Conflicts In the Workplace: Why Do They Escalate, How to Tackle Them and Find the Right Solutions?

Have you ever worked with a person with whom you could not agree on anything in your workplace? Did you keep having little arguments near their desks throughout the day or could you just feel the resentment in the air? 

We have all been there. There is always this quarrelsome or just prickly person who thrives on the conflict in an office.  

And if not, different communication styles, different cultures (foreign colleagues who value punctuality more or less than you do) or an unclear situation in the company can contribute to tension and a nervous atmosphere.  

No one likes to work in a tense and stressful office. Unfortunately, the numbers tell us that we are not good at addressing conflict. While 85% of workers encounter conflict some form of conflict during their workday, 89% of people allow disputes to intensify - which is very alarming indeed.  

We are coming to your rescue with our overview of typical workplace conflicts and their causes. Would you like to know how to address those in a healthy and open way?  

Read on and you will find out. 

Why are Conflicts in the Workplace Dangerous?  

We all know what conflict in the workplace can mean - reduced motivation to come to work, decreased productivity, a restless and passive-aggressive atmosphere, or even a declining corporate culture - especially when the people involved are leaders who take advantage of their position to pressure others or drive them up the wall after a personal conflict, for example, by not allowing them to take time off. 

From rising stress levels and poor performance to missed work, excessive sick days and even higher staff turnover, allowing conflict to escalate or go unresolved can only put more strain on office relationships. Let us explore the other aspects of the potential risk and the importance of good strategies for managing conflicts in the workplace and the means to avoid them. 

Conflicts get in the way of work and trigger unethical behaviour 

When friction and tensions are high, people become more preoccupied with disputes and complaints instead of focusing on work. As a result, their performance and commitment to the tasks at hand decrease. When you are filled with anxiety or other negative emotions because of the person who criticized you or lied about you, it is not easy to stay calm.

If there is no one from human resources or management to step in and negotiate, unethical behaviours may also follow - slander, malicious actions, and lack of trust in the company. Instead of productive, helpful work that promotes organizational growth and employee development, the stress level skyrockets. 

Arguments might damage the company’s image 

An ongoing conflict between a company and its employees can jeopardize the company's overall reputation and employer branding. Let us think about it logically - in a place where conflicts are carried out without any help or support, stress and negative feelings prevail.

And who is most likely to give feedback about companies on platforms? People who are frustrated. This can lead to growing problems when it comes to hiring new employees. The truth is that a bad review spreads quickly and it's hard to get rid of it. This kind of "fame" eventually affects potential future customers or business partners. 

Bad atmosphere affects the health of employees & relationship with customers   

First off, unsolved workplace disputes endanger the management's and employees' psychological health. We recognize that open communication and conflict resolution are difficult tasks. For example, employees who are constantly under a lot of stress might quit work or stay home to avoid conflicts in the workplace - just to feel better for a moment.

Unfortunately, it does not work that way. In addition, unfavourable feelings in a bad work environment affect later conversations with customers. When problems at work go unresolved, the company's clientele often suffers as well.  

What Are the Causes and how to Handle Conflicts in the Workplace?

There are many possible causes of conflicts that may arise in your company during the workday. Cultural differences between employees from abroad? Checked off. Poor communication, or passive-aggressive behaviour? Also checked. What about fear of change or working with a former partner? Or mistakes in working with important clients? Professional life is full of potential misunderstandings and clashes.  Various types of conflicts in the workplace are just bound to develop.

Workplace conflicts cannot be avoided - that's a fact. However, they can be minimized by identifying common causes and finding the right solutions. When disputes are resolved peacefully, it can lead to better insights, stronger employee relations, and increased productivity.  Get ready for our overview filled with ideas for resolving conflict or preventing it.

To see the full picture, check out these typical reasons for workplace conflict according to a study done by Center For Management & Organization Effectiveness. 

  • 49%: Clashes between personalities or egos 
  • 34%: Workplace stress 
  • 33%: Too much work without enough support 
  • 29%: Poor leadership 
  • 26%: Dishonesty or not enough openness 
  • 23%: Problems with line managers 
  • 22%: Unclear roles 
  • 21%: Confusion about accountability 
  • 18%: Clashing values 

Cause 1 - Collision between personality, views and core principles 

At work, people of different backgrounds, mindsets, perspectives and personalities come together. It turns out that employees with opposing ideals or personality types are often found on the same team. What exactly do we mean by this? For example, when an introvert who is used to limited communication and more indirect language meets someone who is more direct and less tactful when expressing their opinion or even constructive criticism. 

Disputes or misunderstandings between people are even more widespread in today's politically and socially divided society. Different attitudes towards the coronavirus vaccination or towards Ukrainian refugees? Conflicts caused by religiously based principles are also a risk - how to deal with a situation where a strict Catholic and a polyamorous person have to work together (their basic values collide - the monogamous faithful relationship or simultaneous love for different people). 

Other examples of personality clashes include the collaboration of two people, one of whom needs to talk more and discuss ideas, while the other needs to focus on her work in order to get full attention, productivity and precision. Some place more emphasis on punctuality than others. As you can see, there is a lot of room for potential personality conflicts in the workplace to arise. And we are not even talking about the cultural differences of employees working in a multinational environment. 

  + How to Find the Solution? 

There is no golden mean here. The solution, de-escalation or avoidance depends entirely on the nature of the conflict, the personalities or even the genders of the people involved. One thing is certain, however: awareness. Managers need to be aware of how to address workplace conflict and act quickly to resolve conflict - before the resentment becomes so great that it affects the whole team. 

