Find Mediators Near You:

What Are the Sources of Workplace Conflict?

Extract #1 from Workplaces That Work: A Guide to Conflict Management in Union and Non-Union Work Environments (Aurora: Canada Law Book, 2006)

The effective management of workplace conflict requires an understanding of the nature and sources of conflict in the workplace. Conflict occurs when there is a perception of incompatible interests between workplace participants. This should be distinguished from disputes. Disputes are merely a by-product of conflict. They are the outward articulation of conflict. Typical disputes come in the form of formal court cases, grievances, arguments, threats and counter threats etc. Conflict can exist without disputes, but disputes do not exist without conflict. Conflict, however, might not be so easily noticed. Much conflict exists in every workplace without turning into disputes.

The first step in uncovering workplace conflict is to consider the typical sources of conflict. There are a variety of sources of workplace conflict including interpersonal, organizational, change related, and external factors.


Interpersonal conflict is the most apparent form of conflict for workplace participants. It is easy enough to observe the results of office politics, gossip, and rumours. Also language and personality styles often clash, creating a great deal of conflict in the workplace. In many workplaces there are strong ethno-cultural and racial sources of conflict as well as gender conflict. This may lead to charges of harassment and discrimination or at least the feeling that such things exist. People often bring their stresses from home into the office leading to further conflict. An additional source of workplace conflict can be found in varying ideas about personal success. The strong drive for work related achievement in some participants can clash with participants who do not emphasize work-related success in their lives.

There are a variety of ways to uncover such sources of conflict, including the use of personality testing instruments like Myers-Briggs, Thomas-Kilman, FIRO-B, and Personality Dynamics Profiles. In addition to this, confidential surveys, interviews and focus groups can be a good way of uncovering interpersonal sources of conflict.


There are a number of organizational sources of conflict. Those relating to hierarchy and the inability to resolve conflicting interests are quite predominant in most workplaces. Labour/management and supervisor/employee tensions are heightened by power differences. Differences in supervisory styles between departments can be a cause of conflict. Also there can be work style clashes, seniority/juniority and pay equity conflict. Conflict can arise over resource allocation, the distribution of duties, workload and benefits, different levels of tolerance for risk taking, and varying views on accountability. In addition, conflict can arise where there are perceived or actual differences in treatment between departments or groups of employees.

A thorough review of the workplace is suggested for such sources of conflict. Again surveys, interviews and focus groups can help reveal these sources of conflict. Additionally, organizational sources of conflict can be predicted based upon best practices from similar organizations. All organizations experience such conflict. Much can be learned from the lessons of similar organizations who have made a study of this source of conflict.


The modern workplace has significant levels of stress and conflict related to change-management and downsizing. Technological change can cause conflict, as can changing work methodologies. Many workplaces suffer from constant reorganization, leading to further stress and conflict. In line with reorganization, many public and non-profit organizations suffer from downloading of responsibilities from other organizations.

Workplace analysts should review the history of the particular organization, reaching back as far as 10 years to determine the level of churn that has taken place. Generally speaking, the more change and the more recent the change, the more likely there will be significant conflict.

External Factors

External factors can also lead to conflict in the workplace. Economic pressures are caused by recession, changing markets, domestic and foreign competition, and the effects of Free Trade between countries. Conflict arises with clients and suppliers effecting customer service and delivery of goods. Also public and non-profit workplaces in particular can face political pressures and demands from special interest groups. A change in government can have a tremendous impact, especially on public and non-profit organizations. Funding levels for workplaces dependent upon government funding can change dramatically. Public ideologies can have an impact on the way employees are treated and viewed in such organizations.

To look for external factors of conflict, have a review of the relationships between the subject organization and other organizations. Companies or government departments that have constant relationships with outside organizations, will find this to be a major source of conflict for workplace participants.

In Workplaces That Work, there is a convenient check-list and advice to help the analyst reveal the prevailing sources of workplace conflict. To learn more, the reader can go to


Blaine Donais

Blaine Donais B.A., LL.B., LL.M. (ADR), RPDR, C. Med., author of Workplaces That Work, published by Canada Law Book, has spent many years working with public and private sector professionals. He is President and Founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute, Conflict Management Solutions. He has represented professionals as a labour… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Moving The Goalposts – How To Craft A Mediator’s Proposal

As a professional mediator, some of my most challenging and, yes, enjoyable moments have come when I've been able to go "under the line." That is to say, I've been...

By Alec Wisner

An Alternative to Colosseum of Family Court

When I passed the bar in 1974, I went back to see one of the district judges who had urged me to go to law school in 1971 when I...

By Stephen Erickson

Janet Rifkin Wins Follett Award

The Association for Conflict Resolution will honor Janet Rifkin with Mary Parker Follett Award at its 9th Annual Conference in Atlanta, GA, October 7-10, 2009. Rifkin was nominated for the...