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Workplace Conflict

Just as disagreements between individuals can be triggered by a myriad of different reasons, workplace conflict can be generated by a number of situations.

Workplace conflict almost always falls into one of two primary types:

- Task conflict (substantive or issue oriented), or  
- Personal conflict (often called a personality conflict)

This is not an over-simplification. These two types of conflict occur every day for reasons that are often quickly forgotten. Unfortunately the actual conflict, particularly a personality conflict, may long outlive the reasons for it.

Task, or substantive, conflict involves employee disagreements about workplace issues. Although most people assume that all forms of conflict are harmful, task conflict can sometimes be converted to a positive in the workplace.

Personal (personality) conflict usually involves two or more employees who are simply annoyed by the actions or behaviour of another. Often, this type of conflict arises from mere "bad chemistry" between two or more people. In most cases, this type of conflict, if untreated, will be harmful to the workplace, your team and everyone's performance.

You might try to identify a third type of workplace conflict, but you'll typically be unsuccessful. Regardless of the universe of triggers of workplace conflict, the reality will always be reduced to issues or people. Here are some tips to minimize workplace conflict and where possible, have it work for—and not against—you and your management efforts and responsibilities.

How to Improve Staff Performance in the Face of Workplace Conflict
The most important thing you can do is identify the source and type of conflict you are dealing with. Identification gives you the opportunity to take appropriate and effective action to resolve the conflict and/or use it to help, not hurt, staff performance. To help you identify the type of conflict, try some of these suggestions.

Observe. Carefully watch the conflict in action when possible. Can you tell if it's a task or personal conflict?

Is there an overreaction? Determine if the emotional reactions of the participants are appropriate to the seriousness of the situation.

Do both parties want to win only at the other’s expense? During task conflicts, participants often want to win to help make an issue or situation better. This may result in an eventual win for everyone. Conversely, a personal conflict typically involves one party trying to win by embarrassing or diminishing the other.

Are the participants displaying a lack of trust or respect for each other? This attitude usually indicates a personal rather than a task conflict.

Be aware that if you're witnessing a personal conflict, no one, including you, can expect to win. There is no substantive, identifiable or meaningful issue to be resolved. The participants may simply not like each other. Even if a substantive issue created this condition, the reason may have long been forgotten.

It is important to try and shift the conflict from a personal (un-winnable) problem to a task issue disagreement. If unsuccessful, you'll be left with a personality conflict which may leave you with only one option: to request that your unhappy employees put aside their personal conflict for the good of the team while at the workplace. If they agree, you might return to high performance. Should they choose not to cooperate, you may have to transfer one or both, or even separate them from the company.

But if you can successfully motivate your employees to focus on the task issue, you may eventually consider this workplace conflict to be a motivator to better employee performance. But be careful. Seldom will a personal conflict "work itself out" using a laid back approach. You need to address the situation and provide guidance and authority. Shifting the workplace conflict from personal to the task at hand may give you the opportunity to rebuild the performance of your team.