Understanding and managing conflicts at work

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Anne Gehrke and Robert Gründler

Understanding and managing conflicts at work

As modern work contexts are complex and variable, managing conflicts can grow time consuming and challenging. However, conflicts have beneficial, as well as detrimental properties relating to employees´ health and productivity. That is because conflicts help to foster innovative processes and to improve decision-making, which is beneficial and therefore functional. However, detrimental and dysfunctional conflicts can put a strain on employees’ well-being and cooperation. Dual concern theory describes possible conflict management strategies in terms of the relation between: the concern for one’s own interest, and one’s concern for the other party’s interest. Besides, common goals, constructive controversy and effective information exchange help preventing detrimental conflicts or at least its respective escalation.

Understanding conflicts at work

Firstly, it is useful to gain insight about what is understood as a conflict at work. There are conflicts occurring between individuals or groups of people (e.g. workforce and management), as well as certain types of role conflicts connected to the work context (e.g. when work interferes with family or family interferes with work).

Key definitions and concepts

Conflicts at work are conceptualised as a process, which can be broadly categorised into cognitive and affective conflicts. The current section aims to define the core concepts and definitions in relation to conflicts at work, and provide a concise discussion of some special forms of conflict at work. In addition, management strategies will be presented according to the dual concern theory. Finally costs of conflicts at the workplace will be considered. Conflicts can be seen from two different perspectives: as a process, on the one hand; and as a structural matter, on the other hand.

When discussing conflicts at work it is essential to distinguish between its issues, the feelings and cognitions attached to those issues, and the behaviours demonstrated by all parties involved ( i.e., the conflict management and its resulting outcomes). Therefore, a conflict can be viewed as a process; during the course of which the conflict parties act on perceived differences and frustrations, which are blamed on the other party´s actions, concerning goals, interests or values, [1].To mention one example, there is the conflict process Model from De Dreu et al. (2003), which will be discussed in a further section.

Structural models of conflict seek to identify factors and conditions that evoke conflicts [2]. This means these models focus on various properties of the workplace, which may result in conflict: such as, certain characteristics of employees, teams or organisational variables, like hierarchies, rewards or competitive structures. Structural models, therefore, do not specify how a conflict develops, and, in turn, which outcomes are achieved by applying certain conflict management strategies. These models only postulate on what can trigger conflicts. To enable profound comprehension of a conflict situation, it is necessary to examine it from these two different perspectives.

Categories of conflict and their interrelationship

Conflicts at work arise due to differing goals amongst groups or individuals. These differences may stem from issues concerning the relationships amongst team members, which are called affective conflicts, or they focus on task-related issues (i.e. cognitive conflicts). More specifically, cognitive conflicts regarding task-related issues focus primarily on methods and procedures. They also refer to a discrepancy of ideas between different characters: for example, “Some people were sure, that the future strategy should be to focus on super premium market, while others felt the focus should be the minority market. There were different interpretations of the key issues. We debated a long time.[3]. In addition cognitive conflicts generally have a higher probability than affective conflicts to result in constructive actions and outcomes. In contrast, affective conflicts centre on personal components and tend to become more emotional, as can be the case in disagreements between individuals about beliefs and values. Such social-emotional conflicts can be especially detrimental in the workplace in regard to personal and organisational outcomes [4]. However, cognitive conflicts can develop into affective conflicts [5]]. This happens, for example, when delay or difficulties in decision-making processes are blamed on certain individuals or teams. Mistrust, as well as negative prejudice against others, can lead to the perception that occurring problems are the fault of an individual; or that others are achieving trying to cancel out one’s achievements. Additionally, if cognitive conflicts are prolonged or result in intensifying rather hostile behaviours, this can result in less cooperation between employees, work teams or workforce, and management [4].

Special types of conflicts at work

Bullying is a specific social stressor at work. Bullying is understood as primarily the psychological mistreatment of an individual in the workplace. If no systematic intervention takes place, bullying has a tendency to last for a long time. Mostly the ‘victim’ perceives that he or she is unable to fight back effectively [6]. Bullying unfolds frequently under problematic working conditions accompanied by poor leadership practices, so features of the target cannot be the only reason for bullying occurring [7]. This means that poor working conditions, like vaguely communicated tasks and expectations, create frustration among employees, thereby stimulating an aggressive atmosphere that in turn increases the chance that certain team members, who maybe show unusual behaviours, get bullied upon [8] [9]].See here for a more detailed discussion of the causes and consequences of bullying and harassment at work.

