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Employers mired in conflicts can experience high rates of absenteeism, employee turnover and litigation associated with harassment or bullying. The first step to preventing conflict or stopping it before it escalates is recognizing potential causes. A study by assessment company Psychometrics found that work-related conflict is most often linked to competing egos, personalities and values, or a lack of strong leadership. Dishonesty and stress can also lead to conflict.
Weak leaders can set unclear expectations. When goals and priorities are not clearly defined and communicated, team members make incorrect assumptions. They may work against one another's efforts, creating conflict and preventing tasks and projects from being completed. If assigned roles are not clear, some key tasks may remain undone while others are done more than once. Team members might even try to outdo one another. This kind of situation builds frustration and shifts a team task from collaborative to combative as coworkers blame one another for project failures or costly problems.
Leadership bias can also ignite conflict. Leaders are just as likely as everyone else to be drawn to some people over others, but they can’t let that natural tendency cloud their judgment. Too much focus on some staff members over others can lead managers to award opportunities for special assignments and promotions without fairly considering all team members’ skills or interests. Even if fair assessment is given, other staff members won’t perceive fairness in the process. The manager’s bias can turn the rest of the staff against that "favorite" person.
Diversity might mean cultural differences, varied business perspectives or even different professions. Cross-functional or multidisciplinary teams involve multiple departments, with each member focusing on different aspects of a project. Whatever is behind a team’s diversity, a variety of backgrounds can mean either innovation or exasperation. Team members might not agree on the best path to achieving objectives or solving problems. Leaders of diverse teams who do focus on communication and team-building can find themselves managing more conflicts than projects.
Some coworkers encounter power struggles, particularly when roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined or when the boss does not have the respect of all team members. In a power struggle, more than one coworker attempts to take on the leadership role. A team with many leaders has no leader at all and cannot move forward. Teams comprised heavily of managers are more likely to experience power struggles. Organizational leaders should assign qualified team leadership as well as document and communicate each team member’s role, responsibility to the project and level of authority.
A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.