A passionate relationship beginning to bloom? No. David
and Susan are two co-workers locked in what seems to be
an incurable conflict at work. Their situation
illustrates how conflict can affect us at our job.
Conflict may not only take a toll on our physical body
(as it did on David’s racing heart), but it often
occupies our thoughts and causes us a great deal of
emotional distress. As we saw in the situation with
David and Susan, conflictual behavior impacts not only
those involved in the conflict, but also those who have
no part in it. As most of us spend approximately
one-third of our adult lives in the workplace, conflict
in this setting can’t be easily dismissed as
unimportant. In fact, failing to address such conflict
may have implications for our “non-working” lives. As a
result, it becomes important for each of us to
understand how conflict arises in the workplace, and
what steps we can take to deal with such conflict.
WHAT CAUSES CONFLICT?
Understanding how conflict arises at work can be very
helpful for anticipating situations that may become
turbulent. While it may seem, at times, that anything
can start a conflict where you work, conflict typically
stems from a limited number of causes.
1) One such cause is incompatible goals between
individuals or groups of individuals at work. For
example, imagine a bank teller being told by the head
teller that rapid service is an absolute must from this
point forward, while the community relation's director
instructs all employees to focus their efforts upon
quality customer contact. One can imagine how quickly
problems could arise between the teller and the head
teller if speed is sacrificed for quality time with the
2) A second source of conflict is the different personal
values we bring to work. It takes very little time, for
example, for employees who enjoy going to happy hour
after work and those who prefer to get home to their
family to begin segregating at work. Such distancing
often carries with it gossiping, suspicion, and
3) The extent to which we depend upon others to complete
our work is a third factor which can contribute to
conflict. Certainly, conflict would be rare if your task
is to copy a report and file it, and you have your own
copy machine. However, if you are waiting for someone
else to make the copies and the records room is
pressuring you for the report, one could see that the
opportunity for conflict begins to expand.
4) Scarce resources are a fourth source of conflict in
the workplace. Whether the resource in question is
office space, supplies, the boss’ time, or the budget
fund, we all require our share in order to meet job
demands. Ask yourself what happened the last time you
were unable to gain access to something you needed at
work. Perhaps you experienced some of the “symptoms”
that David and Susan experienced.
5) The power distribution at work can be a fifth source
of conflict. We have all known people who seem to wield
their power in inappropriate ways. However, individuals
sometimes “step on other’s toes” inadvertently as they
try to complete their own tasks. In addition, some
individuals or even entire departments may be viewed as
providing a more valuable service to the organization
than do others. In such a case, resentment can often
arise, laying the foundation for conflict.
6) A final source of conflict to be addressed here is
one with which most people can readily identify
unpredictable policies. Some organizations seem
notorious for continually changing their policies.
Others have no policies at all, or so it would seem. You
may experience this in the form of regular office
meetings becoming irregular, or being told that you are
violating a policy which you thought you were abiding by
a week ago such as the way you dress. In any case, the
absence of clear policies, or policies which are
continually changing, create an environment of
uncertainty and subjective interpretation which can
leave one feeling vulnerable and helpless.
UNDERSTANDING AND HANDLING ANGER
Hopefully, some of the mystery surrounding why conflict
occurs at work has been removed at this point. However,
why each of us personally becomes angry may be a bit
unclear. In a sense, we are all like cans of soda. If we
get shaken or agitated and pop our top, we explode. In
this case, what shakes us up is physical arousal. This
may come about from being hungry, hurried, stuck in
traffic, having a sore back, etc. You may know you are
aroused by your rapid heartbeat, cold hands, muscle
tightness, or shallow, rapid breathing. Try to become
familiar with how you experience physical arousal.
Some of the following techniques can be useful in
reducing that arousal:
1) Take a few minutes to slow down and deepen your
2) Tense and release your muscles.
3) Find a quiet room and spend a few minutes imagining a
4) Exercise (e.g. walk on your lunch hour or break).
The second component which is necessary for anger is
known as a trigger thought. Just as pulling the tab of a
shaken soda can will cause it to explode, these thoughts
are sufficient to “set us off” once we’re aroused. In
most cases, these thoughts fall into two categories
“shoulds” and “blamers”. In the case of shoulds, we may
think that things at work “should” be more equitable, or
that a coworker “should” get paid back for what they
did. In the case of blamers, we may view others as the
cause of our current difficulties.
In either case, these thoughts are irrational because
they demand behavior of others that is flawless or which
is in accord with only our wishes. When we allow these
thoughts to go unchallenged, they can trigger our anger
towards others. As a result, it is important to work on
recognizing these irrational thoughts and challenge
Listed below are a couple of ideas to help you with
1) Write out your thoughts when you are angry and ask
yourself if they are rational.
2) Talk to a trusted friend about your thoughts and
solicit their feedback.
Of course, some conflicts at work simply require you to
confront an individual. The most effective way for you
to meet the needs you have is to use what is known as an
“assertive” approach, rather than an aggressive or
passive approach. Being assertive does require effort
and practice, but most find it to be extremely helpful
in addressing their needs.
Below are some points you may find helpful when you
practice and eventually confront an individual:
1) Think ahead about what it is you want to address.
2) Set a time to talk with the individual.
3) Deal with one and only one topic at a time.
4) Be brief and specific.
5) Phrase your complaint as a specific behavior which
the person can recognize and work toward changing (e.g.
“I would like you to arrive to work on time,” rather
than, “I would like you to be more conscientious.”)
In the end it can often seem easier to simply avoid
conflict than confront it. However, this approach will
not satisfy the needs you have to make your workplace a
productive and pleasant environment. By better
understanding how conflict and anger arise, and
practicing handling such conflict in an assertive way,
it can become far less intimidating and be an aspect of
work you can learn to manage rather than have it manage
Copyright © 2000 by Excel At Life, LLC
Permission to reprint this article for non-commercial use is granted if it includes this entire copyright
and an active link.
One rarely sees David and Susan more than a few feet
from each other at work. The thought of Susan increases
David’s heart rate, while Susan’s thoughts do likewise
every time David is near. The way they look into one
another’s eyes tells their co-workers, “You don’t really
belong here.” Even their boss feels a bit awkward when
the heat between them borders on the inappropriate.