Interpersonal Conflict within the Workplace

Interpersonal Conflict

Conflict is a fact of life and part of every relationship. It will not be untrue to say that a relationship with many conflicts is usually a healthier one. Conflict can be defined as any expressed struggle. This can be due to scarce resources, different points of view, or other compatibility issues (Hocker, 1991). For any conflict communication about the problem is the key point, therefore the term ‘expressed struggle’. Another key point in interpersonal conflicts is the opinion, view, or perception of both parties. Differences in these views and perceptions give rise to interpersonal conflicts.

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Any relationship is not dependent on the number of conflicts that may arise between the two parties. It depends on how both the parties handle the stress of this conflict and how they resolve it. If the conflict is resolved rationally and properly the relationship might get strengthened. However, a poor resolution of this conflict might result in weakening or even closure of this relationship.

Interpersonal Conflict At Workplace

Any workplace has a lot of interaction between employees, managers, and executives. All kinds of formal, informal, and even friendly relationships constitute a workplace environment. With such close relationships and interactions, it is likely that people will have conflicts. Workplace conflicts are just like any other interpersonal conflict that might occur in a relationship, however, the reasons are different. It can be due to low wages, more absenteeism, or minor day-to-day management activities. However conflict between two people can have a negative impact on the organization as a whole, therefore urgent and proper conflict resolution is essential (Teicher & Gramberg, 2005).

Causes Of Conflict

There can be various causes of workplace conflict. If the proper solution to these problems is not found out and conflict is not resolved it can affect the productivity and efficiency of the employees. Moreover, it might make the entire office environment hostile, which will affect the employees of other departments also. If the proper solution is reached then sometimes conflicts can give positive results also. It can sometimes increase the efficiency and productivity of the employees.

According to Robins (1983), it is not that people do not understand the reasons and causes of conflicts. They do understand that incompatible goal, communication problems, scarce resources, etc causes interpersonal conflicts in an organization. Sometimes these conflicts can be between two groups also. For example, if one group is not letting the other achieve its goal, then conflicts may arise between the two. However Jung (2003) believes that conflict is the direct result of power associations i.e. if one person is more powerful and can achieve his goals easily than the other, then the one who cannot achieve his goals easily or is the victim of scarce resources might have conflicts with the first one.

In 1996, Pondy defined that if other factors are controlled, such as resources, etc, and no problems are associated with these controlled factors, even then the problems might arise. These conflicts can be due to incompatible personalities.

Below are some of the reasons which are not related to similar resources or goals. However, these have to do more with the personalities of different people.

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  • When the organization grows, along with it its departments and employees grow. Departments become big, new people come and older ones lose touch. People start thinking differently and hence giving rise to conflicts.
  • In order to motivate employees, the managers set up monetary motivation techniques. In such cases usually, one profit center is defined for one department. Such situations give rise to conflicts also.
  • Organizational politics can give rise to interpersonal conflicts also. Questions like who will get promoted? Is the company hiring new people? Who will get increment? Are conflicting.
  • These days there is a lot of emphasis on freedom of speech. Sometimes this freedom of speech can create problems and conflicts in the workplace.
  • Pressure from the customer about price reduction and improved quality can give rise to conflicts in the concerned departments. This can be due to the extra pressure which each department might be placed on the other in order to push it to meet the customer’s needs.

Interdependence among the groups can also cause conflicts. Interdependence directly affects the commitment level and trust level amongst the groups. in some relationships between groups this dependence is asymmetrical, this means that the level of trust, need and commitment is different between the two. However, in some groups all these are equivalent, such groups have symmetrical relationship factors. Moreover, individuals can also have similar relationships. One individual might be dependent on the other and the other might show total independence. Studies have concluded that in such cases, individuals who have total dependence on each other have lesser conflicts than the ones who have asymmetrical relationship patterns (Kumar, Scheer, and Steenkamp, 1995).

