7 Key Causes Of Conflict In The Workplace

Mediation As Conflict Compromise And Solution Management

Conflict is a part of life and is as normal as breathing. As human beings we are so unique from each other with different needs that it is amazing we don’t have more disagreements!

Maybe one of the reasons why we don’t have more arguments is that we have many more things in common than the areas we disagree on. Another reason for not voicing our unhappiness could be that we understand the root causes and so ignore the conflict behaviours.

So let’s first take on overview to the 3 common areas of conflict and then we can break that down into 7 key causes to take a closer look at.

Causes of conflict

One of the most valuable tools in resolving conflict is a strong understanding of what actually causes conflict to begin with.

There are three main categories of conflict you need to keep in mind.

Interpersonal Conflict

When two or more individuals are involved it is known as an interpersonal conflict. Individuals may have distinct personalities, attitudes, and goals that just don’t blend together well. Everyone forms individual perceptions about their values and workplace goals, and it is not uncommon for these differing ideas to cause tension.

Inter-Group Conflict

On the other hand, you may find that the conflict within your organisation is between two distinct groups, causing an inter-group conflict. For example, in a car dealership there may be tension between the finance department and the sales department. The sales department may feel as though the finance team isn’t working hard enough to approve loans so that they can make sales. The finance team will, in turn, feel as though the sales department doesn’t understand how difficult financing is in today’s economy.

The Environment

The last type of conflict we’ll discuss today occurs when your organisation as a whole disagrees with the environment (aka, another organisation or entity). This can occur when one business feels as though the other stole a valued trademark or idea. On the other hand, the public may boycott an organisation or product due to what they feel were bad business decisions.

Understanding how conflict is caused will enable you to quickly identify what steps need to be taken when you are forming a plan for conflict resolution. Conflicts need to be resolved as soon as possible in order to keep your workplace running smoothly and efficiently.

What causes conflict at work?

Let’s dig a little deeper and let’s take a look at seven possible root causes for conflict at work.

1.   Personality Clashes

We’re all different! Some personalities we gel with and others we don’t. With some the behaviours they demonstrate can be in direct conflict to your own. The key here is recognising these differences for what they are and not regard them as a direct challenge to you and your authority.

2.   Protection Response

Most people are aware of our basic instinct for ‘fight or flight’ in difficult situations. This means that sometimes people will naturally choose to fight causing conflict with another person. And when we say ‘choose’ this might not be a considered choice and will be made instantaneously. This also means we may make the wrong choice. Hands up if anybody thinks they will never make a wrong choice again!

3.   Pressure Points

Everybody has pressure points or trigger points that will result in them reacting to a particular situation. In some cases this might be a particular word that triggers strong emotions and behaviours. For some this might be the word ‘lazy’. Many people do not want to be regarded as lazy and if this is said or implied then it can evoke a reaction.

4.   Previous Experiences

Bad experiences in their career or even their life as a whole can influence the way people react. Being treated badly by a previous manager can often result in people ‘learning’ from this situation and acting differently next time so that they are not taken advantage of.

5.   Personal Problems

Although some heartless managers say you should not bring your personal problems to work, sometimes this is unavoidable. Even if we don’t make an obvious demonstration of our emotions, it will still affect our levels of motivation and therefore performance. It also means that a sudden conflict situation may arise without warning and seemingly without cause.

6.   Points Of Principle

Our behaviours and motivations are usually driven by our values and beliefs. When we come across colleagues or managers who ask us to go against these vales and beliefs, it will often cause an internal conflict first of all i.e. do I go along with this activity because I want to keep my job or do I stick by my principles and say,’No!’?

7.   Panic Stations!

Some of us react in a certain way because we panic. We instantly judge a situation based on our initial beliefs about that situation and push the ‘panic’ button. As we calm down we realise that we have made assumptions which may not turn out to be true. Similar to the ‘fight or flight’ response we have reacted too quickly.

So if you have experienced any of these root causes for your own behaviour then you need to be ready to expect any of them from your colleagues.

Always be aware that everybody is entitled to have a ‘bad day’ and that the reason for the conflict may not be what you think. Take the opportunity to step back to consider the root causes.

Whilst some personalities are comfortable with conflict and may even use it to get things done or out of the open, it can also lead to problems that can seriously affect performance and the ongoing relationship with your team member.

As managers we need to make a decision whether to ignore the behaviours or do something about it. Always remember what Stephen Covey said. ‘Seek first to understand and then to be understood’

Good luck!

Looking for more help on managing conflict? Try this article:

Many thanks



Sean McPheat

Managing Director

MTD Training   | Image courtesy by David Castillo Dominici of FreeDigitalPhotos.Net

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Updated on: 17 April, 2013

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