Conflict at Work:
The Root Causes of Workplace Conflict Are Often Systemic
When I'm asked to enter an organisation and help people talk things out, I'm often asked to fix things like this:
Those two just can't get along.
Would you see if you can help them get past their differences with one another?
They don't seem to be very good communicators.
One of our senior teams is in a real rut since a new VP came on board nine months ago.
I don't think they like him and they're acting out.
We could really use some clearing the air.
We're trying to move the organisation forward and we've got a few people who aren't good with change.
Can you help move them forward?
I'm asked, essentially, to fix people.
And it's rarely the flawed human that's the real problem.
Conflict research reveals that the roots of unhealthy workplace conflict and increased organisational costs come most often from these systemic causes:
Lack of information
Even with email, newsletters, reports, and staff and company meetings, conflict arises from lack of information or knowledge in how to use it effectively.
It no longer surprises me how frequently in workplace mediations I hear the phrase, Why didn’t anybody give me that information before now?
Most of us were didn’t learn the Fourth R in school. We learnt reading, writing and arithmetic, but were not formally educated in relationships.
Building relational skills, such as those associated with effective negotiation, interpersonal communication, and collaborative problem-solving increases employees ability to navigate conflict before it becomes destructive.
Ineffective organisational systems
System problems can, and often do, masquerade as interpersonal conflicts.
As I work with parties to peel back the layers of a conflict, it’s not uncommon to uncover ways the organisations' systems are pressing upon one or more of the individuals involved and directly influencing their behaviour.
These system problems may be invisible until the overt conflict begins.
Ineffective conflict management systems
The informal system of organisational culture (as in the ways employees and leaders show through word and action that this is how we deal with conflict here) and formal intervention systems can have a profound influence on whether or not conflict unfolds in a healthy or destructive way.
Poor conflict engagement skills in an organisation's leaders often means poorly managed conflict throughout the system.
Misuse of ADR
While the increasing commitment to Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in organisations is a positive step, it's often used too late in a conflict, confuses mediation and arbitration, or imposes a process unhelpfully on an unwitting or ill-informed employee.
Effective conflict resolution systems, even in very small organisations, create opportunities for conflict to be identified and addressed early and constructively.
Effective processes should emphasise talking things out effectively early in the dispute, the use of mediation before grievances or litigation harden positions further, conflict resolution coaching for and by educated managers, and training that supports real behaviour change.
This article was contributed by Tammy Lenski
Copyright 2004 and 2006 by Tammy Lenski. All rights reserved.
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