Contributors to Workplace Conflict: Part One

By Paul Godin

The first step in managing and dealing effectively with conflict in the workplace is to understand what is creating or contributing to the conflict. If we can identify the main contributors that recur again and again, we can strategize appropriate responses.

Having consulted widely with clients, and having surveyed thousands of people on the question of what they see as the causes of conflict, a number of recurrent themes have emerged over the years. Each of them is a primary contributor to conflicts, either creating challenges that make conversations and situations difficult, or making difficult situations much worse. These contributors, all of which can be found in most workplaces, include:

  • Identity Issues
  • Strong Emotions
  • What Happened Issues
  • Negative History
  • Situational Issues
  • Expectations of Opposition

The first three of these themes are ably described in the book, Difficult Conversations, by Stone, et al.,1 and are addressed herein; the latter three are also powerful challenges that commonly arise and are explored in the second part of this feature.

Identity Issues
As Stone et al. point out in their book, many conversations become difficult when someone’s sense of identity is challenged, invoking a range of defensive reactions. People can have their identity—their “face” or “pride”—challenged in a variety of ways.

Everyone has a way that they see themselves (as competent, intelligent, adaptable, honest, loyal, etc.). Everyone also has an internal value system that is the lens through which they see the world, consciously or unconsciously. They may value integrity, tolerance, reliability, competence, etc.

That said, when a person feels that their sense of self is under attack, this can trigger identity issues. Criticism, even perceived criticism, can raise hackles very quickly. A classic example is a performance review, in which the recipient may feel that the review is unfair, inaccurate, even malicious, targeting them personally. Someone who believes they are competent will not like hearing contradictory perspectives.

Another major trigger is when people do not live up to our own values (whether or not we live up to those values ourselves). If I value reliability, and my employee is constantly late for work, it will irk me deeply. If I value fairness, and see my boss favouring their friend who is less deserving, I will be upset.

Typical defensive responses caused by identity issues include aggressive “fight” responses, withdrawal “flight” responses like walking away or going silent, and the debate response when people argue against the attacking perspective. All of those reactions can increase the level of conflict in a team.

People may be in conflict internally as much as they are in conflict externally with other people, torn between their own values. Loyalty to friends and respect for integrity are both commendable values, but they may pull one in different directions.

Strong Emotions
Strong emotions have the power to derail conversations and enflame conflicts. When people are in the grip of a strong emotion, the rational problem-solving part of the brain loses control to the more instinctive side of the brain. That instinctive “lizard” brain is the home of immediate fight/flight responses, which often make matters worse. One strong emotion can provoke another. An angry employee may say things that will never be erased from their co-worker’s memories.

When in an emotional cloud, people are often unable to listen effectively. Emotions like anger and frustration can lead people to say and do things they would likely not otherwise do. Until the emotion subsides, people are less rational, and one person’s emotions may invoke reactionary emotions on the other side.

Emotions are often complex and challenging for others to fully understand. The outside world may see an angry nasty person, but inside may be a maelstrom of emotions such as shame, disappointment and fear.

A fearful employee worried about losing their job might lash out in a performance review,or break down in tears. Emotions are hard to predict and to understand. On the plus side, emotions generally have an honesty to them. People tend not to display emotions publicly until a certain threshold of significance is passed. If we understood those emotions, we could deal with them more effectively.

What Happened Issues
Another major contributor to conflicts occurs when people debate factual and historical questions. They have different perceptions of what is and what was. For example, after a job is botched, an employee and a manager may disagree about what the manager’s instructions were and whose fault it was.

“What Happened” debates can lock people into positional views, polarizing the conversation, but worse, when someone’s view of the facts is rejected and countered, it is tantamount to calling them a liar. That allegation, whether direct or implied, usually triggers a strong defensive identity reaction.

When the perspectives on what led to a dispute are fundamentally opposed, finding a path forward is difficult. As an example, if a manager believes their employee intentionally dropped a ball just to embarrass the manager, whereas their employee feels they were left hanging by the manager to figure things out, sorting out how to deal with the mistake will be a challenge.

Read part two of this feature which explores the impact of negative history, situational issues and expectations of opposition as they relate to workplace conflict.

Paul Godin is leading a Having Difficult Conversations Successfully webinar on February 27. For more information on this webinar and other professional development opportunities, please visit cphrbc.ca.

1. Douglas Stone et al., 2000. Difficult Conversations, Penguin Books.

Paul Godin is the principal of Katalyst Resolutions, a dispute resolution training and service provider based in BC but operating globally. Formerly a lead trainer and course designer for the Stitt Feld Handy Group, Paul is a world-recognized mediator and trainer and the author of the chapters “A Practical Guide to Conflict Management System Design” and “Principles of Negotiation” in The Alternative Dispute Resolution Practice Manual. He can be reached at paul@katalystresolutions.com and www.katalystresolutions.com for more information.

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