Some other researchers also accept the fact that a highly dependent relationship has very few conflicts (Jung, 2003). This is due to the fact that it is very little available to both the parties on which they have control or can alter in any way.

As expressed before these conflicts can have a negative impact on the organizational environment (Peterson & Behfar, 2003). Interpersonal conflicts between any two members in the organization can lead to reduced productivity and efficiency. Moreover, the ability of a person to put knowledge into the process is lowered. This is due to the fact that most of the energy and time is wasted on conflict-related problems and the core ideas cannot be interpreted. The result of this can be an increase in the stress level. However, it can be positive as the person who manages this conflict properly can be called a communicator and problem solver. It can also show the other person who cannot resolve conflict hence cannot deal with problems in the organization. People who cannot manage conflicts properly will not be able to manage other things as well. Hence the conflict management style also says a lot about the person (Gross and Guerrero, 2000).

Any conflict resolution’s first step is to find out the cause of that conflict. According to Art Bell (2002), there are almost six main reasons why conflicts can arise. All of these are discussed below. However, Brett Hart (2000) has given two more reasons apart from these six. These two have also been added.

Needs

All workers depend on office resources in order to complete their projects etc at the workplace. Scarce resources and similar needs might sometimes lead to conflicts (Hart, 2002). Conflicting needs is the most common reason which triggers a conflict between individuals. However, there are differences between male and female reactions to such situations.

Styles

Conflicting styles are yet another cause of interpersonal conflict in an organization. In any workplace, there are people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This has an effect on the way they work and other styles of operations. Each and everybody has his own style which may or may not suit the other hence resulting in an interpersonal conflict.

Perceptions

If people have different styles they can have different perceptions also. Each individual has his own point of view which may or may not fifer from the other person. For example, if the company wants to hire new managers, one of the executives might take it as a new opportunity, or an investment that might be fruitful. However as people have different perceptions, the other person might take it as an insult to the organization. He might think that the present managers were not competent enough and hence new managers have to be hired. Both of them might be wrong. The top management might really need new managers due to the expansion of the company. Hence we can see that different ideas, views and perceptions can also lead to conflict.

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Goal

Another most common reason for an interpersonal conflict is conflicting goals. Sometimes people might have different duties which come down to the same goal. In such cases, conflicts might happen as delay or incompetence of one individual affects the goal attainment of the other also. Sometimes each of these simple tasks is important to the attainment of the goals and both parties are fighting over who will work on it first. For example, if a patient is admitted to a hospital. The finance department will quickly make a file and write down all the charges; however, the nurses want to do the pre-tests in order to admit him. In such a case conflicts might occur as the goal of both the parties is the same (admit the patient), however, who will complete his task first is a problem.

Pressure

Sometimes an employee in the organization might have pressures from various sources resulting in the conflict of two people and reduced efficiency of the employee. For example, if a manager wants a worker to complete some file by the end of the day and another manager has given the same worker another task which is important too. The worker might not be able to complete both tasks. This can stress out the worker and reduce his efficiency; moreover, it can raise a conflict between the two managers as both of them think that their work is more important and the other party should back out.

Roles

IF the top executive asks two people in the organization to work on the same job then a power struggle between these two people will start. If one of them is at a higher post he will try to sabotage the other persons and hence a session of passive conflict will begin. This kind of situation arises almost every day in an organization and is faced by many people. In such situations, the more powerful or the one with the higher position uses his power and gets his way. The subordinate has to succumb in order to avoid the conflict with the one above him.

Personality

Many organizations have many people coming from different religious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. As mentioned before these people have their own set of views, ideas, and opinions. In a huge organization, usually unavoidable segregation occurs which leads to conflicts. People start gossiping about other employees as they do not know them and do not talk to them because of the cultural segregation in the workplace that separates them. It is the responsibility of the management to see that no such situations occur and that the organization as a whole should work as a team.