A good idea is to create a conflict prevention guide that everyone can access at any time. Regular workshops or practical training can be a real game changer here. When people are aware of this, they become more understanding. However, the most effective solution here seems to be regular offline and online meetings. Even though we all view the world differently, as we spend more time together and get to know each other, sympathy and connection grow over time. When we feel a certain level of familiarity, we are more willing to discuss misunderstandings and resolve conflicts in the workplace.

Cause 2 - Unreasonable demands and expectations  

Other common conflicts in the workplace can arise due to unclear responsibilities. It can lead to some people being overwhelmed with tasks that do not even fall within their area of responsibility - which leads to lack of satisfaction and burnout

It is even worse if the scope of tasks was defined during recruitment and onboarding but is not followed during work - it is an easy road to resentment and unspoken regrets. When someone is struggling with such feelings, conflict or passive-aggressive behaviour is inevitable. No one wants to be treated unfairly.  Resolving conflicts in the workplace is not an easy task in such a situation.

But it can also be that some processes are overlooked because one thinks that "the other" was in charge. In this scenario, both the whole company and the client suffer. An example of this type of conflict in the workplace is a situation where a supervisor punishes an employee for not completing an analytical report when no one was responsible for it - this creates negative feelings both between the employees who dodged the unassigned task and between the employee and the supervisor.  

Finally, another type of argument arising from an unclear division of responsibilities and expectations contributes to disturbed relationships between employees and their direct managers. Spending months or even years adjusting to changing expectations or processes that are not well communicated either ends up in a heated and escalated open conflict or quitting the job. 

 + How to Find the Solution? 

As simple as it may sound, it's all about a clear division of responsibilities from the beginning of an employee's life cycle in the company. Create a document that everyone has access to,  where you define areas of responsibility in case of doubt. In addition, you can consider a more proactive approach for the staff.

What we mean by this exactly is to set up a complaints and ideas box for the company, which ensures a clear division of work duties, by providing space to report possible overlapping areas of competence right at the beginning - before problems and conflicts have a chance to develop. This can be both a physical container for handwritten notes and an online space for voicing such concerns.  

Cause 3 – Uneasiness or resentment towards change  

A major trigger of workplace conflict that is not talked about often enough is resistance or fear of any form of change - of processes that have been followed for months or even years, of people quitting or joining a well-functioning team, or even of new tools being used on a daily basis. 

Conflicts between team members and managers are not uncommon in times of change, as they can be very stressful. Being in control is one of the basic human needs. Control is satisfying, safe and familiar. The more we can regulate our environment, the more we can use it to our advantage. We lose the feeling of control when we venture into the unknown - the new, scary change. In "Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: a multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change"" Piderit  divides resistance to change into three categories: emotional, behavioural and cognitive all of which trigger negative thoughts about change.  

Other examples of possible conflicts in the workplace involve negative attitudes towards new ways of working or new areas of expertise that an employee needs to acquire or learn. If you specialise in UX and suddenly need to be flexible enough to write more technical content, resistance and an anxiety-inducing feelings are only natural. 

  + How to Find the Solution? 

If it is a change of staff, there is no better solution than to help integrate the new employee - besides setting up professional team meetings to get to know the new person, meeting outside working hours for a beer or a coffee can help with adjusting to the modified environment.  

To get to grips with the new tools or procedures (e.g. a new ticketing system or a new procedure for dealing with customers), a series of on-site training sessions can be really helpful. There should be always a specialized person who is available for questions and guidance. Another quite innovative solution is gamification, which eases the way through the unknown through gamified online trainings based on a series of plots - employees can accept change much faster if it is presented to them in an interactive, competitive form of a series tasks linked by a story. 

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Cause 4 – A long-standing problem with person-to-person communication 

Now is the time for the eternal struggle with communication. Conflict in the workplace is often caused by a lack of effective and open dialogue between teams and team members within the organisation.  

This is not because most people are rude or do not want to work together, but because each individual has a preferred way of communicating. Feelings of regret, lack of teamwork and arguments are likely to occur if we are not aware of the different types of communication (such as passive, assertive, aggressive and passive-aggressive communicators). If you cannot openly communicate your expectations as a leader (e.g., when assigning a strategic task), the person who needs a direct request will not understand you and will develop resentment towards you for illogical behaviour.  

In addition, multinational differences can cause additional conflict. Imagine these people working together without basic knowledge - Asians avoid being direct and most Europeans ask directly about tasks, their ability to finish them or individual preferences. This is just one example of the very different communication styles that exist between cultures. 

  + How to Find the Solution?  

Building an organizational culture is a good start. Nurture good communication standards from the beginning, even when hiring an employee. Make people aware of how to communicate well and what can be done to get along with people with different backgrounds and modes of interaction. Education is the foundation here  - you can only understand the other person if you are aware of the differences.  

Be sure to implement quizzes and tasks to test the types of communication of people in your team. Organize trips and challenges to learn how to deal with these differences in practice.  

Workplace Conflict Resolution

One thing is certain: conflicts are necessary and will always exist in our society. That is why you have to learn how to deal with them. Often, they can turn out to be constructive if you let both sides have their say, act quickly and get your team used to open dialogue, even about difficult issues.  That's why solving conflicts in the workplace is so important.

It pays not to run away from confrontation - we do not want to avoid them completely, but those that get personal, toxic and unproductive. A conscious approach to resolving conflicts expresses itself in mutual respect for each other, sincerity and honest manner.  

Before unwanted tensions cause further problems in the workplace, if you need help, you can try an alternative - gamification, which helps to familiarise people with change, integrate employees through a series of challenges and healthy competition, and make conflict resolution or communication training more engaging and fun.