In my last blog, I discussed the cost and benefit of conflict, highlighting that 85% of employees deal with conflict in the workplace.
Conflict sucks up a huge amount of our time and equates to over 370 million working days a year! But what causes conflict in the first place and how can you resolve it?
What causes conflict at work?
Conflict is common in the workplace as shown in the stats. Some of the most common causes of conflict are (adapted from "Mediator Skills and Techniques: Triangle of Influence: Skills, Techniques and Strategies" by Miryana Nesic and Laurence Boulle):
Values & Principles
People have differing ideologies, worldviews or cultural backgrounds.
Patterns of negative behaviour, stereotyping, psychological problems and/or unresolved emotions and grief.
Written and verbal communication is misunderstood, unclear, misfiled or ignored.
Goals & Objectives
People have different goals but they cannot achieve them without the help of one another.
Information & Data
Figures, data and vital information is wrongly interpreted, incorrect, incomplete or lost.
Structure & Power
Unequal access to authority, information, resources, time, advice and sources of power.
Access to Resources
Competing over limited amounts of money, goods and services, and other matters of substantive value to the person or persons.
Why do perceptions and misunderstandings cause conflict?
Conflict is often caused because of assumptions we make, or the stories we tell ourselves about the reasons for someone else’s behaviour. Often these aren’t the reality, and our interpretation of the facts is incorrect.
When communicating, our perceptions could cause us to respond in an unexpected way, often resulting in conflict. If the other person responds in an unexpected way also, based on their own perception, conflict arises and could spiral out of control.
Our perceptions are influenced by several things including our past experiences, self-image, stereotypes, attitudes, hopes, fears and needs.
The impact of these misperceptions can be described using the attribution theory. In the attribution theory, we tend to attribute negative motives to the other person in a conflict situation.
Let’s say somebody doesn’t attend a project meeting that you’ve organised for this morning. You could assume a negative intent:
What you know happened (fact):
They didn’t turn up to your meeting.
The story you tell yourself (fiction):
They are lazy, they don’t respect you, they’re not dedicated to their work, and they clearly shouldn't be involved in this project.
Or you could assume a positive intent and ask yourself: “If my best friend had done this, what would I be thinking?”
What actually happened (reality):
They were involved in a car accident on the way to work and couldn’t make the meeting in time.
When your buttons are pushed...
We all live our lives according to certain values that are important to us - these are different for everyone.
When your brain perceives that someone has disregarded or challenged one of these values, then your emotions can be triggered and you can respond negatively. By being more conscious of our emotional triggers we can manage our misperceptions.
Download a list of emotional triggers here. Feel free to personalise the list by adding your own emotional triggers to the list, identify the most important ones for you.
When you find yourself in conflict then take a step back and ask yourself “has one of my buttons been pushed?”
Are there other tools for identifying what drives conflict?
Dealing with difficult situations and conflict are often necessary parts of a manager’s role. Yet, many managers report that conflict is the aspect of their job that they fear the most.
In her book, The Conflict Pivot, Dr Tammy Lenski provides a simple but effective approach to uncovering what keeps us stuck in conflict (and hence, we fear conflict) to moving towards resolving it.
Dr Lenski describes six conflict hooks that when pressured or questioned, are likely to lead to conflict. They are:
- FELLOWSHIP - Our need to be included and to be viewed as liable, co-operative and worthy
- AUTONOMY - Our need to be acknowledged as independent and self-reliant, and having boundaries
- COMPETENCE - Our need to be recognised as capable, intelligent, skilled, or having expertise
- INTEGRITY -Our need for others to respect our dignity, honour, virtue and good character
- STATUS - Our need to be admired for tangible and intangible assets such as attractiveness, reputation, power and material worth
- RELIABILITY - Our need to be seen as trustworthy, dependable and loyal
When someone gets angry, it usually results in a conflict because one of the above needs hasn’t been met or has been threatened. Part of resolving conflict is being aware of your own emotions and what is causing them.
When you feel yourself getting defensive, you can always have that inner dialogue in your head. Like, “He just questioned my integrity that’s why I’m reacting this way.” You can take a few deep breaths and move the conversation with the other person in a constructive direction that is much more objective and rational.
Top tips: How to get better at resolving conflict
I’ve discussed the main causes of conflict in the workplace. Emotional triggers and conflict hooks are great tools to help you become more aware of your own emotions and to identify them in others. Once you know what’s causing you to get angry, you can start to ask focused, rational questions that lead to a conflict resolution.
Here are some other tips for getting better at resolving conflict:
- Empathy helps you to put yourself in another person’s shoes. One of the ways of building empathy is through active listening. Really listening to someone means not simply waiting for your chance to speak or thinking about the email that just came in before the meeting. To build empathy that diffuses conflict, we need to actively listen to the other party. It takes practice.
- Use the SIREN framework to have more effective conversations at work.
- Learn good questioning skills. Ask open questions and avoid asking, “Why…” as this can appear judgemental and fuel conflict.