Tension at Work? Find the Root Cause


Q: I supervise a group of about 20 employees. We’re a diverse group, and have a variety of ethnicities and races as well as a wide range of personal lifestyles, folks with kids and without, single parents, straight and gay. Different ages. It’s a healthy snapshot of the modern workplace. Most of the time, we all get along fine. Sometimes however I can sense an underlying tension. When I dig deeper, the issues seem to be petty, and grudging. Not anything substantial I can address. How should I deal with an environment that’s not quite hostile yet feels chilly?

A: What you’re describing sounds like there may be some unresolved conflict among staff which they’re unable to resolve on their own. When people don’t know how to deal with conflict in a healthy professional way (very few of us do), they sometimes resort to pettiness, passive aggressiveness and holding grudges.

I’d categorize your situation as an example “interpersonal conflict” between individuals as opposed to “group conflict” (when marketing feuds with accounting).

Conflict resolution experts tell us there are 12 root causes of interpersonal conflict, and surprise, many of those can be acerbated by diversity.

Let’s look at some root causes:

Values – Different perceive the world differently. These incongruent views are traceable to upbringing, culture, race, experience, education, socio-economic class. We generally respond best to people who’re most like us because we can understand their behavior better.

Bias – This means that one person may clash with another based simply on how he/she feels about that person based on personality or prejudice.

Sensitivity  – When someone easily feels hurt or attacked by criticism or other interpersonal directness, because of low self-esteem, insecurity, or previous conflict.

Misunderstanding –  Often, the instances that look like interpersonal conflict are actually communication breakdown. If not attended to with care, communication can fail. If it does, a listener’s unwarranted inferences about a speaker’s intent often create inter-personal conflict.

Unfulfilled Expectations – These contribute to many of the above. Unfulfilled expectations are the ultimate cause of divorce, firings, and other forms of relational breakdown. The major reason that expectations go unfulfilled is that they are unreasonable, inappropriate, too numerous, or unstated.

Do these sound like they may be at the root of your problem?

Luckily, there are ways to address conflicts methodically, next week I’ll offer suggestions on what can be done about it.  Stay tuned.

Originally published on HR Box blog.




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