Thriving Together Series

Thriving Together Series: Conflict Management in the Workplace

By: Jack Mittauer, Cooper Reinhard, Preet Patel, Tue Nguyen, Mason students in the School of Business

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.” – Dorothy Thomas

Conflict can happen anywhere – including in the workplace. When conflict occurs, you can either let the stress of it harm your well-being, or you can work to manage it in ways that lead to well-being at work. Here is a look at the types of work conflict, and strategies for successful conflict management in the workplace.

Types of Workplace Conflict

There are many types of conflict that can occur in the workplace. A majority of the time, conflict can be due to the status differences in the workplace or differences in values. No matter what it may be, it is something that can hurt productivity and negatively affect the company. It is important to solve these conflicts as best as possible so that they don’t build up and become worse.

Most employees are too timid to resolve the issues if they are of a lower status than a higher-ranking employee that they have issue with, according to this research study by Karl Aquino. But status conflict is a very common issue in the business world and it is important to know methods in order to deal with it professionally. Resolving or preventing conflicts at the workplace can greatly benefit the work environment which is important to everyone’s well-being.

Status conflict is one of the many types of conflict that can occur in the workplace. According to a research study on status conflict in groups by Corinne Bendersky and Nicholas Hayes, status conflict can be defined as “disputes over people’s relative status positions in their group’s social hierarchy”. This type of conflict is particularly important to understand when it comes to the types of conflicts in the workplace.

The nature of the modern workplace lends itself to status conflicts. The research study by Aquino noted that a majority of relationships in the workplace are hierarchical and characterized by inequalities in power and status. With this in mind, it makes sense that status conflicts make up a significant portion of all conflicts at the workplace. The Bendersky and Hays study found that there are many benefits to having high status, including receiving credit for work, greater influence on others, and increased access to resources and information. Furthermore, managers are more likely to receive financial rewards for successful performance than hourly employees, according to the Aquino study. Because of the benefits of a higher status, it is reasonable that people would work to get themselves in positions of higher status. In fact, the Bendersky and Hays study found that people are willing to pay a price or engage in contests to achieve a higher status. This explains why status conflicts are so common.

When looking at the conflicts that occur in the workplace, conflicts between higher and lower status employees are common. However, it can be speculated that these conflicts tend to start at the top rather than the bottom. The Aquino study found that high-status employees are often seen as having control over desired benefits for lower-status employees. This includes promotions, pay raises, and recognition for achievements. So, lower-status employees often refrain from engaging in conflicts with higher-status employees, the Aquino study pointed out. This means it is likely that status conflicts are started from the higher status individual rather than the lower status individual. Many recent college graduates who are working in entry-level positions may find themselves in status conflicts that they did not start.

An important dynamic of the workplace today is the need to work in groups. Bendersky and Hays orchestrated a study to look into the types of conflict that groups encounter. In this study based on groups of full-time M.B.A students, 47 percent of conflicts were in some way related to status.

Status conflict can also be broken down into three different types of conflict, which can be addressed more specifically to target a problem: task, relationship, and value conflicts. Task conflicts are problems that arise when a boss and employee don’t see eye to eye on an issue. A task is expected a certain way from the manager or person in charge and sometimes the employee can have issues with the methods that are expected. The next would be relationship conflict, which is one of the most common types that happens in the workplace. Relationship conflicts occur when the personalities of employees and bosses don’t match well. The boss can be wanting to have the workplace feel like a family or want people to come in happy and excited every day. However, if an employee just wants to get to work, complete their shift, then go home, these two people are going to have their conflicts. According to this article by Katie Shonk, “In organizations, people who would not ordinarily meet in real life are often thrown together and must try to get along. It’s no surprise, then, that relationship conflict can be common in organizations”. Finally, there is value conflict. This type of conflict is common when differing values on topics such as religion or politics are brought into the workplace. Conversations about topics like these can lead to heated debates. All of these different types of conflicts can make the workplace environment unpleasant and distract employees from their work.

Managing Workplace Conflict Well

There are many possible strategies to resolve conflict at work. One way is to come up with ideas to lead the team to success while attempting to solve a problem while finding a common interest that every member can agree on and support. One other significant step is identifying a problem to solve as a team, working together. As the team collaborates, diligently address any miscommunication or disagreements that arise. Strategies recommended in this article by Kat Boogaard are: listen carefully to what others have to say, comprehend the concerns people share, be respectful of other employees’ perspectives, and discuss any issues or generate any feedback that is meant to improve the performance of the employees and the business. The key is to show effort and quit only if there is no other alternative, as there can be times in which the situation is complicated and leaving the work environment is the best option while finding a better job.

A healthy social hierarchy in workplaces can be difficult to construct as companies expand. When companies are expanding, different roles can establish and cause one leader to have more power than the next, which can form a ladder-like structure of power. This article by Lindred Greer explains the problem that all fast-growing companies have and methods to build a positive workplace hierarchy. It explains that businesses should build a triangle-like structure in the hierarchy rather than a ladder. Companies should widen their hierarchy charts instead of creating a diminishing linear pattern of power. This allows workers to feel a sense of being a role player rather than being a worker for an authoritative power way beyond reach.

Status conflict can threaten a positive work environment. By understanding what status conflict is and ways to resolve status conflicts when they happen, you can maintain a productive and beneficial workspace. Overall, promoting a healthy workspace can lead to well-being in not only your professional life, but also in your personal life.

Well-being in the workplace is extremely important, as there is much research pointing toward the benefits of having a fun, well-organized, and productive work environment. This is why companies should invest in the well-being of the employees by establishing well-being programs. This article by Dr. Steve Aldana states that well-being programs can help employees prevent diseases, reduce stress, work harder, increase productivity, create better products, and more.

When employees are experiencing well-being, they are motivated to put in the work to help others and the company. That relieves stress, which decreases conflicts.

Additional Resources

This Society for Human Resource Management article explains how to resolve workplace conflicts.

This article presents 5 key ways of dealing with workplace conflicts.

Mason’s Dialogue and Difference Project brings our university community together to discuss controversial issues and learn from each other’s perspectives.

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