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The Nature of Workplace Conflicts

Workplace conflicts are naturally occurring phenomena and given today’s competitive work environment it’s not surprising that there on the rise.  So let’s take a closer look at the nature of conflict, how actual workplace conflicts develop and how they can be prevented managed and resolved.

Two primary types of conflict

There are two primary types of conflict: substantive or task-based conflict and emotional or affective conflict.

Substantive or task-based conflict

Substantive or task-based conflict exists when individuals and groups have differences of opinion. They may differ over such issues as facts goals, strategies, plans, policies processes, roles, resource, allocation, decision-making or many other things.

A conflict is substantive when the issues driving the disagreement are tangible, material and reasonably concrete. Selecting a new software vendor or developing the budget for a project are both substantive issues. Others include task-based activities such as setting new goals for an upcoming year, establishing the timetable for rolling out a new product or reengineering a broken process.

Some substantive conflict just might be inevitable at times. People have different opinions about issues such as how the business should run or how the business should function in these types of conflict can be beneficial if people are focused on sharing their ideas and opinions so that they can get at both the truth and the best solution to a problem or disagreement.

But here’s the key these differences of opinion can escalate into arguments, verbal fencing matches and even open range wars when they’re not properly managed and when this happens unchecked conflict over issues of substance can damage and even destroy working relationships, teamwork and careers.

Emotional or affective conflicts

Handling substantive conflict is all the more challenging because there is also another kind of conflict to deal with and that is emotional or affective of conflict.

Emotional or affective of conflicts exists when there is tension between people because of personality differences or a breakdown in their interpersonal relationship.

This type of conflict arises when people don’t like each other, when they have personalities that clash or when people have irreconcilable workplace differences that become very personal.

Emotional or affective of conflict is as inevitable as his substantive conflict, but it’s much more volatile, so you need to take special care in identifying it and taking actions to minimize it.

Levels of conflict

To make matters even more complicated conflict within any organization can break out at several different levels:

  1. inter-group conflicts exist when there is a struggle taking place between groups teams or departments or even different operations within the same organization.
    Sales versus operations, marketing having problems with IT or the accounting department struggling its relationship with.
  2. intra-group conflicts exist when there’s a conflict within a group or team and it’s not uncommon to see a work group or team fractured and split up in the subgroups.
    These splits can take place because of differences and disagreements around a wide variety of both substantive and emotional issues.
  3. inter-personal conflict exists when two people are caught up in a skirmish or a scuffle over work or even over non-work related issue. Inter-personal conflict is often at the root of other forms of conflict although that’s not always the case.

It’s, therefore, really important to remember that conflict can be substantive, emotional or both at all three of these levels with each level presenting its own set of challenges.

Handling conflicts

Workplace conflict can easily become dangerously destructive in the absence of intervention. Without effective leadership virtually any substantive issue in an organization can turn into a conflict.

When the substantive conflict is left unchecked and unresolved it can quickly become an emotional conflict and once a conflict becomes emotional it becomes more unpredictable and infinitely more difficult to fix.