Unresolved conflict in the workplace is expensive on many fronts. However, conflict can be a critically important component in the formation of high-functioning teams. The key is knowing how to allow the right amount and the right kind of conflict into the system without letting it escalate into a damaging dispute. To do this, we must understand the different root causes of conflict. Which of the following 7 points is the root cause of your conflict?
1. We Want Something We Can’t Have
Human history records horrendous conflicts that escalated to battles and wars that devastated entire regions of the world until one dominant ideology prevailed over another. The Bible addresses this very point when James, one of the disciples of Jesus, wrote, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight” (James 4:1-2).
The bottom line is if we allow our natural selfish tendencies to be the driving force in our life, we will get ticked-off whenever we don’t get what we want, and then we will do whatever has to be done to get it. Even if nine out of ten people on a team have learned to manage these selfish impulses, there will still be problems because of the one.
2. Personal Values are Challenged
The way an individual views integrity will inevitably shape his or her personal code of ethical behavior. However, within every organization, there are lines in place that define its ethos and culture. The norms of the workplace and right and wrong are determined by what is expected; a form of Group Think takes hold. Conflict arises when these expectations clash against personal values. This clash can be intensified when religious teachings and cultural values based on ethnicity and nationality are added to the mix.
3. Role Ambiguity
Titles and pay grades can only prevent some role confusion. Circumstances often create opportunities for others to exercise their talents in someone else’s territory, and thus the classic power struggle is born. (Of course, conflict can also happen if someone feels they are stuck doing someone else’s responsibility.) The absence of hierarchical structure can have large upsides when creating collaborative teams or doing joint projects, but beware if some good-spirited competition starts to turn towards conflict. To reduce role ambiguity, some work groups actually use a Team Charter to crystallize various roles, responsibilities, and expectations. This allows the team to stay focused on the stated objectives.
4. Asset Allocation
I once worked in a church setting where the policy on the use of equipment and facilities was on a first-come, first-served basis. In theory, it was a good policy. It rewarded those who were disciplined enough to plan ahead. However, the Youth Pastor used the policy to his advantage. He booked the use of the church’s gym every Saturday night and the church's vans every weekend a year in advance! He planned his budget to front load the most expensive things early in the fiscal year before the budget got lean towards the end of the year. He was a genius! Right? He had control of all the assets, so you had to get his permission to use them. But, most weeks, the vans sat parked, and the gym was empty. BUT the policy was being kept perfectly. Conflict ensued!
Good planning involves having a holistic view of the assets to be shared and making sure everyone is able to access the resources they need to accomplish their part of the task. A shared calendar can go a long way to reducing this type of conflict.
5. Work Styles
It is fascinating to observe how different people learn, work, think, and express themselves. After experiencing a few personality charged conflicts in your organization, you might be tempted to think that if we could just group people of similar styles, we would have a workplace panacea. Wrong. We need the variety of styles to balance out the limitations inherent of any one style, not to mention the monotony of working with people just like ourselves!
Understanding these differences and actually appreciating this diversity goes a long way to keeping conflict from erupting. The problem occurs when work styles clash rather than complement. The Center also offers specific testing for work styles and team chemistry based on self-reporting and input from others. The chart defines four of the different work styles that team members may experience.
My wife is far-sighted and I am near-sighted. Because we each have a different strength with a corresponding weakness, we make a pretty good team. Without our glasses, we perceive the world differently. She can read road signs in the distance, but I can read menus. She keeps me from missing my exit, and I can tell her to order the chicken cacciatore. But when we both think we are absolutely right and the other person is totally wrong, there will be the inevitable conflict.
What is at the core of the problem? Perceptions. Perceptions are simply cognitive pictures that are stored in the brain. They develop as a result of a complex combination of factors including concrete experiences, cultural beliefs, and social influences. Perceptions are often treated as “the truth” from those who hold them even if the perception is inaccurate, therefore making them very powerful. Perceptions can be changed, although not easily, through honest dialogue and changed behaviors.
7. Conflicting Definitions of Success or the “Win”
I have a friend who is a printer, and I remember seeing this sign about good, cheap, or fast in his front office. The sign is clever and correct. The customer is forced to pick two and forfeit the third. Likewise, leaders can inadvertently communicate conflicting goals which in turn causes conflict. For instance, one staff member might be pushing his team to meet deadlines because conveying speed is the most important goal, while another staff person might be telling his team that excellence is the top priority, and the business manager may be tightening the purse strings to keep things within the budget. The result is confusion and conflict.
Diversity of viewpoints, experiences, personalities, and skillsets can make an environment ripe for conflict, but this diversity is also the engine that pushes organizations up and forward. Once you have identified what the cause of your conflict is, you can begin working on a solution that will strengthen your team and organization.
For more on handling conflict, read the full article The High Cost of Conflict.
Dave has over 35 years of church ministry experience including 23 years as a senior pastor. His consulting experience includes ministry assessment, leadership coaching, and strategic planning. Dave’s degrees include a B.S. in Bible, a M.S. in Organizational Leadership and a D.Min in Leadership.