Conflict As A Barometer of Organizational Health

Is there conflict in your work setting? There should be. Some level of disagreement is necessary in your organization or you could be in real trouble. A workplace without any conflict is in danger of being "static." Conflict can provide information to management as to how things are going within the organization. However, too much conflict, conflict poorly managed or unacknowledged is costly in lost time, productivity and personnel. Effective management of conflict can improve employee retention and productivity.

Types of Conflict

Robert Bacal of Bacal & Associates identifies two types of conflict:

1.) Constructive conflict—issue oriented

2.) Destructive conflict—personal; fueled by emotion

Constructive conflict, which deals with issues, can create the opportunity for a better outcome than either party’s original idea or position. While issue focused conflict can be productive, if managed effectively, destructive conflict is almost always an energy-sapping force in the organization. Destructive conflict is personal, not usually about issues. Generally, this type of conflict is about emotions and therefore is difficult to problem solve. Frequently the involved parties are not interested in solving the problems. Often these individuals become invested in "looking" for problems and the situation gets worse over time.

When faced with a conflict, first determine what kind of a conflict you are dealing with. This isn’t always easy. Ask yourself questions such as:

"How do I feel about the other person involved?"

"Is my emotional investment in this conflict equal to its importance?" 

Remember, no one wins in a personalized conflict. If the conflict can be redefined as a discussion about issues, the situation can improve.

Often it is helpful to redefine a conflictual issue as an opportunity. Working collaboratively to solve problems is an essential skill for survival in today’s workplace. Wherever people work together, conflict is inevitable, so be prepared to confront conflict. You must recognize conflict and understand the dynamics in order to seize the opportunity for a "win-win" resolution.

Are you Comfortable with Conflict?

Would you define yourself as a rottweiller or an ostrich? Often management expends a great deal of energy in the suppression of conflict. This is counterproductive and frequently escalates conflict. Instead, the focus should shift to the management of conflict to optimize an organizational potential. Effective conflict management enhances employee retention and productivity via improved morale. If conflict is suppressed in an organization, it becomes like a cancer to the organization; it goes underground and presents less opportunity to be managed. So, although you don’t need to become overly aggressive in your approach to conflict, you can’t afford to "stick your head in the sand" either.

Common Causes of Conflict

  1. Poor Communication
    If there isn’t enough clear information being given to employees in a timely manner, their perception of control is decreased, causing feelings of insecurity and powerlessness. These feelings cause destructive stress in an individual.

  2. Lack of Trust
    Trust is essential for cooperation. Again, clear communication between co-workers, management and employees is the basis for trust.

  3. Unclear Organizational Goals

    The lack of clearly defined organizational goals leaves room for disparate agendas among employees. Well-defined, frequently communicated goals are essential for maximum organizational effectiveness.

  4. Job Insecurity
    This can be experienced as powerlessness and a lack of control that contributes to discord.

  5. Perceived Unfairness
    Consistent, clear communication of policies and anticipated changes, as well as opportunities for employees to collaborate in establishing policies will help to decrease perceptions of inequities in the workplace.

  6. Conflict Avoidance
    If conflict is avoided, it almost always resurfaces in an escalated form.

Warning Signs That Conflict Has Gone Underground

  1. There are ongoing tensions between individuals and departments.
  2. Employees have given up trying to solve problems.
  3. Privately, employees complain and sub-groups split off to ruminate about problems.
  4. No team efforts are evidenced—everyone’s motto is "cover yourself."

Tips to Diffuse Destructive Conflict

  1. Management needs to deal with conflict and deal with it promptly. Don’t let it escalate.
  2. Listen. Listen to employee issues, and then paraphrase (repeat what you heard in your own words).
  3. Acknowledge and address employee’s feelings.
  4. Problem solve the issue.
  5. Re-address the feelings involved.
  6. Get an outside mediator if conflict continues.
  7. Be a role model. Employees watch how you deal with conflict and anger in the workplace.


Constructive, issue-oriented conflict is a sign of health in a dynamic, thriving organization. Personal or destructive conflict can drain precious resources and can even lead to violent reactions. Effective management of conflict in your organization can enhance your bottom line by creating a culture for increased innovation, retention and productivity.

How are you handling conflicts in your organization?    

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