Another type of conflict associated with work is a certain inter-role conflict called work-family conflict. Many people experience problems in fulfilling the demands connected with both work and home life. Working life interfering with family has been observed to have negative effects on work performance and satisfaction with work. Likewise family-work conflict has been observed in diminish overall life satisfaction. Both types of inter-role conflict lower stress-related well-being [10].Psychological detachment from work, which is the ability to let go of work-related worries and to recover in leisure time, lessens the psychological strain connected with work-family conflicts [11].

Dealing with conflicts

Dual concern theory states that conflicts can result in either constructive or destructive consequences. This depends to a large degree on how the conflicting parties deal with and address the situation [12]. There are five different styles of conflict management, which can be characterised by the amount of concern for one´s own and the other party´s interests as shown by Figure 1.

Figure 1: Dual-concern theory[12]

When conflicts are encountered in an integrating fashion, both parties aim at satisfying their own as well as the other party´s interests. The conflict is characterised by openness and develops into the mutual exchange of information, and the process involves a joint search for alternatives and solutions that suit each party involved. This can be seen as ‘win-win’ scenario and leads to constructive consequences, most frequently. Whereas with an obliging conflict management style, only the other party´s interests are of special concern and one´s own interests remain unconsidered.

Great concern for one´s own interests and low consideration of the other party´s interests is described as a dominating style of handling conflicts. Dominating includes rigorously arguing for one´s own position with little tolerance for the other´s perspective. Avoidingis characterised by the neglect of one´s own interests, and also by the neglect of the concerns for others, which in turn can be equated with low empathy. In compromising every party has to let go of some of their respective aims, and at the same time they strive for an acceptable solution winning common consent [12].

Except for integrating, all conflict management strategies lead to ‘win-lose’ situations. The most unfavourable conflict management style seems to be avoiding. When different points of views are not discussed in a satisfactory manner, there are limited opportunities to attain constructive solutions; which may result in the conflict further escalating [13].

Key antecedents to the development and, in turn, the escalation of conflicts at work

The following section highlights how conflicts can have different functions. More specifically, sources of conflicts, as well as conflict issues, will be discussed; and the conflict process will be examined more thoroughly, with special regard to the escalation of conflicts.

The effort required to address conflicts will increase as work contexts become more complex. It is important to recognise that conflicts at work have beneficial or functional, as well as detrimental or dysfunctional properties. Appropriate conflict management allows for gains in personnel and organisational factors. That is through improving the interaction of highly specialised and interdependent work forces, this may result in reduced turnover and enhancing productivity, commitment and innovation; and, in turn, ease tension and prevent stress-related physiological or psychological[14].

Sources for conflict can be changing work tasks and reorganisation, as often experienced in organisational change. This can negatively influence cooperation and thereby generate interpersonal conflicts [17]. Further organisational factors contributing to the development of interpersonal conflicts are too fast-paced or role conflict-inducing work tasks [15] [16]. Lack of feedback and lack of social support can increase employee´s susceptibility to several types of stress and strains as well as to negative consequences associated with these: aggression and interpersonal conflicts [17].

Conflicts emerge when at least one party perceives certain conflict issues as irritating. As explained above, depending on one´s concern for self or for the other, actions are chosen to reduce the tension [14]. So fundamentally, every conflict is a dynamic cycle as displayed in figure 2.

Figure 2: Conflict process[14]

Conflict issues, or ‘antecedent conditions’, stem from organisational, individual and relational characteristics. Table 1 lists some possible conflict issues of each domain. Generally speaking, conflicts are inherent to organisations; because conflicting views and opinions will always occur, and need to be addressed in order to gain commitment to shared values and organisational goals [18]. Manifest conflict can be divided into conflicts about: social and material scarce resources; procedures and role behaviours; and member´s identity from social-emotional perspective [18].To prevent conflicts about limited resources, structural changes need to take place.

Table 1: Possible conflict issues[18]

organisational characteristics individual characteristics relational characteristics
structural aspects: hierarchical levels, decentralisation, diversity of employees, joint resources education perceived inequality of age, experience, education, status, ambition
ambiguity of tasks, evaluation personal frustration, aggression gender, class differences, race
role conflicts: controlling, managing, innovative, representative positions polarising thought processes, mistaken perceptions imbalance of powers and possibilities of influence
culture: goals, values, norms need of power, dogmatism, suspiciousness communication failures, mutual prejudices and suspiciousness
supervision, rules, competition sense of inferiority, neuroticism, risk-taking role conflict, role ambiguity

Conflicts about procedures address the implementation of group activities from planning to evaluation. Different points of views are confronted when discussing possible alternatives, ways and means. Conflicts can also develop over unequal contributions of team members to agreed tasks. Naturally, decision-making provides a huge area for conflicts, including decisions concerning work tasks as well as payment, working hours and so on. Role conflicts are often triggered by the dilemma between what is expected from a team member, for organisational benefit, and what this member himself or herself wants to do, to assure his or her own well-being. Especially to prevent work-family conflicts an adequate organisational policy towards time management, flexibility and other forms of support is useful [10] [11].

