What is Workplace Conflict? Definition, Types, Causes, and Ways To Overcome

What is Workplace Conflict?

Workplace conflict occurs when disagreements arise between employees due to differing ideas, interests, or beliefs. These conflicts can stem from a lack of communication, poor work quality, verbal or physical abuse, and a lack of cooperation.

Personality clashes and varying management styles also contribute to workplace disputes. If not addressed promptly and effectively, these conflicts can lead to decreased employee morale, increased absenteeism, high turnover rates, and a toxic work environment.

Proper conflict management involves early intervention, open communication, and collaborative problem-solving, ensuring a harmonious and productive workplace.

Views on Workplace Conflicts

There are three main views regarding conflicts in the workplace:

The Traditional View

According to this view, all conflicts are harmful and avoidable. Conflict is viewed negatively and is associated with turbulence, agitation, destruction, irrationality, and violence.

The Human Relations View

Behavioral scientists argue that conflict is a natural and inevitable outcome in any organization and should be accepted. Conflict is bound to arise in organizations because an organization is composed of individuals with different goals, values, and perceptions.

So conflict is unavoidable and need not always be detrimental. Under certain conditions, it could lead to more innovative solutions to problems.

The Internationalist View

The modern view regards conflict as not only inevitable but useful. The internationalists argue that if harmony, peace, and cooperativeness prevail in an organization for a long time, the organization is likely to become non-responsive to innovation and change.

A minimum level of conflict is required to enhance competency and make it critical and creative.

Types of Conflicts

Conflicts are mainly categorized into four main categories:

Intra-Personal Conflict

Intra-personal conflict occurs within an individual, where they experience internal struggle due to competing needs, desires, or values.

Intra-personal conflict can stem from various sources, such as role ambiguity, ethical dilemmas, or conflicting personal goals. To manage this type of conflict, individuals need to engage in self-reflection, identify their priorities, and seek advice or counseling if necessary. Employers can support employees by providing resources for personal development and decision-making assistance.

Example: Consider an employee named Sarah who has been offered a promotion that requires relocating to another city. Sarah faces an intra-personal conflict as she must decide between advancing her career and staying close to her family. The decision is challenging because it involves balancing her professional ambitions with her personal life and family commitments. This internal struggle can lead to stress, anxiety, and indecision, impacting her performance and well-being.

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Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal conflict arises between two or more individuals due to differences in opinions, personalities, or interests. Interpersonal conflicts are common in the workplace and can be caused by personality clashes, communication breakdowns, or competition for resources.

Effective conflict resolution strategies include open communication, active listening, and mediation. Employers can foster a collaborative work environment by promoting team-building activities and conflict-resolution training.

Example: John and Mike work on the same project team but frequently clash over the direction of their project. John prefers a structured and methodical approach, while Mike advocates for a more creative and flexible strategy. Their differing working styles lead to frequent arguments and misunderstandings, disrupting team harmony and project progress.

Inter-Group Conflict

Inter-group conflict occurs between different groups or teams within an organization, often due to competition for resources, differing goals, or cultural differences. Inter-group conflict can hinder organizational effectiveness and lead to a silo mentality.

To address this, organizations should encourage cross-functional collaboration and establish clear communication channels. Joint team meetings and collaborative goal-setting can align the objectives of different groups, fostering a sense of shared purpose.

Example: The marketing team and the sales team in a company often find themselves at odds. The marketing team believes in long-term branding strategies, while the sales team focuses on immediate revenue generation. Their conflicting priorities lead to disagreements on budget allocation and project timelines, causing tension and a lack of cooperation between the departments.

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Inter-Organizational Conflict

Inter-organizational conflict occurs between two or more organizations, often due to competition, differing interests, or strategic disagreements. Inter-organizational conflicts can be complex and multifaceted, involving legal, ethical, and strategic considerations.

Resolving such conflicts may require negotiation, mediation, or even arbitration. Organizations involved in inter-organizational conflicts should seek to maintain professional relationships and explore mutually beneficial agreements to avoid prolonged disputes.

Example: Two technology companies, AlphaTech and BetaSoft, are competing for market dominance in the same niche. This competition leads to conflicts over patent rights, market share, and customer acquisition strategies. The rivalry escalates when AlphaTech accuses BetaSoft of intellectual property theft, leading to legal battles and public disputes.

