Find the Hidden Source of Conflict

Wendy Loewen

In my consulting work, I regularly help organizations with issues of conflict. In a recent workplace mediation, I saw firsthand how easy it is to misdiagnose the source of conflict. The situation was explained to me as an interpersonal dispute between two employees. One had criticized the other for an error in their work, and the conversation quickly became heated. Over the next few weeks, there were other instances of mistakes and hostility between the two. Their manager noticed the tension and stepped in. After a quick assessment, he reprimanded the employee for what he also assumed was sloppy work and set clear expectations. The employee agreed to be more careful. The manager, however, was not sure how to resolve the tension between the two employees and I was asked to mediate.

In my early discussions with both parties, it became clear that the mistakes were linked to something more than sloppiness. I encouraged the manager to speak with the employee who made the mistakes with the intent to understand the situation and consider how he could be a support to that person. With this new approach, he quickly found out that health issues were impacting the employee’s ability to focus. The errors were important to address, as was restoring the relationship between the two employees in conflict, but only focusing on the presenting problem would not deal with its source. The manager had misdiagnosed the situation. He responded to what he saw (the poor work), acted on this limited view, but left the root (a health issue) untouched.

Leaders should be aware that interpersonal conflict might have roots in other places.

This story exemplifies why leaders should be aware that interpersonal conflict might have roots in other places. As we seek to manage conflict in our workplaces, we need to make sure we identify the true causes. If we don’t, we run the risk of dealing with the presenting problem while leaving one or more of the sources of the conflict untouched. Conflict has many layers, and being aware of what these are can help us figure out what is really going on and see more clearly what our next steps might be. Here are some areas to consider as you search for potentially hidden sources of conflict:

Intrapersonal

Intrapersonal conflict is internal conflict that may be caused by issues like financial worries, family stressors, tragedy, or health issues that put strain on a person. Because of these stressors, people may be predisposed to conflict in other situations or with other people. Unless our staff choose to tell us about their struggles, we may neglect this as a contributing factor to conflict in our workplaces.

A supervisor recently told me that one of their staff was found in the bathroom crying on a regular basis. Her colleagues were annoyed with her for being “oversensitive.” The supervisor initiated a conversation and found out that the individual was struggling with mental health issues, and together they were able to decide on a helpful course of action.

Interpersonal

Interpersonal conflict is the result of unhealthy interaction patterns between two people. It typically happens because of disagreements, misunderstandings, or personality differences. For example, two people may find themselves in conflict because they disagree on how to allocate a departmental budget. Other times people find themselves in conflict because they misinterpret each other’s words or actions.

For example, one staff asks the other when they will be done with their part of the project. From that question, their coworker infers that they don’t trust them to get their work done on time. In reality, their coworker’s intent is to make sure the project is on track. This kind of misunderstanding can be the start of interpersonal conflict. Or sometimes staff are in conflict because of personality differences in how they express themselves, levels of interaction they prefer, or even how they like to structure their work.

Intragroup

Intragroup conflict takes place between two or more members within an existing group. Typically, we see intragroup conflict emerge on working teams or within organizational departments. Intragroup conflict often erupts in response to different ideas of how a task should be completed or how procedures should be conducted, as well as differing goals or competing priorities.

A recent team I worked with was tasked with creating a new strategy for a project. However, their manager did not provide clear guidance and the members in the group began arguing about how to proceed. One person on the team was sure that his course of action was the best while several other team members disagreed, and the conflict continued because they could not reach an agreement. The leader had failed to offer ongoing support and did not check in on how the group was doing. As a result, he was unaware of what was occurring. And when the team fell behind on the project, he reprimanded them for their tardiness but neglected to address the growing intragroup conflict that began due to his unclear directions.

Intergroup

Intergroup conflict is where a person’s identity in one group puts them in conflict with another group. In workplaces this often manifests as what we refer to as “silos.” This can happen when various groups do not understand how each group fits into the bigger picture of the organization, appreciate the other’s contribution, or know who is responsible for what. This often results in unhealthy relationships or competition between the groups.

Several years ago, I worked with a school where the teachers and custodians were annoyed with each other. Both sides were bothered by the other for many reasons, but one big reason was the lack of attention to recycling. Each side was annoyed because the other did not take care of the recycling in their classrooms until it was overflowing. The problem was that the task was never clearly assigned to either group. But the issue had gone beyond just recycling bins and developed into a them-against-us mentality. When a new teacher started, they were told that those custodians were lazy; and, when a new custodian started, they were told that those teachers were whiners. Essentially, the identity of being a teacher or custodian automatically put the new employee in conflict with the other group. Without clarifying roles and expectations or highlighting their joint contribution to the school, the intergroup conflict escalated.

Conflict in our workplace alerts us that something is not working.

Systemic

Systemic conflict is a result of injustices such as biased laws, a lack of relevant policies, or prejudices both in our workplaces and larger society. It is easy to identify systemic biases when you look for “isms” – racism, ageism, sexism – these are all examples of systemic conflict. This type of conflict also tends to create and perpetuate conflict in all the previously outlined sources.

Several years ago, I worked with a manufacturing company where racism was rampant. One employee told me that it was common for him to hear derogatory comments about the smell of his ethnic food. In one instance, he said this led to a fist fight in the lunchroom. The owner of the company was frustrated with what he deemed to be unruly employees. I was asked to mediate a conversation between the two individuals. After several conversations, it became apparent that the source of the conflict was much larger than the two people – it was systemic. In order to address the issue, the company needed to examine the racism in their workplace culture.

It is imperative that we not let the appearance of conflict hide what other factors might be contributing to the situation.

Conflict in our workplace alerts us that something is not working. As leaders we need to pay attention when we see conflict emerge and address issues as quickly as possible. And in order to respond in a helpful manner, it is imperative that we not let the appearance of conflict hide what other factors might be contributing to the situation. We do this best by pausing, reflecting, asking lots of good questions, and listening to what we hear. Remember that what presents as one thing might actually be the result of something else. This knowledge can help us understand and address the true causes of conflict as we strive to create and maintain a healthy workplace.


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Author: Wendy Loewen

This blog is an excerpt from ACHIEVE’s book, Don’t Blame the Lettuce: Insights to Help You Grow as a Leader and Nurture Your Workplace CultureAvailable for pre-order now.

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