Understanding conflict

  1. Guides
  2. Conflict management
  3. Understanding conflict

There are a lot of different definitions of what conflict actually is but it can be broadly defined as disagreement between two or more people due to work issues or personal incompatibilities.

What is conflict?

Conflict can range in intensity from minor differences of opinion with little to no negative emotion involved, to major conflicts which involve strong negative emotions (e.g. anger, frustration, jealousy, anxiety, fear etc.) and strong negative behaviour (e.g. arguing, back-stabbing, sabotaging/interfering, being aggressive etc.).

What is NOT conflict

  • Performance management - Managing the performance of employees, including negative feedback for poor performance, is not workplace conflict.
  • Bullying and harassment - Unreasonable workplace behaviour that is victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening is not conflict; it is bullying and/or harassment. Although a situation may have started as a conflict, if behaviour escalates to this level it has gone beyond a conflict situation. Bullying and harassment are unacceptable workplace behaviours and have serious consequences.
understanding conflict

Types of conflict

There are two types of conflict: task conflict and relationship conflict.

[1] Task conflict

What is task conflict?

Task conflict is when people have differing ideas and opinions about task-related matters, like how to complete a task or what course of action to take.

What are the benefits/downsides?

Low to moderate levels of task conflict has been shown to improve group decision making because group members explore different ideas and perspectives to find the best solution, rather than simply agreeing with one another to avoid conflict. High levels of task conflict, however, can slow down decision making, cause frustration amongst group members and if managed poorly, can lead to the emergence of relationship conflicts.

How does task conflict escalate?

When people disagree about a task issue, what each party experiences is interference - they each have their own opinion of what needs to be done or how it should be done, and the others involved are standing in their way and preventing them from doing it. This interference creates conflict. Whether the conflict escalates or can be resolved peacefully depends on how willing (or unwilling) each party is to consider the perspectives of the other people involved, and how tactfully they approach the situation.

For example, take a task conflict between two people. If one person does not feel strongly about the issue, they may just let the other person have their way. This will resolve the conflict. Or if both parties are willing to consider the other person's perspective, they can collaborate to find a solution that works for both of them. This will also resolve the conflict.

However, if both parties feel strongly about the issue and are unwilling to consider the other person's perspective, negative emotions may creep in and the conflict can escalate. At this point, what started as a task conflict, can become a relationship conflict as well. Those involved may move beyond the initial disagreement to thinking negatively about the other person (e.g. "they're stupid", "they're incompetent", "they're painful", "they're arrogant" etc.).

Conflict can also escalate quickly should either party engage in inflammatory behaviour like insulting the other person, being sarcastic or condescending.

[2] Relationship conflict

What is relationship conflict?

Relationship conflict is where there is incompatibility between people on a personal level (e.g. conflicting personalities, personal values and/or interests) that results in annoyance, tension and/or hostility between the parties. To put it plainly, it’s where people just don’t get along.

What are the benefits/downsides?

Unlike task conflict, there are no real upsides to relationship conflict, it's just something that needs to be managed to ensure that it doesn't escalate and negatively impact the performance and well-being of those involved. Poorly managed (and unresolved) conflicts can escalate into something far more serious or simmer beneath the surface, creating ongoing tension within a team, negatively affecting morale and lowering productivity levels.

How does relationship conflict escalate?

Where negative emotions exist between two people, it can cause them to interpret each other's words and actions in a negative way. For example, constructive feedback between team members might be interpreted as an attempt to belittle the other person, rather than a legitimate attempt to help them improve. As more of these situations occur, the negative perceptions of the other person are reinforced and this can cause negative emotions to become stronger.

The presence of relationship conflict also means that task conflicts may escalate more quickly. Due to the underlying negative emotions towards each other, people may be less willing to negotiate - even on trivial issues - so as not to allow the other person to "win". Also, rather than considering the other person's interests and concerns as legitimate, they may think that they are just being obstructive and interfering with what they're trying to do on purpose.

Levels of conflict intensity

There are five levels of conflict intensity (1 = lowest, 5 = highest). As conflicts increase in intensity, the parties involved begin to feel increasingly stronger negative emotions towards each other, and relationships deteriorate.

  1. Differences - When two people see a situation differently, understand the other party’s position and interests, and feel no negative emotions regarding the difference.
  2. Misunderstandings - Times or situations where what is understood by one party is different from what is understood by the other party, and neither party is aware of the misunderstanding.
  3. Disagreements - When two people see a situation differently and, regardless of how well they understand the other person’s position and interests, feel negative emotions towards the other person as a result of the disagreement.
  4. Tension - Situations where the conflict causes difficulties in the relationship of the people involved and they feel negative emotions towards each other even when they are not dealing with the original conflict.
  5. Crisis - Conflict situations characterised by severe negative emotions and behaviour (e.g. arguing, back-stabbing, sabotaging, being hostile) with little or no hope for reconciliation.

Being aware of the level of conflict intensity

As a leader, it is important to be aware of the level of conflict that you are dealing with because as conflicts become more intense, they are not only more difficult to resolve, but they can do irreparable damage to working relationships.

You don't need to get involved every time there is a difference of opinion, but you need to watch out for the signs to know when to step in. If you wait until there are obvious behavioural symptoms to address conflicts, it may have already escalated too far.

It's also important to be conscious of the level of conflict if you are involved in your own interpersonal conflicts as it will help you to guide how you respond to the conflict. The more intense a conflict becomes, the more you need to address the emotions in the situation before you can make progress.

Learn more

Next: Conflict Management - Conflict styles