The Root Cause of Conflict

Nobody likes conflict at work, yet 4 out of 10 UK employees report being involved in some form of interpersonal conflict at work in the last 12 months (CIPD survey of 2,193 people). So what is causing this and how can managers improve the situation?

The effects conflict at work creates are numerous, yet the root cause is invariably because as human beings we all see the world differently because we see it through our own personal filter. This is known as the “perception paradigm”.

By understanding how our perceptions impact on conflict, managers can derive strategies that will help them to reduce conflict and to navigate it more easily when it occurs.

There are 3 things that you should keep in mind when faced with conflict at work:

1. Remember that your reality is not everyone else’s reality

Joseph meets his colleague Sonia for lunch, and they start talking about a new manager who has just started at the company.

“I think he is amazing” Sonia gushes. “He is so supportive and enthusiastic. He’s got great energy in meetings and is so keen to hear my ideas and support my new project.”

Joseph nods to show he agrees, but in his head he is thinking “She can’t be talking about the same person I’ve just had a meeting with. He sat staring into space while I discussed my new project, yawned during my project plan presentation and shot down every idea I proposed. Why on earth does Sonia think he is so amazing?”

Taking steps to avoid and resolve conflict doesn’t mean that you have to gloss over what you think is important and accept the other person’s view. Instead, it requires you to acknowledge that your perception of reality is not the only one.

2. Ask yourself “Am I making the most respectful interpretation”

Perception is a two-way street. You have a perception of others and those others have a perception of you. It is unusual if those perceptions are identical and it is these different perceptions that result in different behavioural responses to the same (external) situation.

As humans we are prone to what is known as “attribution bias”. This means we tend to consistently interpret our own behaviour more favourably than that of others. This can lead to us interpreting someone’s response as wildly inappropriate, although if that response was our own we might feel it was completely justified.

Appreciating that other peoples' perceptions guide how they interpret a situation and behave can help you understand why they act differently from you. This is important for managers to understand as unexpected behaviour in the workplace can create obstacles to performance, productivity and communication.

When a conflict arises it is rarely because one or both parties are deliberately trying to be difficult. When you challenge yourself to make the most respectful interpretation of the person who is causing you a problem, the conflict can be dissipated much more quickly.

3. Adjust your communication to bridge the gap

“To effectively communicate” author and entrepreneur Tony Robbins said “We must realise that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”

We can probably all point to people who, whilst they were professionally brilliant, had a personal style which hindered their ability to be truly effective.

Thinking about changes to your communication style in relation to how others prefer to be communicated with can bring you the results you want to achieve with your “problem people”.

Here are two simple reflection exercises that can help improve your interactions with someone you’ve had historical conflict with.

Start by dividing a piece of paper into two columns. Label the first column “like me” and the second column “not like me”. In each column identify aspects of the other person’s behaviour that are similar to and different to your own behaviour.

This exercise will help identify qualities you share with the other person that you can call on to better connect with them.

For the second exercise, create another two columns on a piece of paper. Label one “do more of” and the other “do less of”. In each column write down what behaviours and communication styles you should do more or less of in order to better connect with your problem person based on the insights you developed in the first exercise.

Learning to work with people we find difficult is an important management skill. Whether the issue is isolated or ongoing, workplace conflict not only impacts levels of engagement and job satisfaction, but it also effects team and organisational productivity and effectiveness.

When managers increase their understanding of how differing perceptions impact conflict, they take the conflict away from the intricacies of the people involved and allow for the underlying causes of what why the conflict arose. From this understanding solutions can be found.

Spearhead can provide training to help managers manage difficult people and conflict situations.