Six Sources of Conflict at Work

Wendy Loewen

workplace conflict, conflict resolution, leadership, management, workplace culture

I love optical illusions. It’s fascinating to watch an image shift from one thing to another, depending on your perspective. Optical illusions use colour, light, and patterns to mislead our brains into creating an image that does not match the image in front of us. Workplace conflict can sometimes be like an optical illusion, where what we see is not a full representation of the reality.

Recently it struck me that interpersonal conflict is heavily influenced by the larger structure of an organization. Sometimes individuals in conflict become a lightning rod for larger issues in the workplace. This is why leaders and conflict resolution practitioners should treat interpersonal workplace conflict as a means to understand the deeper conflict themes that may be present within the larger organization.

In ACHIEVE’s consulting work, we are often asked to help resolve conflict between individuals. Typically, our support is requested when a conflict is impairing the organization’s ability to meet operational goals or when their public image is in jeopardy.

Interpersonal conflict is heavily influenced by the larger structure of an organization.

Although these workplace conflicts are often presented to us as interpersonal issues, we have found that larger systemic issues are often at the root of the problem. Like an optical illusion, what seems like interpersonal conflict at first glance may be caused or exacerbated by issues with the organizational structure.

Six Sources of Conflict

Here are six common sources within an organization that may lead to interpersonal conflict:

  1. Lack of role clarification

Conflict can emerge when it is unclear who is responsible for what task or what part of a project. Clear job descriptions and expectations can reduce this contributor to conflict.

  1. Poor processes

Often poorly constructed processes and procedures can create conflict. To avoid this pitfall, it is helpful to regularly review your procedures and policies to ensure they support teamwork and collaboration.

  1. Communication problems

This is a common contributor to conflict and can occur among all levels of staff. Keeping communication channels open and having a culture where questions are welcomed will go a long way in mitigating this contributor to conflict.

  1. Lack of performance standards

When performance and quality standards are not clear, individuals quickly sort out their own personal expectations around work quantity and quality. This can put them at odds with others whose standards are different. Leadership and management should be fair, clear, and consistent in articulating performance standards.

  1. Lack of resources

If employees have to compete for resources, whether it’s managerial support, tools, equipment, or financial resources, the stage is set for competition and conflict. Asking employees what’s needed and then providing it (if possible) will build a spirit of collaboration rather than competition.

  1. Unreasonable time constraints

Workplace conflict can occur when coworkers are not aware of the steps involved and the time others need to complete their portion of a task or project. As a result, they may expect more of each other than is reasonable. Taking time to consider job design and cross-training employees can work to mitigate this contributor to conflict.

There is no simple solution to workplace conflict, but one thing we can do is be proactive and critical of our organizational systems.

According to CPP Global’s report, “Workplace Conflict and How Business Can Harness It To Thrive,” 85% of employees at all levels deal with conflict to some degree. This reality indicates that we should anticipate conflict – and, more importantly, we should have a plan to respond. There is no simple solution to workplace conflict, but one thing we can do is be proactive and critical of our organizational systems.

The next time you are faced with an interpersonal conflict in your workplace, ask yourself:

  • Are our roles clear?
  • Do our processes and procedures support collaboration?
  • Have we clearly communicated performance standards?
  • Have we provided the necessary support and resources?
  • Do we clearly communicate reasonable timeframes for tasks?

Don’t let the appearance of interpersonal conflict hide what other organizational factors might be contributing to the situation. Let’s remember that what presents as one thing, might actually be the result of something else. This knowledge can help us understand and address a deeper problem as we strive to create and maintain a healthy workplace.


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Author: Wendy Loewen
Managing Director, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Wendy is the co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. The book is available on our website.

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