The Main Sources of Workplace Conflict

Every employee will experience workplace conflict at some point in their career. To be more exact, 85% of employees will experience some kind of workplace conflict one way or another, according to a CPP Global Human Capital Report. The study, conducted in 2008, counted on 5,000 employees in nine countries over Europe and the Americas.

There’s a reason as to why this number is so high: it’s impossible to escape conflict, especially in the workplace. Disagreements will happen for a number of reasons, ranging from miscommunication to mismanagement. Gladly, a lot of these conflicts are minor and can be easily resolved.

However, when eventual misunderstandings are left unattended, they may snowball into conflicts that are hard to settle. In fact, the same report from CPP states that unresolved workplace conflict could cost companies as much as $359 billion. This result comes from the paid hours U.S. employees spent dealing with conflict on a weekly basis.

When seemingly unimportant issues grow into conflicts, they affect employee productivity and business goals in the long run. And, since avoiding conflict is out of the question, leaders should be aware of the common sources of trouble so as to prevent them from surfacing.

In this article, we’ll go over the main sources of workplace conflict, and how to stifle them before they become bigger issues.

Poor Communication

A lack of proper communication is one of the main causes of conflict in any relationship, particularly in the workplace.

It’s common to blame poor communication on management, when in reality, it can come from all sides. A lack of clarity plays a huge role in miscommunication, and comments out of context can contribute to the spread of dishonest messages.

Even though employees may also partake in poor communication, management should take the lead when it comes to full transparency. It’s up to them to make sure employees feel psychologically safe enough to approach them with minor and major clarifications. Without Psychological Safety, teams will nod “yes,” even when they’re filled with doubt.

Besides, managers must ensure every team member is on the same page. This requires explaining instructions clearly, and avoiding leaving employees to their own devices. There’s a certain curse of knowledge at play, so they must take a step back and ensure they’re concise in their explanations. Leaving employees to figure things out between themselves is the recipe for conflict.

As a supervisor, try to be as clear as possible and don’t make room for guessing. As a principle of Psychological Safety, always listen to your team members’ concerns and new ideas without judgement.

Unrealistic Expectations

We all want our organisations to thrive, hence we may set fierce goals every now and again. Yet, in doing so, some employers may forget about the most important leadership skill: empathy.

They may forget they’re working with humans, and that these humans are much more than mere “doers.” Although it’s possible for employees to meet certain unrealistic expectations at work, they’ll do so in detriment to their physical and mental health.

According to the team at Robert Half Talent Solutions, “whilst you may think that setting super-ambitious goals can help your team achieve more than if a much lower target was set, it may in reality have a far-reaching effect on your employees and your overall business success.”

A common example of setting unrealistic expectations is setting work hours that compromise employees’ household or childcare responsibilities. To you, seeing employees drown in work and caffeine may create an atmosphere of hard work and productivity. However, trying to understand what goes on in the background can prevent you from unconsciously ignoring employees’ needs.

Are you setting sky-high expectations for your workers?

Do you know what they’re giving up to be at the office?

Are you giving them enough time to take care of themselves? Because if you aren’t, their minds and bodies will need a break, sooner or later. And that break comes in the form of absenteeism, unproductivity, and even resignation.

So, why not support them, instead of pressuring them?

Communicate with them with an open heart. Ask them what they need, and whether you’re meeting those needs. Mentor them, if they need it. More than a supervisor, be a partner they can trust.

Speaking of which…

Poor Management

You may be familiar with the following quote: “People don’t leave organisations, they leave managers.”

Bad management is expensive. The number one reason rushing people to leave organisations is their immediate supervisors – which is no secret to anyone who’s had to deal with a terrible manager.

As stated by Graziadio Business Review, “if decreased productivity and increased turnover aren’t reasons enough to stop the practice of having bad managers, consider this: bad managers lead to increased stress, major health issues, and even death.”

The first step to put an end to unhealthy management is simple: admit and accept that bad management is a “thing” in your organisation. There’s a tendency to blame employees for a lack of productivity when bad management may be the culprit.

The second step is to stop hiring bad managers. That’s why we advocate for psychometric tests during recruitment: it provides a data-driven approach to hiring. Not only will you be able to predict a candidate’s behaviour in the workplace, but also get an educated sense for their true skills and personality.

As Mark Allen, PhD puts it, management careers should be carefully considered, as should any other career. “Would you ever hire an engineer who had no education, experience, or aptitude for engineering? Of course not. Would you ever hire a manager who had no education, experience, or aptitude for management? We do it all the time,” he says.

Personality Clashes Among Coworkers

A 2021 study by My Perfect Resume found that 65% of employees experienced conflict with their coworkers, specifically. It’s not hard to imagine why that happens: employees of every organisation come from different cultures, backgrounds, and have distinct beliefs and personalities. In this case, personality clashes are difficult to dodge.

As much as it’s impossible to avoid conflict in the workplace, it’s impossible to expect all coworkers to be friends. Yet, although they may not like each other, mutual respect and impartial collaboration remains essential.

All team members should be sensible enough to respect each others’ differences – hence the importance of hiring employees who are capable of working in a team.

Besides, it’s a manager’s responsibility to introduce and reinforce a healthy company culture to their employees. Problems will come up – but when a well-established culture and the right employees come together, those issues become a lot easier to settle.

A Lack of Clarity

“Nobody told me that.”

“That’s not what I was told.”

“Where did you hear that?”

These are three of the most common phrases you’ll hear if your organisation has a problem with clarity. When clarity lacks, it makes everything feel like a telephone game: the initial message becomes distorted, and no one knows what the real takeaway is. Combined with a lack of communication, this can result in conflict that’s hard to resolve.

If job descriptions and roles are unclear, so are tasks. When people have no idea what they should be doing, they won’t put as much effort into it. After all, they could be doing it wrong. Or worse, they could be working on a task someone else should be completing. See how it all can get really messy, really fast?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

If supervisors could be allies and make job descriptions as clear as possible, clarity-related trouble would diminish. Again, don’t make room for guessing or wondering.

Help employees feel safe when asking questions, and offer regular training sessions. This way, they’ll understand their roles and responsibilities, and feel more confident when performing them.

If You Can’t Prevent Conflict, Make It Easier to Resolve

Workplace conflict will always exist. Instead of running from it, leaders must be prepared to deal with them as soon as they come up.

Even something such as gossip can mean trouble if it’s not immediately resolved. As petty as certain issues may seem, leaving them on the back burner could leave them heating up to the point of explosion. Don’t let it reach that point.

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