conflict, the inevitable reality of workspaces

Psychological perspectives on workspace conflict.

By Luke McEllin, PhD Cognitive Science, Central European University
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conflict, the inevitable reality of workspaces

Psychological perspectives on workspace conflict.

By Luke McEllin, PhD Cognitive Science, Central European University

Just like death, taxes, and bread that has been dropped falling buttered side down, conflict is an inevitable fact of human life.

“Conflict is a process that begins when an individual or group perceives differences and opposition between itself and another individual or group about interests and resources, beliefs, values, or practices that matter to them.”

From conflict between nations over land and resources, to conflict between siblings over parents’ attention, even to conflict between a certain infectious virus (that we will not discuss here) and antibodies within our respiratory tract, conflict is part of our everyday life. 

Workspaces are no exceptions

Conflict at work comes in many forms – salespeople may conflict over a client or managers may conflict over the best way to motivate employees. There may even be conflict over the last cup of coffee, which depending on the time of day, could lead to mayhem. These conflicts may occur between individuals, team members or whole teams or departments.

Note: We will focus on conflict within workspaces, rather than organizations or cultures. We will also not focus on bullying or discrimination, as these issues require a dedicated article.

Picture: Stillness InMotion

#1: Conflicts due to competition over scarce resources

Scarcity of resources is perhaps the most common source of conflict.
Interdependence theory proposes a simple explanation for this: Individuals depend on each other to obtain positive and avoid negative outcomes for themselves. Conflict arises when two individual’s interests are in opposition, when a positive outcome for one individual means a negative outcome for another individual. One example of conflict due to scarcity of resources in workspaces is an opportunity for promotion. Here, a positive outcome for the individual who gains the promotion means a negative outcome for the other applicants. 

These kinds of situations encourage competition between teams, which may motivate employees and increase productivity. However, the lines between conflict and competition are blurry, with an environment that allows or encourages competition being the perfect breeding ground for conflict. 

When competition leads to conflict

Competition in workspaces can lead to interpersonal conflict (see #2), if competing individuals use tactics such as attacking the reputation of their rivals (e.g., with gossip), or task conflict (see #3) if there is a different understanding of how resources are supposed to be distributed (e.g., due to confirmation or self-serving biases).

3 ways to avoid competition spilling over into conflict

Be transparent.
Whether it be bonuses, equipment, or opportunities for promotion, transparency is of utmost importance. If possible, be clear about processes, procedures and expectations (e.g., criteria for bonuses).

Clearly communicate.
There are reasons for decisions. Clearly communicate them to all parties involved.

Be fair and objective.
Be as fair and objective as possible, avoid behaviors such as nepotism and favoritism.  

Picture: Stillness InMotion

#2: Interpersonal conflicts due to social identity and reputation

Humans have a powerful drive to cultivate and protect a positive view of the self to preserve their self-esteem. This is important for one’s belief in the ability to accomplish their goals. How people define themselves varies. Some people may define themselves by clothes they wear (if their self-identity is influenced by their appearance), the car they drive (if their self-identity is influenced by their wealth), or their views on environmental and social issues (if their self-identity is influenced by their moral and political ideologies). One’s view of the self is strongly linked to their social identity, how they perceive themselves within any group that they are part of (this can range from nationality, to the football team they support).

If people feel their self-identity under threat, they will go to great lengths to preserve a positive view of themselves. The classic example of a situation in which conflict arises due to an individual’s need to preserve a positive self-identity is in response to an insult. If an individual gets insulted by someone who directly intends to hurt their feelings, they may retaliate angrily. It goes without saying that these kinds of situations stem from unprofessionalism and should not be tolerated in workspaces. 

Individuals ‘taking things personally‘ is a more common source of workspace conflict, and navigating these kinds of situations is less straightforward. Here, one person may take a comment or criticism as a threat to their self identity. For example: If someone’s self identity is defined by their job role, they can take constructive criticism about their performance personally. The same happens when someone whose self identity is defined by their ideological views gets offended during a conversation about politics.

“ I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation”

Joan Jett

On the contrary to Joan Jett, people are driven to cultivate and protect a positive reputation. Our self identity relates to how we see ourselves, our reputation relates to how others see us.  From being invited to a party to being chosen for a promotion, our reputation influences how other people behave towards us. Managing our reputation allows us to influence how other people interact with us, both individually, and as members of a particular group. If someone develops a reputation as a friendly manager, they want employees to feel comfortable around them. A reputation as a tough manager leads to employees following our rules. 

