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Conflict In The Workplace:

February 2006

Conflict In The Workplace: Try A Little Give And Take

Conflict can lead to the misery of war and oppression and destruction of whole countries. It can also inflict countless damage in the workplace. Jean de Bruyne, organisational psychologist and owner of Auckland-based QED Services, says, though conflict comes in many forms, being able to give and take is one of the keys to reducing conflict in the workplace.

Quarrels and disputes between individuals are common causes of distress within families, friendships and organisations and arise whenever people struggle against each other instead of working together in harmony.

In the workplace conflict not only can affect how those individuals perform, it can pervade an entire organisation with detrimental effects on its productivity, culture and success.

It's part of being a human that we clash over matters of principle, religious beliefs, grievances, attaining power or simply approaching a task in incompatible ways. Businesses and their staff members cannot afford to ignore conflict or let it wear them down. Resolving issues surrounding conflict will reduce its impact on productivity – and morale.

When discussing conflict in the workplace it's useful to consider its many forms.

• Individual or 'inner' conflict

This is where a person asks themselves important questions such as: "Should I do this?"; "Should I work here?"; "Should I speak my mind?"

• Group conflict

This may manifest as competition between rival firms or sports teams.

• Personal conflict

Often people just don't get on, seem to have very different personalities, or tend to clash. This conflict can occur between work colleagues, managers, clients, suppliers, and so on.

• Inter-department conflict

Where divisions of the same organisation work against each other instead of co-operatively.

To understand how to minimise conflict, consider three of the main urges that drive us as humans:

1. To reproduce

2. To learn

3. To reciprocate.

The urge to reproduce diminishes with time, but the learning and reciprocity urges are with us for life. This is useful when managing conflict.

Reciprocity, or give and take, is a practice that can be used to dissipate or avoid conflict in an organisation. Seeking a compromise, or accepting potential areas of conflict as complementary rather than opposing is a healthier option. Some dub reciprocity as the boomerang effect: what goes round comes round.

Examples of reciprocity in an organisation may be where an employee is punctual, conscientious and pleasant to work with, but is slightly less productive than his colleagues. Giving a little on the daily production targets might mean gaining a lot over the longer-term because he is reliable and committed.

A chief executive may ask her managers to dedicate extraordinarily long hours on a special short-term project and, far from being resentful, they are happy to oblige in the knowledge that she appreciates their contribution to the finished product. They are confident their efforts will result in higher pay or enhanced career opportunities.

The potential for conflict rises during times of increased workload (e.g. pre-Christmas) or during transitions such as change of ownership, restructure and change in strategic direction. With careful management, however, it can be minimised.

Our online quiz can reveal more about individual conflict management styles, whether that is to be assertive in situations of conflict or to suppress strong feelings. The survey can be found at:


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