By Shirley J. Caruso, Ed.D
What is Conflict?
The word “conflict”, especially in a workplace setting, is usually synonymous with the word “disagreement”. When defined as a disagreement, a conflict can be small – such as a disagreement over whose turn it is to clean a bathroom, or large – such as taking credit for work or ideas that are not one’s own. In reality, a conflict can entail much more than a disagreement – however small or large. In the following paragraphs, we explore the types of conflict, their contributors, and the steps to resolving conflict.
The Meaning of Conflict
The previous paragraph gives a general description of conflict, but what does conflict mean? Does it mean that those who are in conflict will never be able to work with each other? Does it mean that an employee who is experiencing conflict in the workplace will never be a productive employee? Not necessarily. Although the word conflict has a negative connotation, it does not always mean the end of a working relationship or the end of a career for a once productive employee.
There are issues underlying conflict that must be resolved in order to restore relationships and productivity. One major issue contributing to workplace conflict is a perceived threat to their physical or emotional well-being. Within the work environment, conflicts are common and often expected as employees are invested in their defined roles and responsibilities. The manner in which employees perceive the conflict, or threat, is dependent upon their culture, beliefs, previous experience, and even their gender. With this realization, employees can develop methods for predicting the types of conflicts that are likely to occur and learn from them.
Types of Workplace Conflict
There are two main types of workplace conflict: internal conflict and external conflict. Internal conflict affects an employee on a very personal level. This type of conflict occurs when a threat is perceived against the employee’s culture or beliefs, strained relationships or personality clashes, and/or differing views, goals, interests or perceptions. Employees experiencing internal conflict feel they are at some type of risk. If the conflict is with a manager, an employee may feel that he/she is at risk of being fired, for example. Thus, the employee becomes defensive and experiences a great deal of stress. As a result, this can have a great impact on his/her productivity.
External conflict, on the other hand, is a type of conflict that is a result of outside forces or an observed behavior in other employees such as pressures of responsibilities, competition for limited resources, and/or organization or leadership problems. One glaring example of external workplace conflict is the management style of the organization. Employees are generally confident in fulfilling their roles and responsibilities. A management style that threatens their autonomy can be a source of external conflict and a stressful work environment.
Whether the conflict is internal or external, it originates from a perceived threat. The perceived threat then triggers feelings in an employee and puts him/her on the defensive.
The initial change comes from the employee who feels threatened or at some risk. This initial change will require the employee to change his/her response to the threat by adopting an attitude that will allow the person who is the source of the conflict to express his/her position. An employee who feels threatened will most often avoid the conflict but maintain angry or fearful feelings. These angry and fearful feelings become their new focus and the real problem is ignored. The goal in resolving a conflict is to engage in a conversation where employees do not feel the need to defend themselves.
Understanding the Cause
Conflict resolution often involves understanding what took place to cause the perceived threat. When approached with an open mind, an employee may find that the situation has been embellished with opinions, rather than facts. When an employee approaches the conflict with an open mind, he/she may see that his/her opinions about what occurred may be wrong. This may open up a way to work through and resolve the conflict.
Once the conflict is approached with an open mind and an employee approaches its resolution with facts rather than opinions, the next step is to give the other person(s) the benefit of the doubt. Conflict is perceived negatively. And it is natural for an employee to assume that the other person(s) involved had negative intent. When approached with an open mind, however, and the employee becomes less defensive, the employee should assume that the intention of others may have been clouded by his/her initial, negative reaction. With a new, positive perspective, an employee should re-examine the situation and uncover the possibility of positive intent.
Blaming vs Taking Responsibility
The road leading to conflict is often paved with blame. It’s often easier for an employee to blame others rather than take responsibility for his/her own behavior. Blaming others is a defensive behavior – a behavior that comes naturally when an employee feels threatened. Taking on a new perspective with an open mind teaches the employee to take responsibility for contributing to the conflict.
Shifting from a negative to a positive attitude, sticking to facts rather than opinions, and taking responsibility for contributing to the conflict will help the parties resolve the conflict by reaching an agreeable solution to it and a course of action to remedy it.
Once a conflict has been amicably resolved and a course of action is put into place, the employees involved in the conflict should work together to restore their relationships. Conflict resolution presents new opportunities for better communication and an overall better working relationship. Employees should agree to engage in conversation before engaging in defensive behavior to avoid new conflicts.
Conflict is an expected workplace behavior. It is the result of both internal and external forces and manifests itself as a perceived threat or risk. Conflict can be resolved if employees understand it. Conflict resolution often involves understanding what took place to cause the perceived threat. Resolving conflicts is key to building/restoring relationships to ensure a working environment that is both welcoming and productive.