I understand conflict as disagreement or competition plus mutual hostility. When friends disagree – even about important matters – it doesn’t usually turn into conflict because they have a foundation of mutual affection. People who play on opposing sports teams may compete very fiercely, but it doesn’t become a conflict unless they dislike each other for some other reasons.
Where does “mutual hostility” come from? From what I have seen in workplaces, it often arises from a perception of disrespect or a sense of unfairness. For example, someone sees their colleague get promoted while they don’t, or it becomes apparent to everyone that one person is receiving special treatment from the boss. Whatever the source, a perception of unfairness is a huge driver of workplace conflict.
Any organization is going to include some people who get along with each other better than others, and every workplace is going to have ups and downs. Usually these day-to-day disagreements don’t amount to much. Then one day there is a more serious incident. It doesn’t really matter what it is, and I have seen a very wide range of small incidents that end up blown out of all proportion because of the way they are managed.
Typically after the incident someone – most often a supervisor – will step in to smooth things over. If this person has the right skills and is respected by everyone involved, then things will go back to where they were before – small ups and downs without genuine conflict.
Maybe the attempted mediator lacks the proper skills or is seen as biased. For whatever reason people involved in the conflict don’t feel heard or understood. The failed intervention leads to a dramatic increase in stress. If this continues, or if other “small” incidents are mismanaged, then communication breaks down, work no longer gets done, and the organization is weaker.
When conflict escalates and is allowed to go on without a resolution it can become distracting and costly to an organization. The longer conflict goes on, the graver the consequences. Most people don’t like drama at work. An organization may lose its best people, as good workers usually have other options.
Next time: Warning signs of workplace conflict