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Are all conflicts the result of personality clashes or poor behaviour?

While conflicts are impacted by our personality and ways of approaching work and others, systemic issues often play a large role in creating conflicts. Systemic issues or workplace problems exist when an employee, pursuing a legitimate work related goal or task, bumps up against another employee pursuing a legitimate work related goal or task.

The “bump” can result from:

  • ineffective procedures being in place,
  • differing or even oppositional institutional roles and goals,
  • poorly articulated or conflicting departmental purposes and goals,
  • unclear decision-making processes, or
  • lack of needed resources.

These are just a few examples of the many ways that working to get our job done can place us in conflict with another worker – trying to get their job done. While the personalities of the employees may impact how the conflict is addressed, the conflict is inherent or predictable in the situation.

Examples of systemic problems include:

  • an overloaded support staff member responding to multiple requests from faculty with no clear guidelines for which work is most important,
  • timetabling in a department where the process and the priorities are unclear,
  • differing perspectives on how to accomplish a joint task with no agreed upon decision-making process,
  • interdependent roles with no built-in communication mechanism.

It is always important to separate the person from the problem. Recognizing that the problem is a work issue, not a personal issue, can be the first step in addressing the conflict in a productive manner. Identifying it as a work issue opens avenues for solving the problem which are not personal, such as:

  • placing the issue on a meeting agenda,
  • expressing your concerns on the issue to a supervisor, department chair or dean, or
  • discussing the issue directly with the individual as a work problem to be solved.

The focus becomes the problem (e.g. lack of procedures or guidelines, needed resources, departmental communication, etc.) and not the individual. For more information on depersonalizing the problem, see Being Hard on the Problem – Not the Person.