To prevent social-emotional conflicts a strict organisational policy opposing these is necessary. That means, that official organisational policies and behaviour of authorities (e.g, chiefs, directors or managers) should reflect zero tolerance towards detrimental, personal types of conflicts. At the same time they can contribute to rational and beneficial solutions of conflicts by encouraging open discussion and matter-of-fact criticism [4].

Research by Glasl [19] states that conflict escalation has nine stages:

  1. Frustration occurs by different parties which reduces cooperation and understanding.
  2. Consequently, the conflict parties think in a biased and polarised way about each other.
  3. Readiness to fight sets in.
  4. Stereotyped and ‘win-lose’ centred thinking are reinforced as each party seeks support for their own perspective from outsiders.
  5. Each party wants to let the other one look bad and they try to embarrass one another.
  6. Parties accuse and threaten each other.
  7. Parties start to harm each other.
  8. Parties increase each other´s destructive behaviours.
  9. Finally they separate.

Consider all this information collectively, conflicts have beneficial as well as detrimental functions. The conflict process is dynamical and can lead to conflict escalation, if no proper conflict management takes place.

Understanding the consequences of conflicts at work

In this section of the article, the consequences of conflicts in organisations will be considered from the perspective of the employee and the organisation. Constructive and destructive aspects will also be presented and discussed. Thus, conflicts can have positive and negative influences as well on several variables – e.g. the employees´ well-being and cooperation, turnover rates or overall business success.

From the individual´s perspective conflicts at work potentially diminish job satisfaction, and psychological well-being as well as physiological well-being. From an organisational perspective turnover and productivity are negatively affected [20]. Specifically affective conflicts have been observed to reduce the individual´s information processing performance. As more and more capacity is invested in coping with emotional aspects of the situation, hence productivity and efficiency decline [21].

Enhanced creativity, problem-solving and overall organisational development are constructive aspects of conflicts at work [4]. Non-routine work benefits the most from exchanging and reflecting different views on the specific problem. Discussing opinions in a constructive and respectful fashion gives all parties involved the chance to learn more about the conflict issues at hand. So not only are decisions on elaborate subjects optimised, but the general interest in the conflict results increases, as does the level of innovation and efficiency.

In contrast Routine work is of little benefit, since more standardised work tasks are designed in such a way that they offer fewer opportunities for variation [22].Therefore, the relationship between work performance and conflict intensity can be conceptualised as inverted U-shape as is shown in Figure 3 [23].

Figure 3: Relationship between conflict intensity and work performance[23]

Constructive conflict management further strengthens relationships between the involved parties and contributes to the team´s cohesion and team members´ personal development [26]. In short, work performance and effective cooperation are most likely with medium conflict intensity. However, non-routine types of work can profit the most from conflicts.

Addressing and managing conflicts at work: workplace policies and practices

The last section of this article will discuss the advantages of and ways to realise an appropriate organisational conflict culture. An efficient conflict culture develops over time into a relatively stable way of handling conflicts within the organisation and its various departments. This is more likely to occur when interacting employees or cooperating teams share compatible instead of competitive goals, and a rather collectivist than individualistic perspective [14]. The resulting social support can and constructive consequences will reinforce the cooperative conflict culture; whereas, more competitive environments can foster suspicion and exploitation among colleagues, resulting in a greater possibility of conflict escalation [24].

A constructive conflict culture in an organisation is characterised by team members who noticeably and without instruction support each other, while ensuring that their own contribution to the given task is of a reliably high quality. Employees and line managers discuss optimum solutions openly, and, in turn, the generated solutions are jointly developed and implemented. Within this process it is important that each employee is aware of his/her task and responsibilities, and of what colleagues, managers and clients are expecting from him or her. Therefore employees need to reflect their position in relation to these expectations [25] [26].