In workspaces, one’s reputation is directly linked to success, so of course individuals will fiercely defend their own reputation. When it comes to competition over limited resources (like promotions), individuals may try to damage each other’s reputation to disadvantage the other and better their own position. We know this as gossip, rumors, or even public insults. Someone for example can tell other team members their competitor made a big mistake at work, to make them seem incompetent and unsuitable for the promotion. The irony here is, these kinds of situations often spiral into conflicts that damage the reputations of both individuals. 

4 ways for managers to minimize interpersonal conflicts

Foster respectful and inclusive workspaces.
This should already start on top, in the highest management. Lead by example.

Encourage fairness.
Competition should be embraced, but it’s inevitable that fairness is encouraged and offensive and malicious behavior is not tolerated. 

Understand and be sensitive.
On a smaller scale, understanding and sensitivity towards those we interact with goes a long way. Strive to understand those you work with. What motivates them? How do they define themselves?

Communicate mindfully.
Communicate important messages clearly and mindfully to avoid offending someone.

Picture: Frank Busch

#3: Task conflicts due to cognitive biases and lack of knowledge

“Our modern skulls house a stone age mind”

John Tooby & Leda Cosmides. 

The human mind, for all its glory, evolved to allow our historical selves (i.e., cavemen) to make fast approximations rather than optimal decisions. These were basically needed to find food and shelter, avoid predators, and produce and protect our offspring in volatile environments. As a result, there are many holes in our decision-making, known as cognitive biases, which stem from our evolutionary need to satisfice – i.e., to make ‘good-enough’ decisions rather than optimal ones.

The 4 most common biases in workspaces

  • the anchoring bias – giving too much weight to the first piece of information in a decision (e.g., basing a negotiation around the first offer)
  • the availability bias – giving too much weight to information that is recent in our memory (e.g., a manager basing an appraisal on one recent bad review rather than consistent good reviews throughout the year)
  • self-serving bias – attributing positive events to ourselves and negative events to external factors (e.g., a salesperson believing they perform well due to their own skills, and perform poorly due to low market confidence)
  • confirmation bias – seeking information that confirms our pre-existing views rather than objectively (e.g.,  attending more to positive than negative feedback from a focus group about a product that we believe will succeed)

Our thoughts and decisions are riddled with these biases. Objectively correct answers such as “What is the shortest way from A to B?” provide enough knowledge to make the perfect decision. 

However, issues that need more complex reasoning or are just a matter of taste can result in opposing views, all of which are likely flawed. Combine this with the fact that we routinely overestimate our own skill and knowledge (which is known as ‘the dunning-kruger effect‘), and the fact we are driven to protect our views and beliefs to preserve our self esteem and reputation. This leads to conflict. If we now add long-hours, high pressure, and too much caffeine and we have a Michelin star level recipe for workspace conflict. 

Properly managed, these situations can be productive. Diverse knowledge and viewpoints allow individuals to use the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ to make better decisions than they would do alone.

3 ways to reduce or even leverage task conflicts 

Be aware of biases.
The awareness of these kinds of biases is important – everyone in the room should acknowledge that they probably don’t know as much as they think they do.

Value different perspectives.
In a group, we should be aware that there are valuable, different perspectives and the combination of these perspectives may lead to better decisions than those made alone – two (or more) heads are better than one! 

Communicate respectfully.
Finally, task conflicts should not become interpersonal conflicts. Individuals should not be reprimanded for their comments in a discussion, and everyone should feel like their input is valued. Respectful interaction is of utmost importance.

Picture: Chris Hardy

Examples for conflicts – and how to solve them

Example 1
Two members of a customer service team are competing over a promotion to a management position. Person A spread the rumor that person B often skips important paperwork in order to save time and leave work early. Person B found out about the rumor and angrily confronted person A. This started a workspace argument that was unsettling for everyone and distracted them from their work for the rest of the day.  This is a classic example of a resource conflict (see #1), that spilled over into an interpersonal conflict (see #2). Person B tried to damage the reputation of person A in order to better their own position with respect to the promotion, and person A retaliated angrily. 

How to prevent this kind of conflict.

