28 Feb 2017

Can workplace conflict be avoided?

STEP’s HR Consultant Caroline takes a look at organisational conflict theory

Conflict in the employment relationship occur when the needs, goals and motivations of an individual differ or ‘conflict’ with those of the organisation. These needs are invariably shaped by an individual’s circumstance because the way we perceive the world around us are rooted in our own experiences. As such, two people looking at the same thing will draw very different conclusions about what they are observing as they draw on different assumptions and values when evaluating what they are seeing. In management theory, this is referred to as ‘frame of reference’ and is concerned with how people use ‘reference points’ when making sense of the world which is based on their own life experiences. Workplace conflict in this context can be explained based on three different assumptions. The first assumes that the employment relationship is inherently cooperative and any conflict which occurs is a deviation from the normal working relationship and must be caused by trouble-makers. The second concludes that conflict at work is inevitable. The third  is based on Karl Marx’s ideas of the class struggle and assumes that the inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power means that ‘workers’ are simply forced to accept the status quo, meaning that there is always conflict but no means of resolving it.

From an HR Consultant’s perspective, it is easy to favour theories based on the first assumption because it recognises the different motivations in people and aims, perhaps in its naivety, to ‘control’ employees’ needs by trying to meet them in a way that favour both the individual and the organisation. However, the issue is that theories based on this view assumes that the needs of both can be met, and that any individual shares a common interest with the organisation in reaching a common goal. However, people’s needs are continuously competing with one another and they change depending on context, as well as over time. An organisation is therefore not only having to manage one person’s competing and continuously changing needs, but it must manage all of its employees competing needs, whilst also always ensuring that the needs of the organisation are being met. I don’t believe there is much scope for assessing the views based in Marxism, even though some of those viewpoints may still be present in some union relationships. However, I believe that conflict is inherent to the employment relationship but that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps more so because it allows issues around the inevitable changing needs and aspirations of any one person to be addressed and dealt with so to try and achieve a mutually beneficial solution. This is equally important for both parties to address in order to ensure success. Further, I think this assumption is important because it takes into consideration the external influences which affect the employment relationship, in that it considers the ever changing political and economic factors contributing to the financial health of any organisation. Therefore, when considering if workplace conflict can be avoided, it is important to look at all the internal and external factors that influence the relationship and by critically evaluating these factors, it seems reasonable to assume that workplace conflict is not avoidable but that conflict itself is beneficial to the relationship because it will ultimately ensure that the strategic objectives of your people meet the strategic objectives of your business.

If you’d like to speak in more detail about the above, or need advice when it comes to conflict in the workplace then please get in touch with STEP HR Advisers Caroline or Vicky on: 01786 463416.