Sources of Conflict in the Workplace

Sources of conflict in the workplace can manifest due to multiple reasons. These often include:

  • cultural and social differences
  • age barriers
  • clashes of personality (interpersonal)
  • poor communication
  • stress or personal problems
  • conflicting personalities

In addition, ACAS[1] lists problems such as:

  • ineffective or insufficiently trained management
  • unfair treatment
  • unclear job roles
  • poor work environment
  • lack of equal opportunities
  • bullying and harassment
  • unresolved problems from the past


Conflict sources analysed in more detail

Cultural and social differences

In their book ‘Managing Workplace Conflict in the United States and Hong Kong’[2], Catherine Tinsley and Jeanne Brett tell a short story of an example of cultural differences causing conflict in the workplace:

When a Western manager in a U.S.– Chinese joint venture asked a Chinese peer manager for some routine data, he received an equivocal response. The Western manager did not pursue the matter, assuming that he and the Chinese manager would discuss the data sometime in the future. A few days later, the president of the joint venture called the Western manager into his office and informed him that his recent request for data was denied. The Western manager was dumbfounded: Why had the president gotten involved in this relatively trivial matter? The Western manager felt that the president’s involvement reflected badly on his and his peer’s ability to manage conflict. His peer, on the other hand, believed that by involving the president in the matter, she was just following protocol.

In this example, the Western manager assumed that the two would simply settle the disagreement between themselves. However, his Chinese colleague believed that the outcome should be whatever his boss decided, as was expected in his work culture, and approached his boss for permission to provide the data. Meanwhile, the Western manager felt more relaxed about the data and incorrectly assumed that they would simply remedy the problem between themselves. His assumption was incorrect because he didn’t understand the culture of his colleague, and therefore didn’t understand how this would affect the outcome. As a Westerner, he is used to working in a more egalitarian environment and was allowed to make his own decisions, whereas his Chinese colleague worked in a hierarchical culture and would therefore be expected to refer decision making to his upper manager.[3]

Cultural differences have been something I have found the least difficult to deal with in my working life. I was lucky enough to attend a multi-lingual boarding school from the ages of 11 to 16 which was attended by people from all over the world. However, even in today’s UK, this is still an unusual situation for most teenagers. Cultural differences are ingrained in use from a very young age as we learn to develop and socialise, but can quickly escalate into conflict in and outside of the workplace if not suitably understood and managed. Badly managed, cultural differences can undermine workplace creativity and result in a discordant environment[4].

Communication can also be adversely affected if colleagues and customers are unable to understand each other[5], and not just verbally or in writing. Gestures, tone of voice and how we dress can all have an effect as previously discussed in Section 1.1.


Age barriers

Conflict caused by age barriers was one of the first issues I experienced when I started working. At the age of 18 I decided I wanted to give up college and start work, and I found myself a part-time job as an assistant in the IT department of a large wholesaler. The company was moving from a paper format and manual pricing system to a fully digitalised system which would manage stock and automatically re-order products as required. I had no qualifications in IT, but I did have a lot of self-taught experience as I was lucky to have come from one of the first secondary schools which had invested heavily in IT, and so quickly got a handle on how the systems worked. However, problems quickly developed between myself and my colleagues.

My colleagues were all aged 50 plus and most of them had little or no experience working with IT. None of them had a computer at home (many people still didn’t at the time) and although they could handle the basics of scanning products for stock taking, they quickly developed problems uploading the data from the handheld devices to the computer system. They had all originally been based in offices as Buyers, most at the same company for 20 years, and as well as coming to grips with a completely new system they felt their jobs were in jeopardy by the new system. Then there was an 18-year-old who was full of energy and enthusiasm flying though the work.

A few months later, the IT manager was diagnosed with cancer, and an application was advertised for a temporary manager to fill her role whilst she was off work recovering. I applied and was given the role. This was when things became incredibly difficult. My colleagues didn’t want to take orders from an 18-year-old and I didn’t know how to give them. I’d had no training, I was fresh out of school, and in hindsight I didn’t approach them in the best way.

The next few months would be very difficult. There was a lack of communication, one employee left the company and cited me as the reason, and I felt very isolated. Undoubtedly, some of my colleagues felt the same. Eventually I felt I had no option than to leave the company.

In hindsight, poor management was the main cause of the issues I experienced. A lack of training along with my lack of experience resulted in conflict which could have been avoided if managed correctly by senior management.


Clashes of personality

Personality clashes in the workplace are often avoidable, but when left unchecked they can cause considerable psychological stress and can lead to problems of anxiety and depression for those involved.[6]


Stress or personal problems

It’s likely that we will all experience problems at work caused by stress or personal problems at some time in our working careers. Relationship problems, family bereavement, physical illness and mental illness can all play a part in increasing levels of stress.

