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The belief that personality differences are a major source of workplace conflict is comforting. If all we need to do to stop conflict is to remove one "bad apple" or ensure that certain people never have to work together, then workplace conflict doesn't seem like such a hard problem. And if conflict is caused by someone else then we need never modify our own behaviour.
Yet as a mediator I've found that "personality differences" cause conflict less frequently than one might expect. Think about it: You probably come across people every day with whom you have "personality differences" – neighbours, family members, friends-of-friends, colleagues – and you probably don't 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, how does conflict arise? Some of the following factors usually apply, and sometimes more than one will be relevant.
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 disappointing colleagues.
Since an organization's allocation of resources is driven by its values, conflicts over interests are often the surface expression of deeper conflicts. Values are strongly held convictions about the things that matter most. While personal values (religion, morality, beliefs about child-rearing, etc.) may not come up in the workplace, differing values about the mission and direction of an organization do arise. Disputes over which clients to target, how quickly to expand, and hiring priorities are often motivated by conflicting values. Business owners and managers need to make sure that value differences are discussed openly, so that people don't end up working at cross purposes.
If two people have clashed in the past and they didn't handle it well, there are likely to be lingering effects. Worse still are situations where an employer has failed to do a proper investigation of harassment or bullying allegations. The combination of fear (of another incident), resentment (that nothing was done), and quite possibly shame touches both those directly involved and bystanders. (On a more positive note, a past history of good work relations bodes well for future collaborations.)
These are factors outside the organization that might influence conflict within it. They might be factors that affect everyone, such as a weak economy. Or they might be factors that influence only specific individuals, such as health concerns or family issues. All too often employees reported to be "difficult" turn out to be under enormous personal stress, and when their personal issues are addressed, work relations improve as well.
One of the causes of conflict that is most often overlooked is data. Incorrect or incomplete information has been an aspect of nearly every conflict I have mediated. Conflicts easily arise when people are working with different or inconsistent data sets. Adding to the confusion is the fact that people in conflict often have no idea that the other side may have different information. Business owners and managers need to be aware that where information in scarce, half-truths, speculation and rumours fill the void and lead to easily avoidable conflict.
Finally, structural or organizational causes of conflict are the most difficult to recognize for those involved. The ways in which work and workplace relationships are organized can cause conflict. (Take, for example, a family business where lines of reporting are complicated by family relations.) 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."
Jeanette Bicknell, Ph.D., Chartered Mediator, is the owner of Principled Dispute Resolution & Consulting (www.pdrc.ca).