3 Types of workplace conflict – and a tool to help resolve them

Posted 22 March 2023 by
Vanessa Bradford

5 min. read

Your mind is wired for survival. And while most of us don’t need to fight off wild animals or forage through rough terrain like some of our ancestors did, we can still experience heart-pounding moments in the face of conflict. Think about the last time you had a difficult confrontation with someone. You may have felt your frustration, fear, anxiety, or anger grow as the conversation went on. 

You can thank your body’s innate fight or flight response for that spike in adrenaline. 

Once the interaction was over, you probably thought of all the ways you should have reacted. And that can be frustrating too. Once you walk away, it gets easier to think about a situation more clearly and regret what was said (or left unsaid) in the heat of the moment.

These kinds of interactions are especially draining when they take place at work. The aftermath can range from awkward to infuriating. And it doesn’t just affect the people involved. From the perspective of an HR professional or leader, workplace conflict can cause turnover, absenteeism, missed deadlines, and failed projects.

Fortunately, people can learn to manage conflict better. While you can’t change someone else’s behavior, you can raise their (and your own) self-awareness. Because at the end of the day, the way a person handles a conflict or disagreement is a choice. With the right training and skills, you can help people resolve conflict more effectively.

The Three Types of Conflict: Task, Relationship, Value

First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about how to define conflict. Most people equate it with fighting, arguing, or pointing fingers. While these are certainly ways you might address conflict, here’s the official definition: Conflict is the condition in which people’s concerns (or the things they care about) appear to be incompatible. It’s a situation where one set of opinions, ideas, or perspectives differ from another. 

In the workplace, conflict can happen when there are disagreements over budgets, timelines, work ethics, social justice issues, or change implementation. There are three types of conflict:

1. Task Conflict – This is typically about work assignments. It can include differences of opinion on things like division of resources, policies, employee expectations, interpretation of project details, and more.

2. Relationship Conflict – This is where it gets personal. Relationship conflict typically arises from differences in personality preferences, matters of taste, work style, and default conflict-handling modes.

3. Value Conflict – This originates because of fundamental differences in things like diversity issues, ethics, social norms, politics, and religion. (Of course, it’s better to avoid discussing the last two at work altogether.)

Conflict Can Be Resolved Through Awareness of Interpersonal Behaviors

No matter the type of conflict, certain interpersonal behaviors can help or hurt the situation. Imagine there’s someone at the office who doesn’t typically get invited to after-work social events. While they’ve never expressed interest in these events, and often seem quiet or distant at work, they may actually want to be invited. Part of their distant nature may be instinctive, and part of it may be because they feel resentful for being left out. Either way, their interpersonal behavior doesn’t align with others’ perception of the situation because others assume they wouldn’t be interested.

Fortunately, interpersonal behaviors can be measured and purposely modified using the FIRO-B® (FIRO) assessment. The tool was originally created to help Naval warship teams work together more effectively in high-stress environments. These days, it’s often used for team building, conflict management, communication, leadership development, and more. 

According to psychologist and FIRO developer William Schutz, all of us have three main interpersonal needs: Inclusion, Control, and Affection. Depending on the FIRO framework used, these needs can also be referred to as Involvement, Influence, and Connection (such as when using the FIRO Business® tool). Each of these needs has two sides: the wanted need and the expressed need

Example One: High Wanted Inclusion and Low Expressed Inclusion

If we look at the need for Control/Influence, this describes any of a person’s interpersonal behaviors that indicate responsibility, power, and decision making. Basically, it’s how much someone wants to direct others – or how much they’d like to be perceived as being in charge. If someone has a high need for wanted Control/Influence, it means they’d like for someone else to exert authority. They don’t necessarily want to be the ones to do it. And if someone has a high need for expressed Control/Influence, it means they want to take charge and make the decisions.

Everyone has different interpersonal needs. But most people aren’t aware of what their needs are. 

Think back to the earlier example with the coworker who didn’t get invited to social events. If they were to take the FIRO assessment, they would likely have high wanted Inclusion/Involvement paired with low expressed Inclusion/Involvement. This difference can lead to conflict. But if they knew their interpersonal behavior scores, they could consider what their particular behavior pattern means for how others perceive them. They could also adjust some of their interpersonal behaviors. For example, they could make a point to show more interest in their coworkers’ social activities, hobbies, etc. Likewise, the other employees could adjust their interpersonal behaviors to be more inclusive.

Example Two: High Expressed Control and High Wanted Control

Here's another example: think about the potential interpersonal behavior of a manager with a high need for expressed Control/Influence. They like to give directions and take charge. Imagine this manager has an employee who reports to them. This employee has a high need for wanted Control/Influence. They like when someone tells them exactly what they need to do. These two people probably work well together because one person is giving what the other wants. 

Now consider what might happen if there was a second employee who has a high need for expressed Control/Influence

The manager and this employee may experience a lot more conflict because they both want to exert control and make the decisions. While the manager has the hierarchical authority to do so, the second employee could end up feeling micromanaged. And if the employee becomes too frustrated and disengages, the manager could be left wondering where it all went wrong. 

The FIRO assessment helps in situations like this because it provides people with the self-awareness needed to resolve conflict, reflect on their interpersonal behavior, and make changes for the future. If you’re an HR professional, leadership consultant, manager, or leader of any sort, consider becoming a FIRO Certified Practitioner today.

You May Also Be Interested in These FIRO-B Resources:


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