What Is Motivational Conflict?

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Motivation in the workplace looks at “why.” Why does one employee thrive in a particular task while another stumbles? Why does Candidate A go all out to earn a position while Candidate B shows no interest? The employee’s motivation guides his decisions and actions. The employee suffers from motivational conflict when the desire to act conflicts with some other emotion or motivation.


Approach/avoidance describes the response of an employee whose desire for the higher salary of a promotion is countered by reluctance to take on more responsibility or to change hours. Unless the promised reward increases beyond the desire to avoid the change, the employee may remain caught in a dilemma and unable to act.


When confronted with two equally attractive choices, the employee may be caught in an approach/approach conflict. Unless she can find some reason to choose one situation over the other, she may be unable to move forward. A choice between seniority in one position or being a more junior member of a department working on a project of great interest to her in another slot exemplifies this type of conflict.


Two equally undesirable choices trigger an avoidance/avoidance conflict. The employee must choose between two unwanted outcomes. This situation occurs in poor economies when management asks staff to accept salary cuts or work longer hours. The choice becomes a case of “the lesser of two evils” rather than “best choice.”


An employer can use the awareness of motivational conflict to build a stronger workforce. Discuss the situation with the employee and learn which of the three situations best describes his feelings. Take steps to shift the equilibrium of the conflict and allow him to make a decision. Use an understanding of motivational conflict to negotiate a solution. If one of the outcomes is more beneficial to the company, how can management make that the more desirable choice?


By applying principles of motivational conflict resolution, an employer or manager can use company resources to his best advantage. Supply the employee with what she needs to make a decision in the company’s favor. The solution may take other forms than financial remuneration. In the examples above, the first employee may be willing to take on the greater workload if his work schedule can allow him to spend less time on the commute by traveling off-peak hours or telecommuting one day a week. The second one might decide to stay where her seniority will best benefit the company if she can consult on the interesting project. Realizing that no job is less desirable than the other two options may help employees agree to work longer hours without an increase in pay.


Not every situation affords a tidy solution. Some conflicts cannot be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Use discretion when negotiating through the situations. Seek a mutually beneficial outcome.


About the Author

Mary Beth Magee began her writing career with an article in the "New Orleans Times-Picayune" more than 40 years ago. She has been published in local and national media, including "Real Estate Today" and "Just Praising God." Magee holds a Bachelor of Science in psychology, with a focus on adult learning, from Elmhurst College.

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