Interpersonal conflicts occur in all aspects of our lives, including the workplace. Having conflict isn't always a bad thing. In fact, most people who are experts in human communication will tell you that conflict can be beneficial. The key is to be able to deal with it properly.
If you are unable to resolve a conflict, it will only serve as a roadblock. Having the ability to work through conflict in a meaningful way can lead to a variety of positive outcomes. The trick, of course, is to have some rules and methods for working through it to completion. That being said, in this article, we will look at the various types of personal conflict, their causes, and seven ground rules for dealing with interpersonal conflict at work.
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What Exactly Is an Interpersonal Problem?
Let's clear up something that might be confusing. I occasionally hear or read the terms interpersonal issue and interpersonal conflict. They really do mean the same thing, so don't be confused if you hear one term instead of the other.
An interpersonal conflict, in a broader sense, is a disagreement in some way between two or more people. Disagreements can be physical, mental, or emotional in nature.
Since we're discussing interpersonal conflict at work, it's a good idea to broaden this a little. When there is interpersonal conflict in the workplace, it can reduce productivity and lower morale. At work, it takes the form of one person or a group of people frustrating or impeding another person's or group's efforts to achieve a goal. As we will see, this is not always done on purpose. Nonetheless, it can be extremely frustrating and lead to numerous inefficiencies.
Interpersonal Conflict Types
Let's look at the different types of interpersonal conflicts.
Policy conflicts arise when two parties disagree on how to handle a situation that affects both of them. This occurs in a variety of circumstances. Assume you and a coworker are tasked with completing a project together. When you sit down to determine the best way to complete the project, it becomes clear that you believe one method is superior while your coworker believes another is superior.
A simple example of a situation outside of work is a marriage. Perhaps you and your spouse believe that you and your spouse should save 10% of your income for retirement, while your spouse believes that 5% is sufficient. These are examples of policy inconsistencies. Many times, you can reach a win-win situation in which everyone gets the majority of what they want with a little compromise.
Everyone has a unique set of values. You may have values that are very similar to those of another person, but we all have our own unique set of values. When you're having an ongoing argument with someone, it's easy to believe they're being stubborn. Typically, the underlying reason is that they have strong feelings about something because of their values.
In your personal life, you may believe it is best to raise your children in a certain manner, while your spouse believes otherwise. Maybe your boss thinks it's fine to set up a form of payment for referred revenue, but you don't think it's the right way to do business. Value conflicts are typically more difficult to resolve due to their ingrained nature.
Conflicts of Ego
Ego conflicts are also difficult to deal with. In this situation, losing an argument or being thought to be wrong can be detrimental to a person's self-esteem. This is similar to a power struggle.
Assume you believe your spouse almost always chooses where you go out to dinner. This seems to happen to the point where you feel like you're losing power in the relationship because they always seem to make the decision. So, instead of continuing to let your spouse choose which restaurant you eat at, you almost always end up arguing about where to eat.
This type of conflict is all too common at work. Consider all the times you've been asked to do something you don't particularly want to do. You don't want to feel taken advantage of, so you find a way to avoid the work, pass it off to someone else, or simply ignore the request.
What Are the Root Causes of Interpersonal Conflict?
There is a long list of things that can lead to interpersonal conflict. Since we're focusing on the workplace, let's take a look at the five major causes of interpersonal conflict in the workplace.
Frustration and Anxiety
People who are stressed and frustrated at work are more likely to have conflicts. People are simply more irritable and can get on each other's nerves much more easily than at other times of the year.
Being aware of the situation is the best place to start. When you notice your coworkers are frustrated, consider what you can do to alleviate their stress. This is something that exceptional managers excel at. They can help their team by removing roadblocks and frustrations.
Do you recall what they say when you assume something is correct? If you are unsure about what the expectations are, it is always best to seek clarification. Were you supposed to follow up with Bill about the project's next steps, or was I?
Misunderstandings are all too common. Having different expectations on a job, role, process, or anything work-related is a huge source of interpersonal conflict due to misunderstandings.
This is also an all-too-common occurrence. Many businesses or departments within businesses operate on a crisis basis. That is, they don't have many plans; instead, they simply react to crisis situations.
Things never seem to improve because there is no process in place to make things better. They're too preoccupied with running around like their hair is on fire. And once the fire has been extinguished, they can relax for a day or two until the next fire breaks out. This can lead to a lot of squabbles and finger pointing.