As much as we are told that personal problems should remain outside of the workplace, the reality is that this will become a problem for most of us at some time or another. People deal with personal problems in different ways. Some people may be outgoing regarding the problems and feel relaxed to discuss them with colleagues and managers. However, some people may be more reserved in their behaviour when dealing with personal issues and become more introvert-becoming more quiet than usual or avoiding any discussions or group work. They may become irritable, emotional, unreliable, and find it difficult to concentrate or shy away from making decisions. This can lead to aggression, short tempers, lack of patience and lack of supports which can all result in conflict.

The same behaviour may be exhibited for people suffering from bereavement:

“Grief impacts on almost every aspect of the bereaved person’s life. It can interfere with their thought processes, concentration and sleep patterns at a time when they may need to make important decisions. Fatigue, anxiety and mood swings are common. Knowing that they are supported by their employer can help to minimise the employee’s stress levels and reduce or avoid periods of sick leave.” – ACAS[7]


Mental Health

The World Health Organisation have stated that by 2020, depression will become the second most important cause of disability in the world[8]. Although mental health has become more widely discussed and understood in the past 20 years, my personal opinion is that there is still much progress to be made both socially and in the workplace in understanding illnesses such as depression. I recently read an article on the Health & Safety Executive’s website by Dr. Paul Litchfield, Chief Medical Offer of BT Group Plc. In the article, Dr Litchfield explained that businesses which fail to take mental health seriously will “not be successful in the 21st century” in today’s fast-growing global market. He goes on to say that line managers must adapt by “reacting appropriately to signs of distress, maintaining contact with people who may be plumbing the depths of despair and constructing practical return to work plans for those recovering from mental illness are the simple things that can prove job saving and, sometimes, even lifesaving”.

Just like any other personal issue, mental illness can result in unusual behaviour patterns. In the case of some mental illnesses such as unmanaged bipolar disorder, there can be mood swings from one extreme to another. All of these issues can result in conflict as colleagues struggle to know how to approach the person who is struggling. How will they react? Will they lose their temper? Why were they so happy about something that had gone wrong? Such questions can add stress to working relationships.


Conflicting personalities

Conflicting personalities in the workplace appear to be common, but can usually be resolved. “We just don’t get on” or “I just don’t like her” are phrases most of us will have heard at some time or another and which will continue if behaviours aren’t changed.

In my experience, conflicts in personality usually come about because one (or both) of the personalities refuse to accept that the other person is different to them, become involved in gossiping or decline to be polite.


Ineffective or insufficiently trained managers

“Do what I say, not what I do!” [this is crap management technique in most environments]

Ineffective managers are often borne from insufficient training. An inefficient manager may result in a department or company underperforming, which can cause conflict by adding stress to workplace relationships between individuals and teams. Over time this can result in colleagues rebuffing a manager which can cause a new individual line of conflict.

Poorly trained managers may find it difficult to handle the day-to-day stresses of work, which can have an adverse effect on relationships if that manager becomes unapproachable or unavailable.

Poorly trained managers may be unclear in their expectations and instructions leading to stresses between staff. This is reinforced by the previously discussed need to communicate clearly.

Ineffective managers will seldom accept that they are wrong, even when they know they are. This behaviour will undoubtedly lead to conflict between working relationships and it can give the impression of ignorance and arrogance.

Insufficiently trained managers will often be unable to recognise negative behaviour in a team before it manifests into conflict and may also lack the skillset required to quash the issue before it becomes problematic. They may also be unable to recognise a weak link in a team, or a person who is failing to pull their weight, both of which can result in conflict between employees as well as leading to the company’s values and goals being overlooked.

An ineffective manager may fail to recognise good work and acknowledge success, which can lead to employees feeling undervalued and possibly result in conflict.

Although managers have to delegate, I have often taken the position that a manager should never ask someone to do something they would not be prepared to do themselves. I also think that it is a great idea for managers to show that they are prepared to roll up their sleeves and get “stuck in” when the going gets tough, which can help prevent the “us and them” culture which sometimes manifests in companies.


Unfair treatment

An important role for managers in the workplace is to instill that colleagues are dealt with fairly, and that all employees treat each other with respect and dignity. Any employee (or group of employees) who believe they are being treated unfairly are likely to become less productive.

The Equality Act 2010 is the main piece of legislation relevant to the Fair Treatment at Work Framework although a number of pieces of other UK and European legislation may be relevant. Only certain types of behaviour by an employer can be unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act, if because of[9]:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

However, there is more to unfair treatment in practical terms and conflict can develop for other reasons, including:

  • Nepotism (favouring relatives or friends at work, especially by giving them jobs)
  • Favouritism (giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another)

For example, I once worked for a company which was family owned. Whilst this was an excellent marketing tool (the company had an almost 100-year history) it meant that any newly available roles were expected to be filled by family members, regardless of the experience of existing staff. It eventually became clear to me that it would be impossible for me to progress into a senior management role within that company which led me to move to a different company to allow me to progress my career further.


