Conflict at Work: What Are You Really Disagreeing About?
Navigating conflict is one of the most important skills we need to develop in the workplace and in our personal lives. One thing we know for sure is that conflict is going to happen! It is inevitable and can be productive when well-handled and resolved. It can spark new ideas, help us be more creative, strengthen bonds between coworkers, lead to well-thought-out solutions, and it is also an opportunity to identify and mitigate risks. However, it can also be poisonous and destructive when poorly handled. It can damage relationships, derail projects, decrease energy and creativity levels, increase absenteeism and turnover rates, and even cause health issues. In part one of this two-part series, we will discuss different types of conflicts at work and the relevance of identifying the root cause of conflicts to turn conflicts into productive opportunities. Let’s get started!
What is the conflict about?
I personally struggled with workplace conflict for a long time at the beginning of my professional career. One of the main reasons was that conflict at work would easily become a personal issue for me. I can vividly remember situations when the disagreement was about how to handle a given task, and I understood it as a direct judgment of my recommendations. Amy Gallo’s HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict has been a reference to me and a go-to book that helps me learn and improve my conflict management strategies. In this article, I will focus on some of my main takeaways from her guide.
The first suggested step is to understand the root cause of the disagreement. In other words, what is the disagreement about? The four main types of conflict are:
● Relationship conflicts
Personal conflicts or relationship conflicts are quite common in the workplace. They refer to personal disagreements, often when employees feel disrespected in an argument or project. Relationship conflicts tend to be more challenging to resolve, and they can easily lead to avoidance instead of an honest effort to work things out. However, most workplace conflicts don’t necessarily start as relationship conflicts. And this is where learning about the other types of conflict can help us clarify common sources of conflict, thus avoiding the trap of turning every disagreement into a personal issue.
● Task conflicts
Task conflicts refer to disagreements over the goals and objectives of a project. You disagree over what needs to be done or achieved. Such conflicts often arise when the ground rules of a task are not properly communicated, resulting in confusion within the team responsible for getting the job done. “Task conflicts tend to be more straightforward to resolve and can lead to better ways of doing things.”
● Process conflicts
The team may have a common goal to work towards. However, team members might have different ideas about how to accomplish a certain goal, which can cause process conflicts. This is a disagreement over how to carry out a project, including differences in terms of the best tactics for reaching a goal, how decisions should be made in a meeting, or even how fast a project should be completed.
● Status conflicts
Status conflicts refer to the issues team members have when it comes to determining who possesses more power to make major decisions or who should get credit for the work. Status conflicts often happen in cross-functional teams and projects where employees don’t know or disagree over who’s in charge.
A common trap many of us may fall into is letting Task, Process, and Status conflicts get so fierce that they disrupt workplace harmony, leading to relationship conflicts. Although disagreements often fit into more than one of these categories, separating each type helps us focus on what is really at stake. This will lead us into a problem-solving mode instead of a defensive attitude that will do little to get us to move forward.
Having understood what kind of disagreement we are faced with, how can we better prepare for and navigate the conflict situation? Check out our next article, where we’ll share some tips on how to do that!
Research indicates that managers report spending 18% to 26% of their time dealing with conflict in the workplace. Leader Essentials Group can partner with you to implement our comprehensive Conflict Management Master Class training to reduce the impact of conflict within your organization. We’ll help you and your team become more aware of when conflict can be productive and when it can become counterproductive to an organization, particularly in the online environment. Email us at email@example.com or direct message us on LinkedIn to schedule a 15-minute telephone or virtual consultation to learn more!
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Vera Alves is the Chief Consulting Officer at Leader Essentials Group, with extensive experience in leadership development and business management. With over 12 years of experience as a C-suite executive, Vera is highly skilled in leadership, strategic planning, operations management, organizational behavior, and change management. She possesses highly developed communication, training, and linguistic skills reflective of a very strong and charismatic leadership style.
_________________________________________________________________________  Gallo, A. (2017). HBR guide to dealing with conflict (HBR Guide Series). Harvard Business Review Press.  Ferrazzi, K. (2012). How to manage conflict in virtual teams. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from How to Manage Conflict in Virtual Teams (hbr.org), 03/28/2023.