The Seeds of Discord: Antecedents of Conflict

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To understand and manage conflict well, we first must understand what conflict is and its sources or causes. Conflict[footnoteRef:1] can be defined as a serious disagreement or argument, to be incompatible or at a variance, a clash. Everyone experiences conflict at some point in their lives. Conflict is especially prevalent on and among teams. In this context, conflict happens when there is the “perception of incompatible interests between workplace participants” (Donais, 2006). [1: It is important to note that conflicts and disputes are different. Disputes represent an outward manifestation of conflict and are considered a by-product. ]

When we think about conflict as an abstract idea, words like negative, anxious, aggression, and disagreement are probably among the first to come to mind. However, when managed effectively, “conflict in groups can be a transformative element of the group experience and provide much of the energy in group work” (Doel & Kelly, 2014, p. 21). Conflict can encourage group members to consider ideas from different perspectives and even lead to the generation of new ideas. Conflict can be a counterbalance to group think and can lead to important questions about the work of the group. Finally, conflict can lead to group cohesion by opening minds and strengthening relationships between group members and between groups.

Conflict can arise from many sources and knowing the where the conflict originated is the first step in successfully managing the conflict. There are a multitude of reasons for conflict on teams. This chapter will discuss four broad categories of conflict: Style Differences, Trust, Goals and Values, Change and Ambiguity; and provide examples of how these types of conflicts can occur.

Style Differences

Everyone has their own unique style of working and communicating. Some people are proactive, some reactive, some are assertive, and others are more laid back. You will probably work with people whose personalities run the gamut from introverted, harmonious, and agreeable to extroverted, challenging, and assertive. It is this special blend of personalities that can produce great things in terms of group work, however the many personality types and the behaviors they inform can be misunderstood by others, resulting in conflict (LinkedIn Learning, 2018). If positive, these clashes can result in productive cognitive conflict (Walker, Machold, & Ahmed, 2015). This refers to the “discomfort one feels when [their] beliefs, values, or behaviors contradict one another”, represented as process gains (McCarson, n.d.). On the other hand, differences in personality and personal style can lead to an increase of interpersonal animosity, called affective conflict (Burnett, 1993). This conflict is more disruptive to the collaborative nature of group work and can come from areas of personal bias such as socio-economic status, social norms and mores, political leanings, and religious, ethnic, and philosophical values (Burnett, 1993). Leaders can mitigate conflict stemming from clashes of personality by having a sense of their personality and the personalities of their team members. Using one of the multitude of personality assessment inventories, leaders can learn more about their subordinates and more strategically place players with complementary and supplementary personalities and skills, putting the best person or persons in position to do the best job (Schumacher, 2009). Understanding the personalities and styles of a team is key to regulating a supervisor’s leadership style. Left to their own devices, more harmonious personalities tend to sense less conflict within a group while those prone to extraversion “are more likely to use integrating, obliging, compromising, and avoiding styles”, making a leader’s style key to appropriately positioning players and managing team conflict for maximum productivity (Ayub, AlQurashi, Al-Yafi, & Jehn, 2017).


Trust refers to a reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing, in other words, confidence. When considered in the context of a working team, trust can be described in three key ways: competency-based, reliability-based, and vulnerability-based (LinkedIn Learning, 2018). Each of these aspects of trust plays a key role in the occurrence and management of conflict. Competency-based trust describes the confidence in a teammate to competently perform their duties to accomplish the team’s goals (LinkedIn Learning, 2018). Reliability-based trust deals with the confidence in a teammate to keep their promises and honor their commitments (LinkedIn Learning, 2018). Vulnerability-based trust, perhaps the most important facet of trust, is the confidence in a teammate to be their authentic self (LinkedIn Learning, 2018). Vulnerability-based trust, sometimes called affective trust, can have the biggest impact on team success as it is “developed through the mutual exchange of concern and care…” between teammates (Zhu, Newman, Miao, & Hooke, 2013, p. 102).

Trust is built in tandem with a relationship between individuals as they go through shared experience and learn about one another. Trust and distrust are compounded onto one another through these experiences. At the beginning of new relationships, many people show a propensity toward over-trusting those they are unfamiliar with as they have no data that gives a reason towards distrust. Other factors that can increase trust include similar personalities, reputation, and experience (Lewicki & Tomlinson, 2014). These same factors can lead to distrust.

