Interpersonal conflict or relationship breakdown in the workplace is, sadly not uncommon and is generally one of the top 3 reported psychosocial hazards. 

We are human after all with our flaws and sensitivities and when combined with other forces (work pressures) can lead to unhelpful responses. 

Conflict can arise between team members, people in other teams and often with an individuals direct supervisor. 

But what causes these conflicts? And what can you do to reduce and manage these events? 

Below you will see the six broad causes of workplace conflict. You will also read that many of these causes are interrelated. In other words it is not always just one thing. More than one thing can be true! 

Read along as I unpack each of these.  

At the end of the descriptors, there’s a Taking Action section with questions you can use for yourself, or share with with your team or implement across the workplace to help take positive actions to address relationship breakdowns, tension or conflict.

I have a range of other templates and guidance material on this subject which I provide to participants in my Common Psychosocial Hazards workshop where I cover this issue in depth along with workload management and poorly managed change.

If you’d like to discuss delivering this workshop for your HR, OHS, and wellbeing teams reach out. One HR leader in my last workshop took one of these tools directly into a conflict resolution meeting she was having after our workshop and gushed about how helpful it was. I just loved that timing! 

Change

Change can be a catalyst for conflict for many reasons. Look out for these.

  • Scarcity mindset; people with this mindset tend to work on the premise that if ‘you are to gain something, then I am to lose something’. We see this surface regularly during change, and it can be a common societal problem.
  • Comparative loss; people fear the impact of change and its comparative loss, which is when we compare our loss (perceived and not always based in reality) with those around us.
  • Uncertainty and fear; uncertainty breeds fear, which breeds unhealthy emotions. People don’t regulate well and may be quicker to anger and not manage their communication as effectively as usual.

Competition

The most obvious cause of conflict here can be career ambition. We’ve all encountered that person who would throw their grandmother under a bus for career progression.

However, in today’s resource-lean work-overloaded teams, it’s more common to find people competing for a fair workload, different job tasks or opportunities and even time with the boss. 

Communication

People communicate verbally, non-verbally and in written form. All three cause workplace conflict — as does the complete lack of communication.

Passive-aggressive behaviours such as eye-rolling, head-shaking, and looking bored when someone is speaking can all create conflict. Emails sent without salutations or a perceived blunt message or directive are also significant triggers

Mood

Have you ever noticed how a negative or moody staff member impacts the entire workplace? This very real effect is called emotional contagion.

A note on mood: It is not uncommon to see worn-down, disaffected staff carrying around a rather dire mood. Take the path of compassion and tap into what has led them to this point.

Yes, you must do something, and you will likely coach them to take one path or another; but lead with compassion and curiosity rather than judgment. Genuinely invest in helping them address the issue. 

Different Values, Attitudes & Beliefs

Working with people who hold vastly different values, beliefs and attitudes can be a bit of a melting pot.

There’s rarely an issue discussed at the family dinner table or social barbecue that doesn’t lead to some level of disagreement. Multi-generational families may experience this more acutely as the age gap widens. This is also reflected in the workplace, where a wide range of ages is represented. Entrenched views can cause conflict and challenges.

But while there will be people firmly gripping either end of the spectrum (see the model below), the majority are in what is sometimes referred to as the movable middle. They are open to others’ thinking and hearing different ideas and opinions.

The following strategies can help bridge the gaps without people needing to agree completely:

  • Make it safe for people to change their views. Our thinking can evolve, so share examples to enable people to do so without the fear of losing face.
  • Set behavioural expectations and cultural codes.
  • Get training on coaching people to unpack their values, beliefs and attitudes.
  • Set expectations about respectful and constructive discussions.
  • Teach people to approach discussions with a lens of curiosity, not judgment.
  • Adhere to anti-discrimination legislation and set clear boundaries for ensuring an environment free from discrimination. 

  Judgements & Assumptions of Others  

Have you ever made a judgment or assumption about a situation or a person that turned out to be completely wrong? It happens quite often in the workplace and can lead to conflict.

You may be familiar with the ladder of inference. Essentially it means that we make rash assumptions based on our perception of somebody — the way they look, their actions, their behaviours, and we mentally run up a ladder making all sorts of judgments about that individual.

Rather than based on fact, we’ve made all these inferences from what we see. Then we believe these stories we’ve made up and act accordingly — when the truth is likely completely different.

Taking Action

Embedding a culture code that is lived and breathed will help you hold people accountable for uncivil behaviours, poor moods and negativity. As leaders of change, help people (or yourself) find a more positive intent through emotions and hostility.

This quote from Joseph Joubert is a great guiding light. ‘The aim of argument, or discussion, should not be victory, but progress.’ Coach parties to find ways to make progress. Work with them and use the following reflective questions to get underneath the emotion of relationship conflicts.

Your goal is to help them understand the problem more practically and clarify what will happen if the conflict is not resolved.

  1. Who is involved?
  2. When does the conflict arise?
  3. How do you feel when it happens? What is being triggered?
  4. What do you believe is the ‘source’ of the conflict? (Refer to the common causes). 
  5. What other factors are at play? (e.g., power imbalance, workload, work culture, own fears, insecurities)
  6. Considering the source of the conflict and other contributing factors, what are your options for progressing? Write down at least three constructive options, keeping in mind a win/ win outcome.
  7. On a scale of 1-10, how important is it for you to address or resolve this conflict?
  8. How will you feel when you achieve that?
  9. What can you do to maximise your chances of success?
  10. What are your options if you are unable to resolve this conflict? Explore all options, including those you perceive as positive and negative. You can regain a sense of control over the situation by seeing that there are always choices.

if you would like a more in depth look at common causes of workplace conflict, you can find it in Transforming Norm – Leading the Change to a Mentally Healthy Workplace; Chapter 7; Poor Workplace Relationships. Purchase your copy of Transforming Norm below.

Transforming Norm Book

Buy your hard copy today. Book $32.95 + $8.00 flat rate shipping in Australia (per book).

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Audiobook available on Kindle

Transforming Norm: Leading the change to a mentally healthy workplace eBook: Amazon.com.au: Kindle Store.

Tanya Heaney-Voogt

Director & Principal Consultant
MBA, ICFACC, MAHRI, Dip Mgt, Dip Coaching, Prosci® Certified Change Practitioner
E: tanya@tanyaheaneyvoogt.com

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