Company Policies

When the company policies change they bring with themselves conflicts. This is due to the fact that employees working in the company take the company as their own and want to know everything. It usually happens when the executive management hides the reason for the decision and sometimes the decision itself from the employees. It is the duty of the management to communicate with the employees properly. Sometimes even if the management makes sure that the employees know about the new policies, conflicts might occur even then as the employees might not like the new policies. However, it is usually an uncertain and unpredictable environment that creates conflicts.

Ikeda conducted a survey in order to find out the reasons why conflicts happen in an organization (2005). Almost 182 marketing executives took part in this survey. The table below summarizes his study and gives basic reasons for conflicts. Almost 101 results were chosen to be analyzed.

The table below has reasons which trigger a conflict and are sorted according to the average scale. It can be noted that communication problems cause the highest number of conflicts. The difference in expectations is yet another reason which can raise interpersonal conflicts. Other reasons are given according to the respondents’ answers.

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Ranks Reasons Valid answers Scale average
1 Communication problems 101 5, 00
2 Different expectations 100 4, 63
3 Problems with organizational structure 101 4, 43
4 Power and status 101 4, 40
5 Lack of agility 100 4, 36
6 Non-fulfillment of goals 101 4, 17
7 Lack of cooperation 100 4, 00
8 Lack of resources 100 3, 94
9 Disagreement regarding goals 100 3, 93
10 Uncertainties 100 3, 87
11 Different experiences 101 3, 70
12 Cultural differences 100 3, 60
13 The policy of bonuses and rewards 100 3, 27
14 Environmental changes 100 3, 13
15 Lack of adaptation to work 100 2, 92
16 Salary comparison 100 2, 69

Table: Most popular conflict reasons. Source: Ikeda, 2005.

Note: Although the scale is ordinal, averages were used instead of medians in order to capture small differences between answers.

Gender And Conflict

Many scholars have argued about the differences and similarities between male and female conflict styles and conflict management. Many researchers believe that there is no difference between conflict styles between two genders (Conrad, 1991; Korabik, Baril, & Watson, 1993). Some believe that women might not differ in the conflict management style but can be different from their male colleagues in non managerial tasks (Korabik, Baril, & Watson, 1993). However many have still studied this difference in detail.

The research was done by Monroe and associates in 1991. It was found that there were significant differences between males and females during a conflict. It was also found that when male members had a conflict with the females, they usually confronted that female person in order to resolve or communicate the conflict. However, they did not use much confrontational style of conflict management if the other conflicting party was male too. Females usually avoided communicating with the other party if he was male. However, according to Berryman Fink & Brunner (1987), the difference between this male and female conflict style is sometimes lessened also. They also found that both males and females can communicate with a female during a conflict. Both males and females do not have proper conflict resolution and conflict management abilities to a very good extent. However, the interaction between the two determines what kind of conflict it is and what kind of conflict management it will need.

Even though many studies generalize the behavior of male and female employees during a conflict, Korabik (1993) believes that the male and female difference in terms of conflict style is usually dependent on the kind and situation of conflict. A minor conflict can have a different attitude among the two than a serious one.

According to some researchers, female employees usually use a compromising and accommodating conflict management style. Their methods are communicative and integrating. They also say that male employees are more aggressive during a conflict. They are not only competitive but are also confronting (Gibbs & Lach(a), 1994; Gibbs & Lach (b), 1994; Lay, 1994). However, according to the research done by Monroe and associate in 1991, both males and females used compromising and competing styles in a conflict. This report analyzed the behavior of these two. It was found that there were minor differences. The females said that they were more compromising than males and that they were the ones who usually ended the conflict. Whereas, the male members said that it was true males are more aggressive during a conflict, and is also true that they tend to be more competitive also.

A similar study was conducted by Sorenson and Hawkins in 1995. They also came up with similar results that the male members were usually more competitive during a conflict and the female members tried to be more cooperative and communicative.

One of the researchers (Conard, 1991) female employees used more communication during a conflict in order to solve it. Another researcher believed that females did not try to avoid conflict. However male employees usually tried to avoid conflict in the workplace (Duane, 1989). However, this study was rejected. The main reason for this was the male dominance in the population sample of the study. There were only 7 females and 63 males, hence the results were biased.

