Bell and Hart's Eight Causes of Conflict

Understanding the Causes of Workplace Tension

Arrows representing conflict and confrontation.

Learn how to prevent, recognize, and manage conflict effectively.

© iStockphoto/Kuklev

You've just arrived at your office, which you share with a colleague, and it looks as if it's going to be another frustrating day.

Your side of the office is neat as a pin and incredibly well organized. You always arrive at work on time and you take care not to talk loudly when you're on the phone, so that you don't disturb your office mate. Your colleague, however, is the exact opposite.

Empty cups and stacks of dusty files litter his side of the office. He often rushes into the office late, and he sometimes puts the radio on while he's working, which breaks your concentration. You love your work, but dread coming into the office every day, simply because you don't like sharing your space with your colleague. He drives you crazy, and you often argue.

If you thought about it, you'd quickly recognize that there's conflict between you because the two of you have completely different working styles. Once you'd realized this, you'd have a starting point for thinking about how you could work together more effectively.

All of us experience conflict like this at work. Conflict can be useful, since it can push conflicting parties to grow and communicate, and it can improve conflicting ideas. However, this can only happen if we understand why the conflict is there in the first place. Once we've identified the root of the problem, we can take the right steps to resolve it.

In this article, we'll look at eight common causes of conflict in the workplace, and we'll explore how you can use them to manage conflict more effectively.

About the Eight Causes

According to psychologists Art Bell and Brett Hart, there are eight common causes of conflict in the workplace. Bell and Hart identified these common causes in separate articles on workplace conflict in 2000 and 2002.

The eight causes are:

  1. Conflicting resources.
  2. Conflicting styles.
  3. Conflicting perceptions.
  4. Conflicting goals.
  5. Conflicting pressures.
  6. Conflicting roles.
  7. Different personal values.
  8. Unpredictable policies.

You can use this classification to identify possible causes of conflict. Once you've identified these, you can take steps to prevent conflict happening in the first place, or you can tailor your conflict resolution   strategy to fit the situation.

How to Use the Tool

Let's take a closer look at each of the eight causes of workplace conflict, and discuss what you can do to avoid and resolve each type.

1. Conflicting Resources

We all need access to certain resources – whether these are office supplies, help from colleagues, or even a meeting room – to do our jobs well. When more than one person or group needs access to a particular resource, conflict can occur.

If you or your people are in conflict over resources, use techniques such as Win-Win Negotiation   or the Influence Model   to reach a shared agreement.

You can also help team members overcome this cause of conflict by making sure that they have everything they need to do their jobs well. Teach them how to prioritize   their time and resources, as well as how to negotiate   with one another to prevent this type of conflict.

If people start battling for a resource, sit both parties down to discuss openly why their needs are at odds. An open discussion about the problem can help each party see the other's perspective and become more empathic   about their needs.

2. Conflicting Styles

Everyone works differently, according to his or her individual needs and personality. For instance, some people love the thrill of getting things done at the last minute, while others need the structure of strict deadlines to perform. However, when working styles clash, conflict can often occur.

To prevent and manage this type of conflict in your team, consider people's working styles and natural group roles   when you build your team.

You can also encourage people to take a personality test, such as the Myers-Briggs Personality Test  . This can help them become more accepting of other people's styles of working, and be more flexible as a result.

3. Conflicting Perceptions

All of us see the world through our own lens, and differences in perceptions of events can cause conflict, particularly where one person knows something that the other person doesn't know, but doesn't realize this.

If your team members regularly engage in "turf wars" or gossip, you might have a problem with conflicting perceptions. Additionally, negative performance reviews or customer complaints can also result from this type of conflict.

Make an effort to eliminate this conflict by communicating openly with your team, even when you have to share bad news. The more information you share with your people, the less likely it is that they will come up with their own interpretations of events.

Different perceptions are also a common cause of office politics. For instance, if you assign a project to one person that normally would be someone else's responsibility, you may unwittingly ignite a power struggle between the two. Learn how to navigate office politics  , and coach your team to do the same.

