When employee conflicts rear their ugly heads in the workplace, it’s easy to blame personality differences. It’s simple, and makes us feel as if we have control of the situation.
On the Harvard Business Review blog, organizational psychologist Ben Dattner explains that the reason we tend to immediately blame people during conflicts comes down to evolution. “As human beings evolved, our survival depended on being able to quickly identify and differentiate friend from foe, which meant making rapid judgments about the character and intentions of other people or tribes," Dattner explains. "Focusing on people rather than situations is faster and simpler, and focusing on a few attributes of people, rather than on their complicated entirety, is an additional temptation.”
Of course, that's not to say personalities are never at fault. “People can definitely rub each other the wrong way or have different styles or different ways of working,” Dattner says. “But just don’t think that personality is ever the only ingredient.”
Don't Blame the Other Guy
So if it's not a people problem, what is it? Most of the time, Dattner says, it’s the situations we’re put in. Workplace conflicts often arise when situations are “complex, nuanced and politically sensitive,” Dattner notes in the blog post.
For example, are the employee roles in your business poorly defined? If so, it may be difficult for your workers to know exactly who's responsible for what tasks. For instance, when an employee takes some initiative to handle neglected tasks, that employee may feel taken advantage of (Hey! It wasn't my job and I'm not getting paid for it, but I'm doing it). Conversely, if they don’t take care of the task that others think is their responsibility, those other employees may just think they’re lazy. All these feelings result from undefined roles—a problem that could have easily been resolved if management took the time to clearly spell out who was responsible for what.
Another reason workplace conflicts occur is when employees feel forced to compete for attention, promotions or raises. An unspoken culture of competition means employees most likely aren't communicating openly or being transparent with one another because they're afraid to give any other employee a winning edge.
For example, if your company culture forces two co-workers to compete with one another for approval or a higher salary, the two may automatically think they can’t get along with the other. After feeling this way for some time, the lack of trust will eventually make the co-workers conspire against each other. When you pull them aside to find out why there's a conflict, you'll hear a lot about their adversary’s personality and not much—if anything—about the competitive culture they're expected to survive in.
So what can you do to help prevent frequent conflicts in your workplace? Your first step is to review every employee's job description, paying particular attention to their roles and the levels of authority in your company so everyone knows exactly what they should be doing and who they should be listening to.
Next, you should develop and offer incentives so employees are encouraged to collaborate rather than compete. You and the managers who work for you should also make an effort to treat all departments and groups of employees the same despite performance results. You want to instill an "all for one" mentality—rather than an "I'm in it for me" mindset.
When a conflict issue does arise, one of the first things you need to consider are the roles--rather than the personalities--of your employees. For instance, Dattner suggests asking yourself, “Given the jobs these people have, what conflict might be expected of any two people in these roles?” In other words, if one person is a salesperson and another is in customer service, their goals and work styles might be very different. But instead of focusing on these differences, determine how they can use their strengths to get the job done successfully.
Managing people isn't always easy, but if you look deeper than a personality conflict to get to the real root of the matter, you may just find that a working solution isn't that hard to find.
Read more articles on company culture.
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