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Conflict at the workplace – Causes and Consequences



Given the various personality types we encounter at work, the range of activities that must be achieved together and the fact that people differ in the way they approach others, it is no surprise that conflict is a part of life in every organization and for every employee.

Understanding conflict and how it can be used for effective resolution strategies is not easy, but if it will not be addressed effectively, individuals will suffer.

Whose job is it to manage conflict in the workplace?

When it comes to whose ultimate responsibility is to ensure conflict is managed more effectively, usually the answer would be HR professionals or senior leaders. However, even though HR professionals might be better trained in this area, they should not have the weight of the world on their shoulders when it comes to dealing with such situations.

Everyone plays a part in conflict management. Usually, by the time HR professionals are trying to find a solution, the situation already got out of hand. What is desirable is for all employees to be able to manage conflicts before they escalate.

One advice would be for organizations to put in place training programs for everybody, regardless of their place of employment, but especially for the ones who more frequently encounter such situations.


The causes of conflict

Although causes are as varied as their resolutions, according to a study conducted by Psychometrics Canada, to evaluate Canadians’ experiences of conflict at work, certain triggers are common. Employees reported that personality, leadership, communication and the work environment play important roles. It was discovered that 86% of respondents see personality clashes and warring egos as playing a frequent role in conflict. Poor leadership was the second most commonly mentioned cause of conflict – 73%.

Another study conducted by the Public Service Commission of Rwanda, between 2009 – 2013, revealed that causes of conflict range from employees’ behaviors to institutional culture, leadership management style, recruitment and placement system and employee harassment.

Costs for the company

When managed poorly, in worst cases, conflict can lose you both customers and employees. Being involved in a disagreement or managing a conflict between co-workers can be a total waste of time, if no positive conclusion is reached. For an organization, all these translate in financial losses.

It is also common for conflicts to escalate, rather than being promptly solved. As research found, due to the higher number of cases where escalation occurs, more management time is required to calm the situation down and ensure that employees are re-engaged in their activity.

Costs for the employee

When conflicts are not addressed effectively, there are a lot of consequences at the individual level. As stated in the study conducted by the Public Service Commission of Rwanda, consequences include broken relations, employee instability and insecurity, loss of work commitment, unjustified absenteeism, forceful resignation, as well as moral and psychological harm. Unsurprisingly, poorly managed conflict also reduces cooperation among teams.

Although conflict is often viewed negatively, it can lead to enlightenment when it is managed correctly.

In the same study, it was discovered that properly managed conflicts can build team cohesion, improve organizational practices, policies and procedures, reduce tasks’ vagueness and improve the quality of decision-making, just to name a few.

Everybody in the organization has to understand how important it is to identify and address underlying tensions before things go wrong. Also, when people see conflict as purely negative, they tend to avoid it and solve it as quickly as possible.

But that might not be a good idea, if for example conflict is a result of differing ideas; it might not be in the group’s interest to immediately solve the tension and try to reach a compromise that integrates multiple points of view.

By taking the time to work through differences, you can generate better solutions and exceed expectations. This requires people to reconsider their perception of conflict, to embrace the fact that we are all different – which is a good thing, and that by working together to solve our differences, we might bring about a hefty amount of creative energy.

The challenge is finding the best ways to handle conflict and take advantage of the uncomfortable situations that are created in its wake, to find out what is not working and how improve it.

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