Every workplace suffers conflict; it's unavoidable. And this being a personality blog, we spend a lot of time blaming it on personality clashes. It's comforting to think that all we have to do to stop conflict is take a personality test, recognize each other's quirks and foibles, and make sure certain people never work together. Analyzed through the personality lens, workplace conflict doesn't seem like a big deal at all.
Yet, conflict is still playing out, in tens of thousands of workplaces up and down the country, every single day. And it's happening between people who manage to get along just fine with their friends, family members, neighbors and community groups. What gives? If people can successfully navigate personality differences outside the workplace, why does personality become such a big deal once you're inside the building?
Or could it be that personality isn't the main cause of workplace conflict after all? And if it isn't, what's the real underlying cause of workplace strife?
Causes of Conflict in the Workplace
The reasons for conflict are nuanced, complex and might include some or all of the following factors:
Personal agendas: Everyone has their own hopes, dreams, motivations, ambitions, income requirements and personal circumstances that operate independently of personality. For example, someone may be desperate for a bonus or a salary increase. Someone else may be desperate to avoid upsetting his colleagues. When agendas clash, conflict happens.
Mismatching values: Organizations theorize, plan and develop processes according to their values. Conflicts occur when personal values and the company's values collide. For example, decision makers may have different ideas about hiring priorities, the allocation of resources or how quickly to expand. Staff caught in the crossfire inevitably feel the tension.
Structural issues: The way the business is organized can be a massive source of conflict. Are job roles clearly defined? How do the various levels of authority work? Do processes hinder (rather than help) employees? Is change causing anxiety because "that's the way we've always done things"?
Cultural issues: Whether they realize it or not, some organizations offer real incentives for people to compete rather than cooperate. If, for instance, you reward personal achievement instead of acknowledging the contributions of all members of the team, you potentially are encouraging people to walk all over each other. The same goes if you're singling people out for special mentions, failing to tackle serious allegations of bullying or scapegoating, or failing to hold people accountable for errors.
Lack of information: An alarming number of conflicts happen because people have access to different information and thus are basing their arguments on inconsistent data sets. Often, the players have no idea that they're working from half-truths or an incomplete story.
External factors: External factors are the wild cards that temporarily can affect people's behavior, such as medical conditions or family problems. Often, when a person is being difficult and creating conflict, he or she turns out to be under a huge amount of stress. Fix the stress, eliminate the conflict.
This is just a small glimpse of the factors that are known to cause conflict in organizations. Why, then, do we insist on blaming personality differences when conflict occurs?
Why Do We Automatically Blame Personality?
When there's no paper in the printer because Sally didn't refill it, who do we blame? Sally of course. We don't blame Michael for not re-stocking the department's stationery cupboard (which he didn't do because the paper delivery didn't arrive on time). We don't blame Sandra for missing the deadline for ordering more printer paper from the supplier (which happened because she couldn't get sign off from the finance manager). We don't blame the company for trying to cut costs by re-negotiating its stationery-supplies contract (which is happening because of cash flow problems). And we certainly don't blame the customer for going bust which caused the company's cash flow problems in the first place.
Why do we automatically blame our immediate coworkers? Simple answer is: it's easy. Busy people don't have the time or mental resources to gather all the facts and make an informed judgment about a problem. It's much easier to make a snap judgment about others based on what we know about them. And in the typical workplace of strangers and neighbors, it likely isn't much.
So, we say things like, "Sally's an ENFP. She has no sense for practical things and that's why she forgot to refill the printer tray." Or, "Joe's an ESTJ and I'm an INFJ. He's always micromanaging and that's why we have a hard time working together." We use these labels because they are safe. They allow us to explain away problems without having to dig deeper. It's much easier to blame personality clashes than to request that your office manager pulls her finger out and gets the stationery order in on time or that leaders take actionable steps to keep the business on track financially.
While rationalizing problems through the lens of personality is easy and even fun at some level, it's also a distraction from the real issue. When you rely too much on the hypothetical personality-based causes of conflict, it creates the risk that the genuine causes of conflict will never be exposed or fixed.
How Do You Know if Conflict is Caused by Personality...Or Something Else?
So, how can you tell whether personality is the source of your workplace conflict or something else? The following questions can shine a light on what might be going on:
Does your team have enough resources? Every team needs the right support, tools, supplies, meeting rooms and number of hands on deck to do their jobs well. When people are fighting over access to resources, conflict can occur.
Is everyone pulling towards the same goals? It's all too easy to give a team conflicting goals. For example, one manager might say that hitting the sales target is the top priority, while another might say that providing high-quality customer service is the primary goal. Be sure to emphasize your requirements for the team. If your current goals are ill-defined or conflicting, spend some time creating goals that work for everyone.
Are roles and responsibilities clear? Power struggles often occur when someone steps outside her normal role and responsibilities and right onto someone else's toes. The reverse is also a cause of conflict, when an employee feels that she's completing tasks that should be performed by someone else. If you suspect that role confusion is a primary source of conflict, take some time to explain what everyone's role is, who they report to, and how the other job functions work to support each other across the team. Your explanation could go a long way towards relieving the pressure.
Are your policies consistent? People get angry about the disparity of treatment when rules are applied inconsistently. Make sure everyone is playing by the book.
And If It Does Come Down to Personality...
Everyone works differently according to his or her personality and of course, clashes in working styles can lead to conflict in the team. Regardless of what else is going on, it's a good idea to encourage your staff to take an assessment such as Typefinder. This should pinpoint the areas where staff members are having difficulty in understanding each other and provide some hard-hitting themes for development, for example, by indicating when someone has a tendency to get angry with people who do not meet their high standards of professionalism, or when someone takes criticism too personally.
While personality clashes are rarely the sole cause of conflict in the workplace, this is precisely the kind of information that can make people more aware of each other's work style and more flexible as a result. It should also help you create the right roles for specific individuals when you build your team.