Unclear job roles

Unclear job roles are, in my experience, the result of poor planning by management. Unclear job roles create confusion, may increase the risk of accidents, can result in duplication or unnecessary work being carried out or work being forgotten.


Poor work environment

A poor work environment may manifest in two main ways – poor quality working conditions or a hostile environment.

Poor conditions such as noise, damp, heat, poor lighting, etc., can all result in conflict in the workplace especially when staff are left feeling that they are not valued or that their concerns are not being taking seriously. In my industry, asbestos removal, Operatives work under fully controlled conditions which are heavily regulated by the Health & Safety Executive. These regulations specify that Operatives must be provided with breathing apparatus (regulators) which provide them with a fresh and filtered supply of air at all times and we therefore ensure that the respirators that they are supplied with are of the best technical specification available. Removing asbestos can be hot and tiresome work and we therefore want to ensure that our Operatives are given the best tools to enable them to carry out their work. Failure to do so has the potential to result in them feeling undervalued which in turn may develop into conflict.


Lack of equal opportunities

A lack of equal opportunities can lead to resentment within individuals or groups within an organisation, especially if the lack of equal opportunities appears to be due to their ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation.


Bullying and harassment

“Those who can, do.
Those who can’t. bully.” – Ritchie Hicks

Workplace bullying is a persistent pattern of mistreatment from others in the workplace that causes harm[10] and can include such tactics as verbal, nonverbal, psychological, physical abuse and humiliation[11].

Research suggests that 1 in 10 employees are being bullied in the workplace[12], as many as 50 % of bullying victims claim to be bullied by a superior[13]. Workplace bullying can manifest through a number of areas including:

  • racial or ethnic prejudice
  • jealousy
  • abuse by a person with psychological tendencies for deliberately harming and humiliating others[14]
  • physical assault
  • sexual assault
  • gossiping
  • sabotaging work or projects
  • patronising behaviour
  • applying different rules to different people or changing rules on the fly

There is good evidence to suggest that perpetrators of bullying exhibit common (typically negative) personality traits such as narcissism, trait anger, vengefulness and trait anxiety[15].


Racial and ethnic prejudice

I have already touched on cultural barriers, but racial and ethnic prejudice still exists in many companies in the UK and is arguably one of the biggest challenges facing businesses today. On the day of writing, the Equality and Human Rights Commission released a report which said that there is “Entrenched Race Inequality” in the UK both in public and work environments.

Of course, this is an issue not just for business but for society as a whole. Black workers are more than twice as likely to be in insecure forms of employment such as temporary contracts or working for an agency – which increased by nearly 40% for Black and Asian workers, compared with a 16% rise for White workers. This is just one example of how inequality can divide colleagues, has the potential to exploit human rights and results in increased tensions in the workplace.[16]



Harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended and which is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. It can manifest in a number of ways including[17]:

  • spreading malicious rumours
  • unfair treatment
  • picking on someone
  • regularly undermining a competent worker
  • denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities

Harassment becomes illegal when it is related to[18]:

  • age
  • sex
  • disability
  • gender (including gender reassignment)
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation

In my Company, we have a specific document which sets out a clear set of rules which all Employees are expected to adhere to in order to prevent harassment. If any of these are breached, we clearly set out a process for dealing which such cases, including:

  • Expecting an individual solely on the grounds stated above to comply with requirement(s) for any reason whatsoever related to their employment, which are different to the requirements for others.
  • Imposing on individual requirements which are in effect more onerous on that individual than they are on others. For example, this would include applying a condition (which is not warranted by the requirements of the position) which makes it more difficult for members of a particular race or sex to comply than others not of that race or sex.
  • Victimisation of an employee.
  • Harassment of an employee (which for the purpose of this policy is regarded as discrimination).
  • Any other act or omission of an act, which has as its effect the disadvantaging of an employee or applicant against another, or others, purely on the above grounds. Thus, in all disciplinary matters, as well as consideration for training, promotion etc. – it is essential that merit, experience, skills and temperament are considered as objectively as possible.

We also have a policy which clearly sets out how such cases will be dealt with.


Unresolved problems from the past

Just like our personal relationships, workplace relationships can be damaged if problems are not resolved. Unresolved problems will often leave one (or both) parties feeling aggrieved and it is important that closure is brought to prevent a problem reoccurring, or snowballing into a bigger problem in the future.





[3] Page 363





[8] Page 7 –


[10] Rayner, C. & Keashley, L. (2005). Bullying at work: A perspective from Britain and North America. In S. Fox & P. E. Spector (eds.) Counterproductive work behavior: Investigations of actors and targets (pp. 271-296). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.



[13] – Chapter 4.19


[15] (various credits within article)