Causes of Workplace Conflict

Below are the five common reasons for conflict in the organization:

Lack of Communication

Misunderstandings and conflicts often arise when communication is unclear, incomplete, or infrequent. This can lead to misinformation, unmet expectations, and confusion about roles and responsibilities. Example: A team member doesn’t receive important project updates due to poor communication, leading to missed deadlines and frustration among team members.

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Differences in Personality

Diverse personalities can clash due to differing values, attitudes, and work styles. While diversity can enhance creativity, it can also lead to misunderstandings and friction. Example: An extroverted employee may find an introverted colleague uncommunicative or unfriendly, causing tension and potential conflicts.

Competition for Resources

Limited resources such as budgets, office space, or tools can create competition among employees or departments. This can result in conflicts as each party vies for their share to meet their objectives. Example: Two departments competing for a limited budget may result in disagreements over how funds should be allocated, leading to inter-departmental conflict.

Unclear Roles and Responsibilities

When employees are unsure of their roles or responsibilities, it can lead to overlap, confusion, and disputes over who should be doing what. This often happens in poorly defined or changing organizational structures. Example: If two employees are unsure about who is responsible for a particular task, they may either neglect it or try to control it, causing conflict.

Poor Management Practices

Inconsistent, unfair, or ineffective management can create a hostile work environment. Poor leadership, favoritism, and lack of support or recognition can demotivate employees and lead to conflicts. Example: A manager who shows favoritism towards certain employees may cause resentment and conflict among team members who feel undervalued and unfairly treated.

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Overcoming Workplace Conflict

Let’s look at some strategies you can use to overcome conflict in your workplace:

Open Communication

Encourage open and honest dialogue to ensure that all parties feel heard and understood. Effective communication can clarify misunderstandings and facilitate mutual understanding. Eg. Holding regular team meetings where employees can voice their concerns and discuss issues openly.

Active Listening

Practice active listening by paying close attention to what others are saying without interrupting. This helps to validate their feelings and perspectives, making it easier to find common ground. Eg. During a conflict resolution meeting, allow each party to speak without interruption and summarize their points to ensure understanding.


Involve a neutral third party to help facilitate a resolution. Mediators can provide an unbiased perspective and guide disputing parties toward a mutually acceptable solution. Eg. Bringing in an HR professional to mediate a dispute between two employees.

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Setting Clear Expectations

Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and expectations to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts. When everyone knows what is expected of them, it reduces the chances of overlap and disputes. Eg. Providing detailed job descriptions and regular performance reviews to ensure clarity.

Conflict Resolution Training

Equip employees with the skills and tools they need to handle conflicts constructively. Training can include communication skills, negotiation techniques, and stress management. Eg. Conducting workshops or seminars on conflict resolution and effective communication.

Fostering a Collaborative Environment

Promote a culture of teamwork and collaboration where employees feel valued and respected. Encouraging cooperation rather than competition can reduce conflicts. Eg. Organizing team-building activities and collaborative projects that require employees to work together towards common goals.

Implementing Fair Policies and Procedures

Develop and enforce fair and consistent policies for addressing conflicts. Clear procedures for reporting and resolving disputes ensure that conflicts are managed promptly and equitably. Eg. Establishing a formal grievance procedure and ensuring all employees are aware of the steps to take if they have a conflict or complaint.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is workplace conflict?

Workplace conflict refers to disagreements or disputes between employees due to differences in ideas, interests, or personalities. It can manifest as verbal arguments, misunderstandings, or even physical altercations if not managed properly.

What are the common causes of workplace conflict?

Common causes include lack of communication, differences in personality, competition for resources, unclear roles and responsibilities, and poor management practices. Each of these factors can lead to misunderstandings and tension among employees.

How can workplace conflict affect an organization?

Unresolved conflicts can decrease employee morale, increase absenteeism, reduce productivity, and contribute to higher employee turnover. In severe cases, it can create a toxic work environment and lead to legal issues.

What strategies can be used to resolve workplace conflict?

Effective strategies include promoting open communication, practicing active listening, using mediation, setting clear expectations, providing conflict resolution training, fostering a collaborative environment, and implementing fair policies and procedures.

Why is mediation effective in resolving workplace conflicts?

Mediation is effective because it involves a neutral third party who can facilitate a fair and unbiased resolution. Mediators help the disputing parties understand each other’s perspectives and work towards a mutually acceptable solution.

How can managers prevent workplace conflicts?

Managers can prevent conflicts by maintaining clear communication, setting well-defined roles and expectations, fostering a positive and inclusive work culture, addressing issues promptly, and ensuring fair treatment of all employees. Regular training on conflict resolution can also help in preempting potential disputes.

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