Workplace conflict can stem from task-based, relationship or status conflict. Here’s how to identify which one is at play and resolve it.
Sometimes workplace conflict can be a good thing. It can spark debate, offer new perspectives and bring out fresh ideas.
On the other hand, it can fracture relationships and negatively impact productivity. At worst, it can have employees heading for the door.
But to address workplace conflict, you need to understand what’s causing it.
It usually falls into one of three categories: task-based, status or relationship conflict.
Here’s what you need to know about each type of conflict, and some ways you can resolve them.
1. Task-based conflict
Task-based conflict occurs when employees have differing ideas about how to approach a project or task.
“Task conflict is about differences of opinion, information or decisions,” says Corinne Bendersky, Professor of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It is focused on what we’re doing, not the people.”
The issue with task-based conflict is that it can evolve into other types of conflict.
“It starts with, ‘Why don’t you do things the way I want them done?’ and over time it can become something worse,” says Nina Harding, Director at Nina Harding Mediation Services.
For example, a team leader expects an employee to write a report three weeks before a deadline. But the employee prefers to brainstorm for longer and write the report in the final week before the deadline. The team leader might begin to think the employee is lazy or unmotivated because they refuse to conform to the team leader’s timeline, but that’s likely not the case. This can lead to a relationship conflict, which we will unpack in a moment.
Task-based conflict resolution:
In the example above, Harding suggests finding a middle ground.
For example, could the employee loop the team leader in on their ideas more often? Could the leader play a more active role in the brainstorming process?
You need to outline your expectation of one another and find the parts you both agree on, says Harding.
“Often what you get from that is both parties acknowledge that the other person’s approach works some of the time and has some positives,” she says.
To do this you need to ensure both employees are actively listening to each other. Ask them to explain what they think the other person is saying to ensure they’re fully comprehending each other.
Get both sides to come up with a solution together, adds Harding. This will give them a sense of accomplishment and joint ownership over the solution. It will also avoid one party feeling like the other side has ‘won’ the argument if they don’t get their way.
“People don’t need to like each other, but they do need to collaborate and communicate with each other as it’s necessary to do their jobs.” – Corinne Bendersky, Professor of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles.
2. Status conflict
Status conflict is a disagreement on where you fit within a social hierarchy. These are not formal hierarchies, but our perceptions of where we sit compared to our peers.
“Status conflict is about differences in influence and respect. It is about our relative standing in the group,” says Bendersky.
Bendersky introduced the concept of status conflict in a 2011 paper for Organization Science. She says this type of conflict is common in the workplace when there aren’t clearly defined roles or lines of reporting.
For example, two employees have the same direct manager. However, employee A’s job title is ‘senior manager’ while employee B’s title is ‘manager’. Because of this, employee A considers themselves higher in the hierarchy and doesn’t like when employee B gives them directions.
According to a paper Bendersky wrote last year, status conflict can cause competition between employees and lead them to prioritise status over their work. It can also lead to micro-behaviours such as gossiping and politicking as employees try to one up each other.
Status conflict resolution:
There is one occasion when status conflict can be beneficial, says Bendersky. When a group first forms, status conflict can help to determine the hierarchy based on what group members bring to the table.
However, this hierarchy then needs to be formalised and made clear to all group members.
If two employees are engaged in a status conflict, Harding suggests sitting them both down for an honest conversation.
“Give them the opportunity to talk about how the other person’s behaviour affects them or impacts on them,” says Harding.
“But then direct them to talk about the positives of the other person.”
Because status conflict can feel personal, Harding believes openly discussing each other’s positive attributes may remind each party of the things they like about the other person.
For instance, they might say to their colleague, ‘I value your organisational skills and keeping us on task, as this isn’t a strength of mine, but I feel I bring a lot to the table in terms of brainstorming strong ideas.’
These conversations can also give employees the tools to avoid status conflict in the future by bringing up their feelings before it impacts their work.
“It’s really important to give people the language to be able to say in future, ‘I don’t like the way you just said that because it sounded to me like you were dot dot dot’,” says Harding. “When we test each other’s language we often discover our perception was not what they meant.”
3. Relationship conflict
Finally, we have relationship conflict.
“Relationship conflict is about differences of values, personalities and ideologies. It is focused on interpersonal liking,” says Bendersky.
Relationship conflict is often conflated with values conflict because our values often underpin our personalities and ideologies.
Sometimes, relationship conflict can be the overarching issue that’s causing a task-based or status conflict. However, according to Harding, relationship conflict often comes down to a lack of understanding of the other person’s position.
To demonstrate her point, she refers to a time when she mediated conflict between two employees – one was boisterous and the other reserved.
“The quiet, reserved person said, ‘I was fearful when you raised your voice’. Now the other person understands the impact of their behaviour,” she says. “They recognise that when they raise their voice and get really passionate and excited it’s scary for the other person.”
Relationship conflict resolution:
Because this type of conflict hits at the heart of who we are as people, it’s important to recognise that you may not be able to overcome it completely. But that doesn’t mean employees who experience relationship conflict can’t work together effectively.
“People don’t need to like each other, but they do need to collaborate and communicate with each other as it’s necessary to do their jobs,” says Bendersky. “Separate the interpersonal feelings from the behavioural expectations.”
Harding echoes this advice.
“Don’t attack their belief system or say, ‘You’re wrong, you need to do this’. It’s far better to talk about an alternative,” she says.
Try to encourage employees to open up about what drives their values, says Harding.
“If you have an employee who doesn’t agree with the COVID-19 vaccine, for example, the value driving that is probably wanting to protect their health, or their children,” she says.
“Someone who does support the vaccine probably has the same values. We often have more commonality than differences, so focus on the commonality.”
Once you’ve found common ground you can create an effective working relationship.
If you need to brush up your skills around handling workplace conflict try AHRI’s Conflict and Mediation short course. Register for the next course on 17 November.