"Twenty-three million Americans experience workplace bullying within their work lifetimes" (cited in Seagriff, 2010, p. 575). With the economic challenges Americans are facing recently, tensions in the workplace are also on the rise, as employees increasingly worry that their jobs are in jeopardy. This fear over possibly losing their job means many employees will not risk reporting bullying to their employers.
Interdependence conflicts, as mentioned, are another common type of workplace conflict. This type of conflict centers on an employee's dependence of another person's assistance, input or output to perform their job (Kankanhalli, Tan, & Kwok-kee, 2007). In other words, task interdependence varies depending on the extent which an employee needs materials, information or support from their workplace peers, in order to do their job. "Task interdependence alters the course and consequences of conflict. Some have asserted that because high task interdependence implies the need for intensive interactions among members, it creates more opportunities for conflict (Somech, Desivilya & Lidogoster, 2008, p. 363).
Task interdependence offers organizations many benefits. As Somech, Desivilya and Lidogoster (2008) note, organizational teams with high task interdependence may employ competitive strategies that can maximize their resources and power. High task interdependence also increases the interaction between team members and provides an incentive for employees to collaborate. When interdependence is high, typically these members communicate more often when interdependence is not present. They are also physically closer, typically, and influence and support each other regularly. For this reason, task interdependence positively affects the communication between employees and the level of collective planning needed to coordinate the integration of tasks (Somech, Desivilya & Lidogoster, 2008, p. 363).
Goal incompatibility is another common source of workplace conflict, when two or more parties in a situation have competing goals. Wienclaw (2010) notes that "goal incompatibility becomes an even stronger source for potential conflict in situations in which there are financial rewards for achieving one's goals since, in such situations employees tend to be more motivated to achieve their own goals at the expense of others" (p. 741). Differentiation is also a factor in goal incompatibility, according to Wienclaw. Differentiation centers on divergent attitudes, beliefs, backgrounds, training, and experiences. It is these factors that often result in goal incompatibility and the increased tendency for workplace conflict.
Resource scarcity can also lead to workplace conflict, as can ambiguity and communication challenges. Fae (2007) describe resource scarcity as conflict between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots.' Wienclaw (2010) gives the example of multiple technicians needing the same laboratory equipment, and the conflict that is likely to arise if the two technicians are forced to share. Ambiguity too can lead to conflict because it increases the likelihood that one party may interfere with another, which can also lead in increased office politics. When effective communication doesn't exist, this further complicates matters and increases the chance of conflict. "Good communication skills are necessary in order to communicate with other parties in a diplomatic, non-confrontational manner. The lack of necessary skills for diplomatic communication can escalate a conflict situation and result in less motivation for effective communication in the future" (p. 745). This is also often results in cross-cultural conflicts.
Sikes, Gulbro and Shonesy (2010) note that the increasing globalization of today's business world means that there is a new source of conflict -- cross-cultural conflicts. Oftentimes employees from different cultures have misunderstandings, mistaken perceptions and communication challenges that arise due to their cultural differences.
Workplace Conflict Prevention:
Understanding that there are numerous sources where workplace conflict can arise and that there are significant negative effects to workplace conflict, the most effective and efficient way to deal with conflict is to prevent it from happening in the first place. There are a number of conflict prevention strategies organizations may employ, in order to stop conflict before it starts.
The first step to any conflict prevention strategy is for management to understand the seriousness of the problems that can occur due to conflict. Even if the manager hasn't encountered any noticeable incidents, workplace conflict exists. This conflict can escalate, if not resolved, into workplace violence. "One out of four workers is attacked, threatened or harassed each year. Most harassers are co-workers" (Masters & Albright, 2001, p. 205).
Paniagua, Bond & Thompson (2009) uses the healthcare industry to discuss the benefits of a zero tolerance policy for organizations, as a means of preventing conflict. Although the conflict they are preventing is regarding a patient's aggressive behavior towards a healthcare provider, this can be applied to certain conflict sources between employees. A zero tolerance policy against violence and aggressive behavior can help prevent bullying as a form of conflict in the workplace. If employees know that this type of behavior will not be tolerated, and their jobs are on the line, this may serve as a significant deterrent, preventing the behavior from happening in the first place.
To further prevent conflict, employers can help bring issues out in the open before they escalate into full-blown conflict. Encouraging open communication as a part of organizational culture is key to this strategy. This strategy helps if the employer is aware of conflict triggers within their organization, and respond to them when they're first discovered ("Tips," 2010).
The company should also have a process for resolving conflicts in place (Perkins, 2010). Any potential issues should be encouraged to be brought up at employee meetings. In addition, the process for handling a situation when there are differing viewpoints should be established. Everyone in the organization must fully understand the process, the goals and the expectations. In addition, because conflict resolution skills are learned and not innate, employees should receive appropriate training. ("Tips," 2010).
James (2010) notes that one way to prevent conflict is to help prevent stress among employees. For this reason, James notes many organizations have implemented stress management courses and implemented flexible working schedules. Some have even gone so far as installing a punching bag in a common area, for employees to physically alleviate some of the stress their feeling. Other organizations have set aside a 'time-out room' for employees to have a quiet place to retreat to, to help work out challenges they may come across (p. 16).
Organizational leaders should develop training programs and prepare employees to work in team settings, as a means of proactively preventing conflict. Training should be provided to increase awareness of how conflicts arise and the different strategies for managing conflict, as a means of maximizing team effectiveness. This type of training allows employees to develop strategies to address conflict even before it occurs (Sikes, Gulbro & Shonesy, 2010, p. 17) . In this way, employees will be well-equipped to prevent workplace conflict, or, at the very least, be able to employ conflict resolution strategies, when conflict occurs.
Bacal (1998) notes that much of conflict can be prevented by "defusing hostile, manipulative people" (p. 5). Bacal continues to note that a great deal of workplace conflict occurs because employees do and say things that cause the conflict. This is typically done unintentionally, but occurs because employees simply aren't aware of their behavior and the way they communicate. For this reason, an effective conflict prevention strategy centers on educating employees about not only how their behavior and communication styles can lead to conflict, but also how to handle these factors when they encounter them from other employees, so as not to respond in a confrontational manner that spurs conflict.
Early Detection of Workplace Conflict:
In the most general of terms, workplace conflict can be a result of "poor communication, organizational change (… and), life changes as individual circumstances change" (Cooke, 2006, p. 365). These factors often result in stress in the employee, which can manifest itself in workplace conflict. For this reason, early detection of workplace conflict often centers on recognizing these factors, especially stress.
Stress is the body's reaction to the environment or external events. According to Hussin (2008), "stress is a state of physiological imbalance in the body which has unpleasant emotional and cognitive components. It is the state the body is supposed to be in when you're faced with a real threat, like the approach of a hungry lion" (p. 16). People's level of stress differs greatly depending on the individual. A similar event can have a different level of stress for different people. Long-term exposure to stress can not only have negative physical effects, but psychological effects as well. When an employee is under long-term stress, this can result in an increased likelihood of workplace conflict.
When an employee is under stress, their brain releases the hormones known as glucocorticoids, which has several physiological effects (Hussin, 2008). The physical signs of stress are often a result of the release of adrenaline in the body. These include the heat beating faster and stronger and perspiration increase. When someone is under stress they may experience headaches or chronic pain in a variety of parts of the body. The employee may experience tightness or pain in…