Inadequate Staff Selection
This is most noticeable in two areas:
First and foremost, during the initial hiring process. Someone else must pick up the slack when someone is hired into a role and isn't doing what they were hired to do. You can bet that those who pick up the slack will become angry and resentful sooner rather than later.
Another area where this has an impact is on teams. Some people are naturally inclined to do more than their fair share, whereas others are inclined to do less than their fair share. Both sides have the potential to irritate people and spark conflict.
I saved my favorite subject for last. Poor communication can cause a slew of issues. Workplace interpersonal conflict is a major issue. I'm sure you can think of many examples of how poor communication led to workplace strife.
You didn't get the email that the rest of us did? I'm not sure why that is. You didn't know the meeting had been rescheduled for a different time and location, did you? What did the boss tell you about how we're supposed to collaborate with the purchasing team on this? And so forth. This one is massive.
7 Ground Rules for Dealing with Workplace Interpersonal Conflict
Now that we've discussed what interpersonal conflicts are, as well as some of the types and causes, let's look at how to deal with them. Here are seven ground rules for dealing with workplace interpersonal conflict.
1. Recognize the Conflict
Recognizing that there is a problem is the first step toward resolving it. The longer you stick your head in the sand and pretend there is no conflict, the worse it will get.
After you've acknowledged the conflict, examine it objectively. Be open and honest with yourself about what role you may have played in the conflict. Examine it from a variety of perspectives, not just your own. See what you can do to assist in resolving this conflict.
2. Increase Communication Channels
Consider yourself to be the one to extend the olive branch. Once you've admitted that there's a problem, be the one to open the lines of communication.
Set up a meeting with the other person or people to discuss the conflict. Approach the upcoming communication with a collaborative mindset. Because you are all working towards the same goal, it is acceptable to disagree on the path to take. Work to foster a sense of unity that everyone can rally behind.
3. Concentrate on the issue rather than the other person.
When dealing with these conflicts, try not to take things personally. It's all too easy to believe that someone is doing something to you when, in reality, this is rarely the case.
Maintain your focus on the problem rather than on the other person or people. Remember to focus on resolving the problem, not on changing another person. It's extremely unlikely that you'll be able to influence someone else. Look for ways to collaborate to reach a solution that works for everyone.
4. Remain Focused on the Facts
This is similar to focusing on the problem rather than the person, but it goes a step further. When investigating why a particular conflict is occurring, make every effort to stick to the facts. It could have been another person, but consider the underlying reasons.
For example, perhaps the conflict is that Shelly does not respond to critical emails in a timely manner. It's unlikely she's doing it just to irritate people. To find out the true reason why, use the 5 Whys technique with her. It's possible that she has too much on her plate and is simply overwhelmed. What can be removed from her to-do list so she can concentrate on the most important things? Are there any processes that can be implemented to help move things along more quickly? Keep to the facts.
5. Meet in Person
Virtually addressing a conflict is difficult. Most of the time, an email here and there doesn't seem to get to the heart of the matter. It's also not very useful to have a 10-minute meeting in someone's office when the phone is constantly ringing and their eyes are constantly returning to the never-ending flood of incoming emails.
Determine a time and place to meet in person, away from distractions. This way, you can devote the necessary time and attention to resolving the conflict. Not to mention that sitting across the table from someone helps to strengthen the relationship.
6. Choose Your Battles
It's very easy to pick at almost anything, especially if you're not the one doing it. In general, we all believe there is a correct way to do things, which is usually our own. There is always a wrong way to do something, a way that other people do the same thing. The point is that there are only so many things we can do.
Some of the process inefficiencies in my job, as well as some of the people who work in those departments, irritate me. It doesn't make sense for me to regard each of these as a conflict and then set out to resolve it. There are a lot of things that are beyond my control and, frankly, aren't worth my time.
If it's just an annoyance, let it go and focus on what's more important to you.
7. Make a decision and follow through on it
Finally, after you've resolved the conflict with the other party or parties, it's time to finalize the agreement. Make a plan of action once you've decided how to handle a conflict. And, most importantly, follow through.
It does no one any good to spend time and energy resolving interpersonal conflict at work and then do nothing about it. Once you've figured it out, proceed to the final step and take the necessary action to resolve it.
So you now understand what an interpersonal conflict is and how it differs from one another. You've also learned about some of the more common causes of workplace interpersonal conflicts. Most importantly, you now understand the seven ground rules for resolving interpersonal conflict at work.
Remember and refer to the list the next time you're having trouble dealing with others on the job. Developing an action plan based on these ground rules will assist you in creating a team-oriented work environment where everyone can thrive.
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