  1. Foster respect and fairness.
    In workspaces that value respect and fairness , it’s less common for those situations to occur in the first place.
  2. Set clear boundaries.
    Make sure everybody knows that such behavior is not tolerated in your workspace and will have consequences for those who mistreat others.
  3. Ensuring confidentiality.
    With respect to individuals, make sure to treat applications for internal roles confidential. If you, on the other hand, want to stimulate the competition, communicate this clearly. 

How to solve the conflict.

  1. Educate.
    Consult the relevant disciplinary guidelines with respect to this issue, and also help to educate person A to help them behave more appropriately in future. 
  2. Review workspace culture.
    Review your workspace culture to ensure you are doing as much as possible can to foster a fair and respectful work environment. If you find holes, plug them.

Example 2
A finance manager (person A) and a warehouse manager (person B) are discussing the best way to replenish stock in a warehouse. 
The finance manager sees this through his ‘finance lens‘. He believes they should buy the stock in bulk as this is the cheaper option, since there’s an instruction from C level management to save money wherever possible. The warehouse manager’s priority is his workers. He believes that the stock should be replenished in smaller amounts on a daily basis as this saves storage space, since his workers cannot do their job as efficiently as too much stock gets in their way. 
The finance manager stated that instructions from C level management should be prioritized over the opinions of warehouse staff. The warehouse manager takes this as meaning that white-collar workers should be valued more than blue-collar workers. This results in a heated argument and no decisions are made. 

This is a task conflict (see #3) that ended up an interpersonal conflict (see #2). 
Both parties are guilty of availability bias – their reasoning was influenced by information that was most available to them (i.e., their job role). They also showed confirmation bias by seeking only information that confirmed their existing beliefs. This escalated into conflict when the warehouse manager took the finance manager’s comment about prioritizing C level management’s decisions as a threat to their social identity as a blue-collar worker, even though it was not intended as an insult.

How to prevent this kind of conflict.

  1. Be aware of biases.
    Being aware of one’s biases leads to less attachment to one’s own beliefs.
  1. Understand the other person.
    Try to slip into the other person’s shoes and take their perspective more seriously. 
  2. Reflect your own way of thinking.
    Take time to reflect your standpoint, don’t rush on decisions. If there had been no interpersonal conflict, this may have eventually resulted in an effective discussion. 
  3. Communicate mindfully.
    The interpersonal conflict also could have very easily been avoided if the finance manager had worded their message in a way that is sensitive to the warehouse manager’s identity as a blue-collar worker.

How to solve the conflict.

  1. Hear both parties.
    Make sure everybody in a conflict is heard and understood.
  1. Value different opinions.
    Make both parties understand their opinions are valuable for decision making.
  1. Foster a transparent decision making process.
    When it comes to decision making, it’s of utmost importance that everybody understands the reasons for the decision.
  2. Communicate mindfully.
    Make sure to communicate on eye level with everyone who’s involved in the process. Mindful communication should also be encouraged, not only to avoid conflict, but also to ensure a productive discussion. 

(Unfortunately) conflicts can not be avoided

In the end conflicts arise for all sorts of reasons, many of which cannot be avoided. However, we can take steps to minimize conflict. We should communicate as clearly and respectfully as possible. We should also be aware of our own biases and take time to reflect on our thoughts and decisions. Finally, we should foster respectful working relationships and encourage fairness. 

For sure, it’s sometimes not to avoid making decisions that are not favored by all parties involved. In the end, effective communication is about much more than delivering words – the manner in which a message is delivered communicates as much as the message itself.


Sources and reading material

De Dreu, C. K., & Gelfand, M. J. (2008). Conflict in the workspace: Sources, functions, and dynamics across multiple levels of analysis.

Hogg, M. A. (2003). Social identity. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (pp. 462–479). The Guilford Press.

Raihani, N. (2021). The social instinct: How cooperation shaped the world. Random House.

Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. Bantam.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

About Luke McEllin

Picture: Central European University

Luke is a social psychologist whose research focuses on the psychological and economic factors involved in social interaction. Specifically, he focuses on how the nonverbal signals present in our behaviour (ranging from our clothes to our body language) influence our cooperative interactions with those around us.


PhD Cognitive Science, Central European University


Postdoctoral Fellow at the Social Mind Center and the Department of Cognitive Science at Central European University, Vienna


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