provide an unbiased perspective and work to get both parties closer.
In those cases that require mediation, conflicts are more likely to be complicated and conflicting parties may not be as flexible as needed. That is why companies must hire skilled mediators to manage and resolve these types of workplace conflicts better.
Another strategy idea to manage and resolve workplace conflicts is by using an arbitrator, whose role is different from that of a mediator by the way.
While mediators facilitate communication and help create a dialogue between parties to understand each other’s perspectives and generate options for resolving the dispute, arbitrators, much like judges, listen to the facts and testimonials of both parties and then make a binding decision on the conflict.
Arbitration is often used when parties, even with the use of a mediator, fail to resolve the conflict themselves. It does provide a clear, definitive solution to the dispute, but it does not always satisfy everyone.
5. Training and Education
Companies need to provide their employees with training programs that teach them conflict resolution skills and equip them with the necessary tools to effectively manage and resolve conflicts and promote a more harmonious workplace. Companies must also ensure that all employees have access to whatever resources and support they need to manage workplace conflicts effectively.
Doing this empowers employees to take on an active role in conflict resolution. They learn to work together to identify the root cause of the conflict, address the underlying issues, and develop a compromise, promoting accountability and responsibility.
Providing one-on-one support to individuals involved in a conflict also helps them to develop skills and strategies to manage and resolve disputes.
Conflict Avoidance Strategies
An excellent way to handle workplace conflicts is to work on not having them in the first place! Well, it is not possible to have no conflicts at all, but still, both top management and employees can work to avoid and eliminate them. So, here are a few strategies that may help in that.
1. Team Building Activities
Companies should encourage employees to engage in activities designed to build trust, improve communication, and strengthen relationships within teams. Such actions will enhance team cohesion, reduce the likelihood of future conflicts, and improve overall team performance.
Even if conflicts do happen, employees will be able to listen to each other, trust their opinions, understand their approaches, and work to find a mutual solution.
2. Setting Clear Expectations
By addressing and fixing the issues that usually lead to conflicts, companies can easily avoid them. For instance, companies need to clearly define roles, responsibilities, and behavioural expectations for employees. They should also encourage open communication to make sure everyone does understand what they are expected to do.
Setting such clear expectations immensely helps in reducing ambiguity, prevents misunderstandings, and minimises role conflicts.
3. Creating a Positive Work Environment
Fostering a workplace culture that values respect, diversity, and inclusion is generally crucial for the overall company environment and particularly for avoiding conflicts between the different parties.
A positive work environment does promote a sense of belonging and increases job satisfaction and employee well-being. These, in return, help employees feel more comfortable, appreciated, and valued working in that company, which makes them more open-minded to accept and work in harmony with others. So, a positive work culture can genuinely reduce the likelihood of workplace conflicts and enhance employee morale.
4. Encouraging a Collaborative Approach
During times of peace and harmony, companies must promote mindsets that value collaboration and collective problem-solving. When team members are encouraged to work together to find solutions, which enhances innovation and productivity, they will prevent minor disagreements from turning into significant disputes and generally be less likely to experience conflicts.
Even if they do have conflicts, employees will collaborate more to identify, address, and resolve them before they escalate, maintaining a peaceful work environment.
In essence, embracing workplace conflicts as opportunities for learning and growth and equipping employees with the necessary tools to navigate them lays the foundation for a positive, inclusive, and thriving work environment. As we navigate through diverse work settings, virtual teams, and ever-changing workplace dynamics, mastering the art of conflict resolution will remain a critical component for building strong, compelling, and harmonious teams and achieving organisational success.