Causes of Workplace Conflict: Why Personality isn’t as important as you think

I don’t know how many times I’ve clicked on an article about workplace conflict only to be told that “personality” or “personality differences” are a major cause.

The belief that one “bad apple” is responsible for conflict or that personality differences are a major source of trouble is, in its own way, comforting. If all that is needed to stop conflict is to remove one individual or ensure that certain people never have to work together, then workplace conflict doesn’t seem like such a hard problem.

I have to admit that sometimes, it is actually the case that removing one person can make a huge difference. But this happens less frequently than you might imagine. Think about it: You probably come across people every day with whom you have “personality differences” — neighbours, family members, friends-of-friends, colleagues. I doubt that you have conflicts with all of them. Most of us easily navigate personality differences and get along with various kinds of people, even if we realize that we will never be close friends.

So if “personality” isn’t the cause (or the main cause) of workplace conflict, why do such conflicts arise? When I analyze a workplace conflict, I look at the following factors. They may not all apply in every situation, but usually more than one will be relevant.

Values: These are strongly held convictions about the things that matter most. They could be about politics, religion, morality, or even about the best way to raise children. While these kinds of personal convictions may not come up at work, differing values about the mission and direction of the organization are often a source of conflict.

Interests: This means anything that an individual wants, needs, hopes or fears. It could be money (in the form of a salary increase, a bonus, or a bigger departmental budget). It could be career advancement. It could be the fear of losing one’s job. It could be a desire for prestige or a fear of letting the organization down.

Relationships: By this I mean a history of negative or positive interactions between individuals. If two people have had conflicts in the past, and these weren’t handled effectively, there can be lingering effects.

Externals: These are factors outside the organization that might influence conflict within it. They might be factors that effect everyone, such as a weak economy. Or they might be factors that influence only specific individuals, such as health concerns or family issues.

Data: Incorrect or incomplete information has been an aspect of nearly every conflict I have mediated. When people are working with different or inconsistent data sets, conflicts can easily arise. And to add to the confusion, people in conflict often have no idea that the other side may have different information.

Structure: Organizational factors are tricky to discuss and can be difficult for people to see. Sometimes the very way in which work and workplace relationships are organized can cause conflict. Structural factors are one of the main reason to bring in outside help in resolving a conflict. An outsider can see the makings of a conflict in what looks (to an insider) like “the way we’ve always done things.”

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