One of the researchers divided the entire conflict process into five stages and then explained the difference between male and female attitudes in these stages. Though in the initial stages of the conflict process there was not much difference between male and female attitudes, it was after it that the differences started to show. It was seen that females did not like threats etc. they relied more on the communication process and resolving the conflict peacefully. However, as nothing worked they applied coercive strategies. It was found out that the male members during a conflict used coercion almost four times as much as females did. Hence males were said to be more aggressive than females. According to the study of Sorenson and Hawkins (1995), male members tried to use their power during any conflict. They relied more on the use of authority. However, the females relied more on their good communication skills before turning to coercive strategies. They also mentioned that if other conflict resolution strategies are not working, the females will certainly use coercive strategies. Their main aim, however, will be to reduce or eliminate the conflict.

Another study concluded that during a conflict in a workplace, the lower management or the subordinate does not like aggression or the use of power. They tend to like other intrinsic or extrinsic rewards for motivation rather than coercion to motivate them to sop the conflict (Lamude and Torres, 2000). This study was rejected on the basis of the improper sample population.

Perception is another difference that can arise between males and females during a conflict. Some researchers say that the actual behavior of the person during a conflict is not important but how the other person perceives him is more important. Perception is no doubt an important element during conflict management (Jurma & Powell, 1994). According to a study the cultural norms and traditions have a huge impact on the perception of a person. Females tend to use a helpful, considerate, and kind style, whereas males use a dominating and ‘use of power’ style. This study also analyzed the conflict management style of male and female supervisors. It was found that styles that were in conflict with their culture could not be implemented successfully.

Different studies have recommended different results in this regard. According to a study conflict management is better if the manager taking care of this has both male and female characteristics. Moreover, having more female and less male characteristics was an ideal solution (Jurma & Powell, 1994). In this way, the best female and the best male characteristics can be used to solve a problem. Many researchers differ from this. They say that the work role is more important and affects the conflict style more than the actual gender of the person (Lay, 1994). According to these studies, the effectiveness of communication during a conflict is dependent on the work role. They gave the example of professional and nonprofessional women.

According to the many professional women have male-like characteristics and rely on power and authority to solve problems. Many other females have traditional female traits and use more communication strategies to solve the problem. According to Lay (1994), females having male traits are more successful than the ones who do not have male traits. He also commented that a professional female with traditional female traits cannot be successful. It was also found out that the subordinates usually like females and males with both gender characteristics. It is usually considered that managers who have both characteristics tend to resolve the conflict more effectively. They have a female’s ability to communicate and a male’s ability to use power where needed.

Korabik (1993) has studies why females show male traits during a conflict at the workplace. He concluded that due to the fact that formerly there were only male managers. Hence a manager’s characteristics are more male-like and rarely female characteristics are required for such posts. Therefore these female managers have to adapt to the situation and act more like male people in order to stay and be successful in the organization.

These five techniques (Obligation, compromise, domination, avoidance, and integration), become less important as a person tends to gain more experience in conflict resolution. Gender also then does not have an effect on this process. Females were more different in the beginning. In the later stages, the difference became less and ultimately finished. In the later stages of the conflict, there was no or little difference between the approaches of male and female managers to the conflict process. As discussed before the perception also has a lot of effect on the conflict process. Yet again this also diminishes as the conflict progresses. Females and males have different perceptions. As the manager gains experience the gender differences do not count that much.

Sutshek did a study on the effects of gender. He took a sample of almost 75 respondents. There were almost 45 females and 29 males who took part in the survey. The conflict resolution style difference amongst male and female managers was analyzed. The table below summarizes this study.

