What Are the 4 Causes of Conflict?

by Annie Sisk - Updated July 23, 2018
It may be easier to handle conflict if you understand its causes.

Conflict is inevitable whenever people work together. However, it may be easier to resolve workplace disagreements when you understand the causes of conflict. The types of conflict that result may also vary, depending on the intensity of the parties’ feelings and convictions. Workplace disagreements can occur when people have opposing personalities or hold differing ideas. Conflict frequently results from a disagreement about task prioritization or the process to be followed to achieve a specific goal. Understanding the sources of conflict in any specific set of circumstances can help managers and team leaders work towards a resolution everyone can live with.

Aims and Methods in Task Completion

Conflict can arise when people have different aims. For example, two coworkers may disagree about the best way to complete a task. Each believing their method to be the superior one, each individual may then feel compelled to defend their choices. This type of conflict is particularly common in situations where a deadline is pressing. If the deadline is met, quality will suffer. If quality standards are maintained, the deadline will not be met. When one team member is willing to sacrifice timeliness and the other believes quality should be sacrificed, the resulting conflict in some ways cuts to the heart of the nature and mission of the business itself.

Competing or Disparate Goals

Conflict may also arise where the goals of the individuals involved differ or are contradictory in nature. Individuals have their own needs. They set goals, create agendas and make decisions based on those needs. The business itself also has established goals and objectives. At any point in time, any two or more of these goals and objectives may be in actual or perceived conflict with each other.

This type of conflict often occurs when business, departmental or team goals are not clearly communicated by managers and leaders to their employees. As a result, those employees may disagree fundamentally on what the goal actually was. Consequently, conflict arises as they each proceed based on a firm certainty of the correctness of their individual perspectives.

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Ideas, Beliefs and Philosophies

Some of the most heated and entrenched types of conflict stem from a basic difference in ideas, beliefs or philosophies. This has become more evident on a worldwide basis over the last several years, as political disagreements seem to create increasingly wide chasms between polar opposite viewpoints and political partisanship. Additionally, individuals seem to identify themselves by their political beliefs and other key aspects of their identities, creating an inherent conflict with anyone who identifies with different beliefs, parties, nationalities or religions.

Hot button issues such as politics and religion can make even simple disagreements feel like a personal attack on an individual’s worth as a person or value to the company or society as a whole. Understandably, people tend to take attacks on sensitive issues personally and they may find it difficult to separate themselves from their ideas. When these conflicts fester and brew in the workplace, the resulting strife can be deeply divisive and create an atmosphere filled with tension and resentment, even for people not directly involved in the dispute.

Conflicts Based on Personality

Sometimes, a conflict needs nothing more than two strong personalities to come into close contact with each other. Typically, conflicts based on personality differences may seem to be petty and overblown to an outside observer. The initial inciting incident could well involve something relatively insignificant. However, if the parties involved refuse to back down or resolve the difference, the conflict smolders and grows.

To resolve this kind of conflict among coworkers, some creativity may be required. Managers may find it more efficient to reassign one of the participants, in appropriate circumstances. Otherwise, both parties will need to commit to some frank self-assessment. In many cases, a personality conflict arises when individuals spot traits in each other that they’re not comfortable with or especially proud of in themselves.

Other Sources of Conflict in the Workplace

In addition to these four key causes, conflict may be triggered or intensified by a number of other factors. Chief among these is poor communication skills. An inability to explain goals and objectives in a positive, constructive way can foster an unpleasant environment in which serious conflicts can erupt.

Another factor that creates conflict in the workplace is a failure to adapt fair expectations that apply uniformly to all, or which are not communicated clearly to all. Well-adjusted human beings of all ages tend to have a strong internal compass when it comes to what’s fair and what isn’t. When they perceive double standards are at play, or that they are being held to standards which were not clearly communicated to them, they may be less inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt. As a result, conflict is more likely to result from minor disagreements.

About the Author

Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.

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