Interpersonal Conflict in Organizations

Interpersonal Conflict in Organizations

As the headlines trumpet more and more bad news these days, it seems that people’s stress levels are rising. I have been struck by the amount of road rage, irritability, and general rudeness that I have seen over the past couple of weeks. My assumption is that the anger and stress that I am seeing in the world is going to rapidly spill over into the workplace. So I thought I would write this month’s newsletter, my first ever, on conflict in organizations – – what it looks like, its effects, and some causes.

Much of my work involves helping organizations manage non- violent conflict — not violent conflict — so that is what I will focus on today.

For those of you with children, non-violent conflict in organizations looks a lot like some of the worst behavior of middle school. There is bickering, fighting, and withholding of information. People form cliques. They drag their feet when asked to work with or help someone with whom they are not getting along. They complain – to their friends, their colleagues, their supervisors, and most anyone else who will listen. And often they stop speaking to one another .

In addition to being annoying, conflict can have wide ranging effects throughout an organization. It inhibits productivity, often negatively affects morale, absorbs valuable management time, and can cause both employees and clients to leave an organization. Many of the managers with whom I work tell me that the part of their job that they dislike the most is dealing with conflict between members of their team.

So what causes conflict, aside from a general spill over of stress and angst when all is not right in the world?

I have found that causes exist on both the individual level and the organization level. On the individual level, it seems that there are three primary triggers – differences in work styles, poor communication skills, and inherent differences.

An example of a difference in work styles might be that I prefer to drop by, and you prefer that I e-mail you. If we persist in our ways, over time you may become irritated and think that I don’t value your work because you see me as regularly interrupting you. And I may think that you are rude because you won’t take a few minutes to discuss a work issue with me face to face.

As far as poor communication skills go, we have all seen examples of this. There are people who yell, who don’t know how to listen, who interrupt, who change the subject, who don’t follow through – the list goes on and on.

And finally, differences in culture, nationality, race, gender, and age can all lead to a lack of understanding of one another, which can ultimately devolve into conflict.

Now those were just some potential causes of conflict on an individual level. It gets even more complex when you get to causes on the organizational level. There are innumerable possible causes, and each organization that is having problems with conflict has its own particular issues.

A few that I have seen include:

  • Lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities: who is responsible for doing what, when?
  • Lack of clarity about decision-making authority and methods.
  • Lack of opportunity for advancement.
  • Lack of shared goals for the organization’s future. o Poor communication about what is going on in the organization. (Ex: management’s failure to notify staff about major changes in a timely manner.)
  • Inadequate communication structures – ensuring that there are regular meetings, e-mails, etc. so that people are comfortable knowing that they will receive information on a regular basis.
  • Incorrect assumptions: Frequently underlying all of this are the assumptions people make based on external events. (Ex: if someone is habitually late, people assume that they are disinterested, disrespectful, etc.)

So what to do about conflict? There is no one solution. But there are a number of different options, which I will gladly discuss in greater detail in subsequent newsletters. In brief, however, executive coaching, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and communications training can be very useful for conflicts that arise from individual differences, work habits, and communications styles. If two senior people are at the point where they simply are not working effectively together, than a formal mediation process between the two of them can be quite effective. If the conflict is more systemic and appears to be due to organizational issues, than a process that brings people together to discuss the underlying issues is usually called for.

And outside of the workplace, we can all try to remember to give people the benefit of the doubt and to behave with as much kindness and civility as possible.

At Ruttenberg Consulting we are committed to thoroughly understanding clients and creating a clear and powerful plan for change.



Victoria Ruttenberg