Sex Obliging (Male scores higher) Dominating (Male scores higher) Avoiding (Female scores higher) Integrating (Female scores higher) Compromising (Female scores significantly higher)
Male M=3.32 M=3.06 M=2.83 M=4.29 M=4.01
SD=.45 SD=.72 SD=.63 SD=.35 SD=.46
Female M=3.29 M=2.88 M=2.98 M=4.32 M=3.64
SD=.53 SD=.72 SD=. 64 SD=.41 SD=.67

Table: the difference between male and female conflict resolution style. Source: Sutschek, n.d.

As seen from the table above, females do not use the obligation strategy to resolve the conflict. This denies many other studies which say that women make use of obligation as a resolving strategy. However, the results of this study cannot be considered as definite as there were quite a few problems with the population sample. One it was small, and secondly, it contained more females than males. Moreover, instead of random sampling this contained convince samples.

The study also concludes that female managers do not use communication strategies if presented with a conflict. Another important aspect, which many other studies supported was the fact that males use dominating and powerful strategies during the conflict. This study says otherwise. As seen from the table above male managers do not use many domination strategies to resolve the conflict. Moreover, males and females use the almost same amount of power during a conflict. This goes for a workplace interpersonal conflict only because in such a scenario it has been stated before also that females tend to have male characteristics also. In other conflicts, such as household conflicts, this cannot hold true. It was found that the order in which females use strategies is as follows;

  1. Integration strategies
  2. Compromising strategies
  3. Obligation strategies
  4. Avoidance strategy
  5. Domination strategy

This complies with other studies which say that females tend to use power in the end when no other strategy works during a conflict. The study also outlines the order in which males use conflict management strategies;

  1. Integration strategies
  2. Compromising strategies
  3. Obligation strategies
  4. Domination strategy
  5. Avoidance strategy

As we can see that males and females tend to use almost similar kinds of strategies except that males tend to use the dominance strategy before females. Females keep it as their last option. It was also said that female managers tend to use strategies that are more comfortable than the ones usually used. The compromising strategy was said to be the middle one on which each and everybody often landed.

Styles

Conflict styles are of different types. They depend on the gender, the background or culture of the individual, and the corporate culture of the organization. The type and style of conflict process an individual adapt during a conflict also depends on his need to accept that style. People sometimes have a default style that can be applied in all cases. However, they may or may not succeed in achieving the desired results of the conflict.

Non Assertion

It is the most common type of conflict style. In this, the individual either cannot or does not want to communicate the reasons for conflict. The thoughts and feelings are hidden and not communicated with the other member. This can be due to a lack of confidence also. A timid person is always sacred to convey his thoughts. It can also be a behavioral pattern in which a person is confident but does not feel comfortable sharing what he feels. Another important reason is perception. This also depends on what an individual perceives about the other individual. If he thinks that the other person is a bully, he might not convey his feelings to him bringing him back to reason one, where he is not confident. It should be noted that this style is more common in males than in females. Females usually want to communicate in order to resolve the conflict, whereas male members usually want to keep quiet and deal with it in an aggressive way.

Indirect Style

It is the most common way of requesting conflict resolution. It is usually adapted in order to save a face-to-face meeting with the conflicting party which can also save both the parties from unfriendly comments and the environment. However, if both the people are in the same department then such a meeting is unavoidable. Individuals also use this style as a self-protection technique.

In the case of gender differences, it is females who usually use this kind of style. The male members do not use this style rather address the other party directly. The male members usually use this technique to show their aggression, which cannot be conveyed via a third party. This is again a very common type of style used in organizations. Usually, the head manager is appointed to resolve the conflict between two parties. He acts as a third party and uses various strategies and tactics to remove the cause of the conflict. However, without the help of both parties, he would not be able to do so.

Passive Aggression

In this type of style the person does communicate, but in a hidden or a disguised way. In this way, he can say what he wants to, convey his feelings of dissatisfaction without even saying the exact words. However, this is not a good style as there is no end to what a person can say in a hidden way. He can even make nasty and dirty remarks, but in such a way that nobody else notices but the person subjected to such remarks understands them. Secondly, if a person uses this for a positive reason, like apologizes for what he has done which triggered the conflict in the first place, then this can be a beneficial and a better way. However, it is risky as sometimes even if the person has apologized or succumbed in a hidden manner, there is no proof that the other party understood it or not. If such strategy is followed for a long time then this can sometimes anger the other party, as he might not understand the constant messages you are sending.