What happens when trust among teammates is at a good level then, someone on the team starts missing deadlines, making mistakes, or lying? Trust is broken. In the process of conflict management, trust is often the first thing to fall, being replaced with distrust. While trust can be repaired through apology, restitution, and a commitment to not repeating the violation in future, this process is more easily said than done (Lewicki & Tomlinson, 2014). Rebuilding trust among teammates can often take more time than initially building trust as confidence in the violator’s competency, reliability, and integrity must be reestablished through additional shared experiences (Lewicki & Tomlinson, 2014).

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Goals and Values

Teams are often assigned goals and values by the organizations they find themselves in. These are delivered via organizational mission, vision, and values statements, strategic plans, and goals that the organization wants to accomplish in a given time frame. These items filter down through the organization’s hierarchical structure to the teams and individuals on those teams.

For example, a local burger restaurant may have a goal of selling one hundred burgers every hour. For every burger above one hundred that a waiter sells, they earn an extra .50₵. So, the waiter’s goal is to sell at least one hundred burgers, with the financial incentive to motivate them to sell more. The restaurant also has quality control checks to ensure that the quality of the product meets organizational standards. To meet their individual goal, a waiter may be tempted to rush through the quality check to quickly sell more burgers. The kitchen manager, who prioritizes quality over sales will ensure that quality checks are performed appropriately. Therefore, there is a certain amount of natural conflict that exists between these two teammates (LinkedIn Learning, 2018). This example of goals can be looked at through the lens of values where the waiter values expediency over quality and the kitchen manager values quality over expediency. When conflict expands into affective conflict, the differences between team members’ goals and values becomes even more pronounced and can serve to drive conflict to further levels of non-productivity (Dobewall & Strack, 2011).

Appropriately managed, the conflict can lead to higher earnings for the waiter and satisfactory quality checks for the kitchen manager. The wide range of literature on conflict management and resolution supports the supposition that “…communication and understanding” between parties is the key to resolving and managing conflicts where goal and value differences are the main force at play (Druckman & Broome, 1991). This open communication will allow team members to align individual goals to the goals of the team.

Change and Ambiguity

We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world and these characteristics can bring about feelings of anxiety and stress, resulting in conflict through the activation of our fight or flight instinct. (LinkedIn Learning, 2018). This is especially common in organizations that experience restructuring or reorganizations as a result of major changes in their field of business, acquisitions and mergers, and changes in leadership. As a result of the activation of this survival instinct, team members can experience a multitude of conditions that lead to additional conflict. Work processes and decisions can take longer; team members can become disengaged or territorial about their projects; and role overload and ambiguity can lead to exhaustion or burn out (Dasgupta, 2012). Large-scale organizational changes often lead to feelings of “role ambiguity and job insecurity, which, in turn, are related to higher exposure to workplace bullying”, i.e. conflict (Baillien & De Witte, 2009). Additionally, ambiguity surrounding organizational change can lead to speculation and gossip, triggering additional conflict through misunderstanding.

ABC Corporation just closed a merge with XYZ Corporation. The employees of XYZ Corporation have heard whispers of the merger for several months, but specific information surrounding the change has not been shared. Workers speculate about the changes that may be implemented as a part of the merger. Since she first heard about the possibility of the merger, Sally has been more secretive about her projects and reluctant to share specifics about her work with anyone but her direct supervisor in an effort to alleviate her feelings of job insecurity. Her logic is that if she is the only one who knows how to do her job or complete her projects, she will not be let go when ABC Corporation takes over the company. During team meetings, she is asked about the status of her projects and becomes defensive and hostile when asked about it by her team mates.

In this example, a large-scale change (in the form of a corporate merger) is coming. Fueled by a lack of information being shared by leadership, employees are left to speculate about their futures with the company, ultimately resulting in feelings of job-insecurity, stress, and hostility between teammates.


Conflict comes in many forms and can be a source of productive, transformative energy or a source of stress and turmoil in the context of a working group. Conflict can well up from many places. Individual differences in personality and style can be serious points of contention, however when leaders strategically place employees with complementary personalities and skills, they can create synergy and productivity. Trust among teammates is paramount. Trust is based on the confidence in one’s teammates to be competent, reliable, and authentic. Initially easily given, it can be very difficult to re-establish if broken or damaged. A constant source of natural tension lies in the conflict between individual goals and values and those of the team or organization. This tension can be easily mitigated through open and honest communication and understanding. Finally, the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world we live in is a constant source of stress, anxiety, and conflict. Organizational change and role ambiguity, if not properly managed at the leadership level, can result in outward manifestations of conflict that include disengagement and hostility. Learning to recognize and understand the sources of conflict is the first step to successful conflict management whose ultimate goal is to strategically leverage conflict to be a source of drive for teams.


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