Three Common Workplace Conflicts

Conflict is a word that often makes people uncomfortable. Indeed, many would agree with the assertion: “Conflict is bad”.

Our view is different. We say that conflict is not inherently good or bad; it just “is”. Conflict is a normal part of any human relationship. Without a doubt, the impact of conflict can often be bad because many of the ways we (don’t) manage it are unproductive and damaging. Whether it is bad or good, then, is really more a function of whether we address it, and how we do so.

It is our observation that workplace conflicts can generally be divided into three categories: task, process, and emotional conflicts. In this article we have a modest goal: share with you how we distinguish among them. By so doing we believe you’ll already get ideas about how to address and manage these different types of conflict. But we won’t stop there. In future articles we will offer concrete suggestions on how to manage them – in particular the emotional conflicts.

Without further ado, let’s define our three “winning categories”:

  1. Task conflicts
    These discussions concern differing ideas and opinions about items such as goals, outcomes, parameters, milestones, overall responsibilities, and deadlines. They are lively, and they produce positive outcomes when managed well. High-functioning, high-performing teams welcome these kinds of conflicts at the onset of a project, because the issues raised help everyone get on the same page about the project itself and become more committed to it in the process. The group is then able to focus on the work itself. Caveat: If a leader is dictatorial or too impatient to see these lively discussions through, the project will suffer.
  1. Process conflicts
    These conflicts are about the “how” of the situation. This includes questions like how consultative or non-consultative the process will be, how collaborative or directive the players will be, how many meetings will be held and with whom, and so on. It also relates to other items such as specific (vs. overall) responsibilities, like who does what and how much responsibility various people get. These discussions also have good odds of producing positive outcomes when managed well. High-performing teams will spontaneously revisit processes as new developments occur and as deadlines approach. Let these conflicts run their course, for the group is winnowing the duties, streamlining responsibilities, and refining processes in order to meet targets. Caveat: If a leader plays favourites or doesn’t allow the group to develop its “sweet spot” way of operating, they will be laying the groundwork for Emotional conflicts.
  1. Emotional conflicts
    These conflicts can involve feelings of annoyance, frustration, irritation, hurt, anger – even betrayal, and issues of dislike. Typically, if Task or Process conflicts have not been thoroughly discussed or aired or have been managed poorly, Emotional conflicts will result. Emotional conflicts will damage the project if left unresolved. If you’re a leader and are aware of an Emotional conflict, then along with the involved team members, go back over the Task and Process discussions and see if you can’t pin-point the issue. i.e. “S/he was given more responsibility or higher-profile work, and I’m the one with more experience and expertise.”

If you can’t resolve the Emotional issue by looking at Task or Process, it may be that intrinsic, dearly-held values have been stepped-on, that miscommunication has occurred, or that a team member is unwilling or unable to see things from the other person’s perspective. This is where the harder work lies. There is usually no easy answer – you have to do the work to get the result.

Look for our article next month on Conflict Management for an exploration of these Emotional Conflicts and how to resolve them.


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