This style is usually adapted by females, where they pass on their feelings, remarks and dissatisfaction in a hidden manner. The males usually do not care and approach the problem aggressively.

Direct Style

Direct aggression means directly addressing somebody and conveying him your feelings of dissatisfaction. In such cases the recipient usually feels ashamed and humiliated, as the first person has directly told him all the faults he has which he might not want to hear. Moreover, when a person directly addresses somebody due to a conflict, it is most likely that the person addressing is not happy over something and has taken this step to tell the other person what it is. During this process the first person is usually angry and can say a lot of things the other person might not like. It is a kind of verbal attack on the other person. Direct verbal style has several sub categories depending on the type of conflict. Character attacks, competence attacks, physical appearance attacks, teasing, ridicule, threats, swearing etc. this is the worst form of style used in a conflict process as this can sometimes lead to direct physical attack also. Direct style has such a significant relationship between the direct verbal and direct physical attack, that it is difficult to avoid it.

It is usually the male members who use this kind of aggressive approach to a conflicting problem. The females usually use either communication, which also is mostly indirect or do not use communication at all. The male members use the direct verbal attack and sometimes direct physical attack also. However the physical attack depends on the cultural background of the person and the corporate culture of the company.

Assertion

Assertion is another good way of conveying your feelings nicely to the other person. Though it is also direct but the message is conveyed in a good respectable manner after which, unlike the direct style, the recipient does not feel humiliated. The first step is noticing a behavior which might catch your attention. This behavior is hen interpreted and your feelings are then given words. If you did not like what the other person was doing you can nicely tell him so without hurting his feelings.

It is the females who usually do not like create unnecessary conflicts in the workplace. Assertion is use by such females to end the conflict even before it begins. However the men might also notice the unpleasant thing, however instead of saying it in a good way use an aggressive direct style.

It is difficult to determine which style to use, or which styles are used mostly by males and females. The style is dependent on the type, duration n extremity of conflict.

Conclusion

Any relationship is not dependent on the number of conflicts which may arise between the two parties. It depends on how both the parties handle the stress of this conflict and how they resolve it. If the conflict is resolved rationally and properly the relationship might get strengthened. However a poor resolution of this conflict might result in weakening or even closure of this relationship.

As mentioned above men and women deal with conflicts in different ways. Conflicts between men and men are different and those between men and women are different. A better approach to conflict resolution is the intervention of third party, which is not only unbiased but has some experience in conflict resolution.

Conflict has negative and positive impacts. If any kind of problem arises in an organization which can lead to conflicts then proper solution to these problems should be found out. If the conflict is not resolved it can affect the productivity and efficiency of the employees. Moreover, it might make the entire office environment hostile, which will affect the employees of other departments also. If proper solution is reached then sometimes conflicts can give positive results also. It can sometimes increase the efficiency and productivity of the employees.

It is the duty of the management to see that if any kind of conflict rises between individuals in an organization it should be solved quickly before it people in both the parties become more aggressive. Moreover, as we have noticed differences between male and female conflict styles, these should be kept in mind while dealing with such issues. It should also be noted that people have their own sets of views and ideas and that they usually react according to them. Cultural background also plays an important role in determining the reaction of a person. There are various ways a conflict can end. There can be either a win-win situation wher both the parties get what they wanted. Or it can also be a win-lose situation which is the most common type. Another type of outcome is a lose-lose situation. It is sometimes due to the fact that the conflict has aggravated so much that the actual cause due to which this aggression took place in the first place is forgotten. Hence care should be taken when resolving a conflict in a workplace. It should be seen that this is solved in such a way that it is always beneficial for the company.

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