What Are the Sources of Workplace Conflict?


by Blaine Donais

Extract #1 from Workplaces That Work: A Guide to Conflict Management in Union and Non-Union Work Environments (Aurora: Canada Law Book, 2006)

November 2006

Blaine  Donais The effective management of workplace conflict requires an understanding of the nature and sources of conflict in the workplace. Conflict occurs when there is a perception of incompatible interests between workplace participants. This should be distinguished from disputes. Disputes are merely a by-product of conflict. They are the outward articulation of conflict. Typical disputes come in the form of formal court cases, grievances, arguments, threats and counter threats etc. Conflict can exist without disputes, but disputes do not exist without conflict. Conflict, however, might not be so easily noticed. Much conflict exists in every workplace without turning into disputes.

The first step in uncovering workplace conflict is to consider the typical sources of conflict. There are a variety of sources of workplace conflict including interpersonal, organizational, change related, and external factors.

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Interpersonal

Interpersonal conflict is the most apparent form of conflict for workplace participants. It is easy enough to observe the results of office politics, gossip, and rumours. Also language and personality styles often clash, creating a great deal of conflict in the workplace. In many workplaces there are strong ethno-cultural and racial sources of conflict as well as gender conflict. This may lead to charges of harassment and discrimination or at least the feeling that such things exist. People often bring their stresses from home into the office leading to further conflict. An additional source of workplace conflict can be found in varying ideas about personal success. The strong drive for work related achievement in some participants can clash with participants who do not emphasize work-related success in their lives.

There are a variety of ways to uncover such sources of conflict, including the use of personality testing instruments like Myers-Briggs, Thomas-Kilman, FIRO-B, and Personality Dynamics Profiles. In addition to this, confidential surveys, interviews and focus groups can be a good way of uncovering interpersonal sources of conflict.

Organizational

There are a number of organizational sources of conflict. Those relating to hierarchy and the inability to resolve conflicting interests are quite predominant in most workplaces. Labour/management and supervisor/employee tensions are heightened by power differences. Differences in supervisory styles between departments can be a cause of conflict. Also there can be work style clashes, seniority/juniority and pay equity conflict. Conflict can arise over resource allocation, the distribution of duties, workload and benefits, different levels of tolerance for risk taking, and varying views on accountability. In addition, conflict can arise where there are perceived or actual differences in treatment between departments or groups of employees.

A thorough review of the workplace is suggested for such sources of conflict. Again surveys, interviews and focus groups can help reveal these sources of conflict. Additionally, organizational sources of conflict can be predicted based upon best practices from similar organizations. All organizations experience such conflict. Much can be learned from the lessons of similar organizations who have made a study of this source of conflict.

Trends/Change

The modern workplace has significant levels of stress and conflict related to change-management and downsizing. Technological change can cause conflict, as can changing work methodologies. Many workplaces suffer from constant reorganization, leading to further stress and conflict. In line with reorganization, many public and non-profit organizations suffer from downloading of responsibilities from other organizations.

Workplace analysts should review the history of the particular organization, reaching back as far as 10 years to determine the level of churn that has taken place. Generally speaking, the more change and the more recent the change, the more likely there will be significant conflict.

External Factors

External factors can also lead to conflict in the workplace. Economic pressures are caused by recession, changing markets, domestic and foreign competition, and the effects of Free Trade between countries. Conflict arises with clients and suppliers effecting customer service and delivery of goods. Also public and non-profit workplaces in particular can face political pressures and demands from special interest groups. A change in government can have a tremendous impact, especially on public and non-profit organizations. Funding levels for workplaces dependent upon government funding can change dramatically. Public ideologies can have an impact on the way employees are treated and viewed in such organizations.

To look for external factors of conflict, have a review of the relationships between the subject organization and other organizations. Companies or government departments that have constant relationships with outside organizations, will find this to be a major source of conflict for workplace participants.

In Workplaces That Work, there is a convenient check-list and advice to help the analyst reveal the prevailing sources of workplace conflict. To learn more, the reader can go to www.workplacefairness.ca



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Biography




Blaine Donais B.A., LL.B., LL.M. (ADR), RPDR, C. Med., author of Workplaces That Work, published by Canada Law Book, has spent many years working with public and private sector professionals. He is President and Founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute, Conflict Management Solutions. He has represented professionals as a labour lawyer since 1995. He is an expert in both the practice and theory of assisted labour/management negotiation, mediation-arbitration and facilitation. He teaches Human Resources professionals, Labour leaders and others in Human Rights, Labour and Employment law, Human Resources, Collective Bargaining and Conflict Resolution.



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Website: www.workplacefairness.ca

Additional articles by Blaine Donais



Comments



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 Bediako ,   Accra Gh  Cynthia_asarebediako@yahoo.com      01/18/14 
 Workplace politics as a source of interpersonal conflict 
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We may have to begin looking specifically also at workplace politics as a source of interpersonal conflict in organisations. Especially in a supposed to be politically neutral environment such as the civil service. We have looked at it clothed in power and scarce resources but it is about time it is discussed as a stand alone phenomenon in organisations. Such conflicts manifest in unproductive outcomes in the service. If we should research more it may uncover very interesting results which may even inform reforms. Let us set it rolling
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 Henrik ,   Jönköping  info@henrikjosefsson.se      09/23/13 
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@ Nancy, East Elmhurst This is something that your company should have a plan for. If they don't, then it's a good idea to suggest that they develop a system for dealing with exactly that. If you're uncomfortable taking your specific problem up with them, you can suggest it as a generic approach. "Generic" in this case meaning that it's not to resolve a specific case, but rather to make a general improvement of workplace ambience. Good thing for management is that a generic intervention like that will save them money in the long run as it prevents conflicts from escalating if you have someone to talk to as you wish.
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 Henrik Josefsson,   Jönköping  info@henrikjosefsson.se      09/23/13 
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There are indeed a great variety of sources for conflicts. It is however, easier to deal with them if you learn to handle them as clusters. With clients I've seen a great importance of learning to speak about sources of workplace conflict. Sometimes the problem and the solution are obvious, but hidden as there's no terminology to understand ones own thoughts. Finding the right words to talk about ones situation also work magics when it comes to prevention of workplace conflict. www.henrikjosefsson.se
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 Blaine Donais,   Toronto ON  donais@workplacefairness.ca      06/05/12 
 Who to speak to 
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This will depend entirely on the workplace. You might wish to speak to human resources or if you are unionized to your union representative. Also determine if there is an open door policy that may permit you to speak to another manager. But care must be taken in all cases not to get on the wrong side of a person in a position of power over you.
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 Nancy ,   East Elmhurst ny    12/11/11 
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who can you speak to when management are very close friends with supervisors that they can not set aside friendship over business.
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