De-escalative conflict management includes direct behaviour and indirect reactions towards conflict issues that decrease tension. De-escalative conflict management is unlikely to happen spontaneously in affective conflicts. Notably some reactions intending to be de-escalative in nature, like denying or repressing conflicts, only offer a short term relief as the underlying conflicts remain and might erupt anytime or develop into an affective conflict [19] [26]. Generally it can be assumed that there is generally a great potential to train employees in conflict management. Unfortunately, conflict trainings are not widespread as is shown in table 4. Table 2: Conflict management training received in per cent, by country [27]

country part of leadership development none
United Kingdom 14 55
Belgium 6 72
Denmark 9 61
France 5 73
Germany 13 57
Ireland 13 50
The Netherlands 7 63

From a more long-term perspective, it is beneficial for an organisation to adapt strategic de-escalative conflict management strategies. Structural changes to alter various antecedent conditions involve:

  • minimised power differences (flat hierarchies) to foster collaboration;
  • explicit procedures concerning decision-making;
  • appropriate allocation of responsibilities;
  • facilitating communication processes; and
  • emphasising shared goals and values. [4]

Ultimately the individual´s attitude towards conflict, supported by [[Occupational safety and health management and corporate social responsibility (CSR)|organisational norms and regulations,which encourage openness and diversity, and the actual conflict management behaviour shown, are central to an organisational constructive conflict culture. When employees experience that they are able to cooperatively work out conflicts and attain suitable results, the next time conflict arises everyone will be more likely to again act in a constructive fashion[4].

When conflicts are accepted as the norm and dealt with in a constructive manner, they foster innovation, creativity and optimisation as well as personal development of employees with regard to social and communication skills. It is vital to recognise diversity as enriching instead of threatening. This allows the individual and the whole team to develop respect for the joint problem-solving and everyone involved learns to appreciate a constructive collaborative approach [25] [26]. The first step is to generate a shared perspective and an understanding of each other´s views. This can be achieved through the following process [19] [25] [26].:

  • Explaining one´s perspective to the others, instead of claiming it to be universally valid.
  • Elaborating different perspectives instead of just judging on them.
  • Prevent misunderstandings through describing a situation as impartially as possible.
  • Always depersonalising and differentiating between person and problem.
  • Exploring differing needs or interests that led to the presented perspective which finally resulted in the conflict issue.
  • Postponing the proposed solution in favour of fully analysing the current conflict issue. When all alternatives, available data and scenarios have been considered the, formerly proposed solution can be adapted.
  • Participation of all employees relevant to the conflict issue in the decision-making process allows for higher levels of commitment to the chosen solution.

Altogether it is vital to apply structural adaptations as well as to provide employees´ education in conflict management in order to create a constructive conflict culture. Central steps to this are the training of de-escalative behaviours, and of communication skills as well as emphasising shared goals and values.

Summary and conclusions

In summary, this overview of conflicts at work describes how conflicts in organisations are inherent to the work process. This addresses not only conflicts due to the disliking of team members – which is the most problematic type of conflict and should not be tolerated at all – but also conflicts concerning aspects of the work process and task-related conflicts. The latter is of vital importance to the development of a competitive organisation. Although there are limits to how much conflict is beneficial, as too much can disrupt harmony and block innovation and improvement in work procedures. Actively pursuing conflicts can then be a waste of time and energy as it distracts employees from the main aspects of their task or job role. There are some important stages that lead to a constructive conflict culture. These are firstly education/training, to support each employee in demonstrating an open and positive attitude towards constructive conflict management and enable him/her to show the necessary behaviour. Secondly, there are sources of more structural conflicts, which are connected to the allocation of resources, information, status and responsibilities. Organisational changes might be necessary to eliminate or minimize such sources of conflicts. The implementation of such measures measures might take some time and needs a well planned approach. In the long term an organisation needs to optimise its hierarchical and functional structures, and at the same time strive for an enhanced conflict culture by the means of selecting and training workforces as well as promoting constructive controversy and rewarding fair and respectful behaviour in communication and collaboration.

Links for future reading

CIPD - The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Managing conflict at work. A guideline for managers. CPP, Oxford, 2008. Available at: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/humrs/staffinfo/organisationaldevelopment/leadership/dashboard/Managing%20Conflict%20at%20Work%20-%20a%20guide%20for%20line%20managers.pdf

OPP, Fight, flight or face it? Celebrating the effective management of conflict at work., CPP, Oxford, 2008. Available at: http://www.opp.eu.com/sitecollectiondocuments/pdfs/fight_flight_or_face_it.pdf

SFA – Centre of national excellence (2008). 10 Steps to Managing Conflict at Work. Retrieved 16 April 2012, from: http://www.centreofexcellence.ie/Sectors/sfa/SFANCEDocLib.nsf/441763b04b0320b68025722e003fb55a/bc12f53469df45728025722e003f060f/$FILE/10%20Steps%20to%20Managing%20Conflict%20at%20Work.pdf


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