What are the new sources of conflict at work?

Posted 21 October 2022 by
Kevin Wood, The Myers-Briggs Company

When thinking about conflict at work, how aware are you of the different types of conflict? 

And, looking ahead, what are the new sources of conflict likely to be?

Three types of conflict

In the Managing Conflict episode of The Myers-Briggs Company Podcast, Dr. Gail Fann Thomas talks about three types of conflict: task, process, and interpersonal conflict.

Task conflict is influenced by the role a person holds within an organization. The amount of responsibility, influence, and authority a person has shapes the type of tasks that concern them. It shapes the timeframe, too. Different roles have different priorities. 

While many teams prioritize tasks, it’s the teams that also focus on process who tend to perform better. High performing teams have a higher awareness of the people on the team—their strengths and values, for example—and make best use of them. 

In contrast, lack of awareness could lead to misallocating resources or disregarding people’s strengths. Not only does this dampen performance but it might fuel interpersonal tensions which prove damaging in the long run. 

The biggest causes of conflict

From our latest research (Conflict at Work, 2022), poor communication was the most chosen cause of conflict. The second most chosen cause was lack of role clarity. 

This raises a point about personality type. Communication style is very much influenced by personality type, and ‘lack of clarity’ suggests communication issues here too. Given that communication features so highly in what people think causes conflict, it stands that personality type awareness and development could be a useful measure for resolving or even preventing some conflict at work. 

For Dr. Fann Thomas, however, it’s task conflict that has the greatest ‘yield.’ 

“Research is pretty clear that there is a sweet spot on the amount of [task] conflict you want to have,” she says in the podcast. “Not too little, not too much, but enough to be able to surface differences and then work through those in a positive way…what we want to try to do as much as possible is minimize interpersonal conflict and process conflict and then try to hit that sweet spot on task conflict. 

“And even within the timeline of the project, there can be better times to be able to surface those differences. That's what we call conflict management.” 

Other sources of conflict

Being able to identify conflict types is one part of successful conflict management. Being alert to bigger trends and developments that create and encourage difference is another. 

Here are three areas to think about when considering conflict management: 

1. Millennials and multiple generations

“It’s not uncommon in an organization now to have three or four generations in teams,” notes Dr Thomas in the conflict podcast, “and so that's going to bring up areas of conflict. Younger employees are being promoted and are supervising older employed people—people who've been around longer or who are older than they are.”

Those generations may well have different values and conventions when it comes to work and workplace relations. That’s not to say that one generation is right and the other is wrong, even though it might feel that way sometimes. It’s about honestly acknowledging that there are differences and they will be thrown together.

This point is supported by a 2018 article by Forbes magazine. In How Millennials Are Changing the Way We View Leadership, they write, “The most notable change will be the way we approach and view leadership. Authoritarian leadership is out, and inclusive leadership is in. The emerging trend in leadership is a manager who directs, not commands.”

2. Diversity and inclusion

Diversity initiatives are a welcome part of people development strategies in organizations. But for diversity to work, we first need inclusion. Diversity cannot happen without it. And the impact of greater inclusion is…greater difference. 

It’s the very essence of an inclusive culture. 

But just because this type of difference is coming from the right place doesn’t mean that people know how to work with it. As we’ve written before, inclusive behaviors need to be learned and developed—they can’t be assumed. Unconscious bias plays a role here. 

The more inclusive a manager, leader, or organizational culture, the greater the need for conflict management skills that overcome bias and let difference thrive. It’s part of the territory. 

3. Permanent change

Change brings questions like ‘what should we do,’ ‘why are we doing it,’ and ‘how do we do this.’ All of these can generate conflicting viewpoints. Change management is strongly tied to conflict management.

And if change is permanent, which it seems to be, then the potential for conflict is permanent too. After all, change is—by definition—‘to make someone/something different.’ 

If we accept that difference is the starting point of conflict, then conflict management becomes a mandatory skill in our fast-moving world.

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