The Real Cause of Workplace Conflict

The Real Cause of Workplace Conflict

As business consultants, we get hired to go into businesses and help identify where there’s conflict and how to resolve those conflicts.  Typically, what we find is that businesses have a strong focus on issues such as productivity, retention, attitudes between employees, and low employee morale and engagement.  More often than not these issues get lumped into the idea of needing to improve “culture”.  Low productivity?  We need more accountability in our culture.  High turnover?  We need a more positive culture.

While these are all important issues that should be addressed, it isn’t necessarily what organizations should be focusing on to “fix.”  These are all indicators that something may be misaligned within your organization and should drive you to discover why.  So rather than throw a band aid onto your organizational struggles, dive into your organizational culture to prevent or minimize conflicts from reoccurring.

A recent account of this involves a manufacturing leader who was viewed as hardnosed and controlling by his management team.  His managers feared any problems occurring in the production process because that typically meant their boss would become overly involved in the problem solving process.  Because of this, the managers became very self-protective of their areas of responsibility.  One manager simply stated, “We have a CYA culture here.  I do whatever it takes to not get noticed by our leader.  As long as it is someone else’s fault then I’m good.”

The inefficiencies due to the siloing in this organization were considerable.  Employees banded together in each silo, but trust was severely lacking when two or more departments had to come together to problem solve.

During my work this this group, we held a start-stop-continue session so that the team could give the leader direct feedback.  One of the primary themes that surfaced was they wanted the leader to trust them more and stay out of details of their areas of responsibility.

At this point, it would have been easy to simply hand over a “How to Trust Others” check list.  But does that really accomplish anything?  Does it get to the root of the issue?  And most importantly, will the culture improve simply because someone puts a check-mark in a box?

No.  That is why it is important dive deeper – to understand how one person can impact the culture of an entire organization.  This means understanding why people do the things they do.

Underlying Reasons Driving Workplace Conflicts

In order to understand culture and workplace conflicts, we need to understand people.

Now, you may be asking yourself why it’s important to understand people when we’re talking about business.  Simply put, an organization’s culture is defined by its people.  Every action people take is a reflection of your organization.  Thus, in order to understand your organization’s culture, you must understand your employees – their motivations, thoughts and feelings.

A great resource I came across that encompasses all of this is research done by the late Will Schutz, a psychologist who studied at Harvard.  He found three core factors, which he called “feelings”, that drive human behavior.  Those factors are centered on our feelings about and preferences for:  significance, competence and likability.  Fears of NOT feeling significant, competent or likability can drive dysfunctional behavior in your workplace culture.

Significance – All people have some preference to feel important and valuable in their own eyes and/or in the eyes of others.  The fear of not being significant, in many cases, drives people to work more to prove their worth.  This may be done at the expense of personal and professional relationships, time, and in some cases, even ethics.

The underlying fears related to significance?  Being ignored or abandoned.  The ultimate personal fear related to significance: being worthless.

Competence  Competence centers on feeling capable and self-sufficient.  We all have some preference to feel competent in what we do.  The idea is that when others feel I am competent they tend to give me the autonomy to complete things on my own or recognize me for the quality of work I achieve.

The underlying fears related to competence?  Being embarrassed or humiliated.  The ultimate personal fear related to competence: being powerless.

Likeability – Will’s research showed that all of us have some preference to be liked and to like others.  Likability boils down to feeling good about yourself in the presence of others.  The more I like others and others like me, the more likely we will share with one another and confide in one another.

The underlying fears related to likability?  Being rejected and/or disliked.  The ultimate personal fear related to significance: being unlovable.

The Impact on the Workplace

In the back of people’s minds, these three factors are always at play, generally at the unconscious level, and fuel the things we do — including many of the conflicts that occur in the workplace.  It comes down to people being afraid to fail in these areas — to be insignificant, incompetent and/or disliked.  Based on a variety of factors each person will emphasize one of these factors over the others.

Many times the feelings of significance, competence and likability are interrelated, but sometimes they are not.  It all depends on what (unconscious) strategy we utilize.  Not having awareness of our strategies to achieve positive feelings in these areas can unintentionally create conflict in the workplace.

The following are examples of some of the most common conflicts dealing with significance, competency and likability.

Significance and Competence Strategies

  • One of the most common strategies to feel significant in the workplace is to say “yes” to everything. The drive to feel more important can be so strong that an individual feels the need to be in the middle of everything.  If they aren’t directly involved, then they don’t feel important.Over time, team performance can depend on this individual.  What develops is what we call a super star dynamic.  This usually involves the individual having to demonstrate a high level of competence as well, because oftentimes, significance in the workplace is achieved through competence.  This type of behavior, however, can breed resentment between the super star and their teammates and vice versa.
  • Another example we commonly find is the micromanaging boss who is involved in all the details to make sure things go perfectly smooth. This is typically rooted in a strong preference for competence.  The leader becomes overly involved to avoid the embarrassment of low quality results.  If you ever had a micromanaging boss, you probably know that this can create high levels of conflict in the workplace.

Likability Strategies

  • One man we worked with had a very strong preference for likability, but also feared people knowing too much about him. This combination created a strategy where he would keep things light by constantly telling jokes.  While his co-workers liked being around him, they would grow frustrated once it came time to get down to business.
  • Another strategy we’ve seen people employ deals with the fear of rejection. For example, one woman, who worked in a marketing firm, developed a strategy where she made herself as transparent as possible.  This meant giving the full rundown of her strengths and weaknesses so that the other person could accept or reject her as quickly as possible before any emotional investments occurred.  This approach, however, ended up creating significant conflict within the workplace because while she looked very open and transparent, she struggled to receive feedback that opposed her own assessment.  Workplace relations had to be on her terms.

So, how do you use this information to address conflict in the workplace?

Reflect to Resolve Workplace Conflicts

Workplace conflicts are things that can never be fully eliminated from an organization, but understanding what causes conflicts is the first step towards change.  Many organizations waste time and energy tackling every single conflict that arises without creating much impact.  By dissecting a problem down below the level of behavior to the level of feelings (significance, competence and likability), you can create greater impact with a larger amount of people because you’re tackling the issue at a deeper level.

In short, feedback is a starting point for awareness.  It’s easy to have awareness of our behavior, but the real challenge is to create awareness around the underlying feelings and fears behind our behaviors (significance, competence and likability).

Going back to my initial story about the manufacturing leader, instead of simply handing him a bunch of start-stop-continue feedback forms, one of the managers asked a key question to dive deeper into the situation.  He asked, “What are you afraid of?”

Not surprisingly, the leader responded in a typical, macho leader way.  “I’m not afraid of anything,” which the team quickly called BS on.  This caused the leader to reflect and share at a deeper level.  He share his fear of failure and where it came from, a fear which another manager shared.

The young manager said, “I’m glad you shared that because now, I view you as a person I can relate to – not an enemy.  I can work through anything for you, but I want you to treat me with respect, and I want more transparency from you like you have done today.”  It’s accountable and open conversations like these that start to build trust within teams, which has a positive impact on morale.

Similar to this situation, when working to resolve workplace conflicts and improve your culture, create pathways for employees to find significance, to demonstrate competence and to feel likable.  This can be done on the micro-level through feedback exercises as described above (likability).  It can be also done by creating a compelling vision and tying employees into it (significance).  Or it can be done by creating clear expectations that will drive greater accountability (competence).  The more competent, significant and likability your employees feel, the more likely they are to give that extra effort at work.  And that’s how you get more out of your number one asset: your people.

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