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Processes for Understanding Workplace Conflict

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For both employees and employers, workplace conflict can represent a serious impediment to collaboration and cooperation. And while conflict is damaging in any business, conflict in a small business environment can quickly become damaging to both morale and productivity. The good news is that resolving conflict and getting things back on track is possible once you understand some of the common reasons for conflict.

Reasons for Conflict

Psychologists Art Bell and Brett Hart have identified eight common causes of workplace conflict. Among the causes are conflicting resources, styles, perceptions and personal values. Moreover, conflicting goals, roles, pressures and unpredictable policies are also leading causes of workplace conflict. Understanding how conflict begins can not only help you identify the root cause of the problem, but it can also help you develop a strategy for resolving conflict and preventing it in the future.

Identifying the Problem

Whether you’re working on resolving your own conflict with a colleague or working to help resolve conflicts between others at work, gathering the facts will shed some light on the situation. You likely understand the conflict as you see it, so make sure you take the time to step into the other person’s shoes to gain a little insight into how he sees the conflict. To get a better handle on things, use the common reasons for workplace conflict, as noted by Bell and Hart, as a guide to categorize the problem. This will make it easier to discuss the situation in an open and honest manner, free of insult and emotional outbursts.

Resolving Conflict

Conflict resolution should not just be about airing grievances and moving on. The goal should be to create a mutually respectful relationship through active listening and collaboration. You can do this by respectfully communicating differences, refraining from taking a right versus wrong stance and working on a mutually acceptable resolution. Consider that individuals differ in their conflict resolution styles -- and that these styles can differ based on the situation. While collaborative, compromising and accommodating styles are most appropriate for group conflicts or when the situation calls for a give and take, emergency situations might require a more authoritative stance.

Conflict Tips

While preventing all workplace conflict isn’t feasible, setting standards and expectations for workplace behavior and the conflict resolution process can help. Ideally, employers should take the lead in policy development and education. This gets everyone on the same page and can reduce personal conflicts. And keep in mind, that conflict doesn’t always have to lead to negative outcomes. In fact, conflict can serve an important role in personal growth, team building and innovation. The importance lies in how conflict is handled and what is learned from the dispute resolution process.


Nicole Long is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. With experience in management and customer service, business is a primary focus of her writing. Long also has education and experience in the fields of sports medicine, first aid and coaching. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from the University of Cincinnati.

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