4. Conflicting Goals

Sometimes we have conflicting goals in our work. For instance, one of our managers might tell us that speed is most important goal with customers. Another manager might say that in-depth, high-quality service is the top priority. It's sometimes quite difficult to reconcile the two!

Whenever you set goals for your team members, make sure that those goals don't conflict with other goals set for that person, or set for other people.

And if your own goals are unclear or conflicting, speak with your boss and negotiate   goals that work for everyone.

5. Conflicting Pressures

We often have to depend on our colleagues to get our work done. However, what happens when you need a report from your colleague by noon, and he's already preparing a different report for someone else by that same deadline?

Conflicting pressures are similar to conflicting goals; the only difference is that conflicting pressures usually involve urgent tasks, while conflicting goals typically involve projects with longer timelines.

If you suspect that people are experiencing conflict because of clashing short-term objectives, reschedule tasks and deadlines to relieve the pressure.

6. Conflicting Roles

Sometimes we have to perform a task that's outside our normal role or responsibilities. If this causes us to step into someone else's "territory," then conflict and power struggles can occur. The same can happen in reverse – sometimes we may feel that a particular task should be completed by someone else.

Conflicting roles are similar to conflicting perceptions. After all, one team member may view a task as his or her responsibility or territory. But when someone else comes in to take over that task, conflict occurs.

If you suspect that team members are experiencing conflict over their roles, explain why you've assigned tasks or projects to each person. Your explanation could go a long way toward remedying the pressure.

You can also use a Team Charter   to crystallize people's roles and responsibilities, and to focus people on objectives.

7. Different Personal Values

Imagine that your boss has just asked you to perform a task that conflicts with your ethical standards. Do you do as your boss asks, or do you refuse? If you refuse, will you lose your boss's trust, or even your job?

When our work conflicts with our personal values like this, conflict can quickly arise.

To avoid this in your team, practice ethical leadership  : try not to ask your team to do anything that clashes with their values, or with yours.

There may be times when you're asked to do things that clash with your personal ethics. Our article on preserving your integrity   will help you to make the right choices.

8. Unpredictable Policies

When rules and policies change at work and you don't communicate that change clearly to your team, confusion and conflict can occur.

In addition, if you fail to apply workplace policies consistently with members of your team, the disparity in treatment can also become a source of dissension.

When rules and policies change, make sure that you communicate exactly what will be done differently and, more importantly, why the policy is changing. When people understand why the rules are there  , they're far more likely to accept the change.

Once the rules are in place, strive to enforce them fairly and consistently.

Tip:

Although Bell and Hart's Eight Causes of Conflict provide a useful framework for identifying common causes of conflict in the workplace, they don't explore how to deal with conflict. So make sure that you know how to resolve conflict   effectively, too.

Key Points

Psychologists Art Bell and Brett Hart identified eight causes of conflict in the early 2000s.

The eight causes are:

  1. Conflicting resources.
  2. Conflicting styles.
  3. Conflicting perceptions.
  4. Conflicting goals.
  5. Conflicting pressures.
  6. Conflicting roles.
  7. Different personal values.
  8. Unpredictable policies.

You can use these to recognize the root cause of conflict between people. In turn, this can help you devise effective conflict resolution strategies, and create a workplace that's not disrupted by tension and disharmony.

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Comments (2)
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    This is a great tool not just because it identifies causes of conflict, it provides ways to address and deal with that conflict.

    For me, the most challenging conflict to deal with is differing personal values. I've just seen, first-hand, a situation where the personal values were so radically different that it caused the people to go their separate ways. Simple things like what actions were respectful and what was not, what was acceptable and what was not.

    Had the people involved been able to talk about, and clearly define, how they viewed things and what their values were, the outcome may have been different!

    What experiences have you had or see about dealing with conflict?

    Midgie
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    It's so much easier to resolve conflict once you know what causes it. This is a great article to help you identify what might be possible causes for conflict. Conflicting pressures and conflicting styles are two major culprits in a company that I was involved with a number of years ago. Part of the team was very creative and part of the team was very focused on putting things into practice...the latter being very detail & schedule oriented while the others was a lot more laid-back...just that one difference in style caused loads of conflict! By learning how to deal with different styles you essentially learn how to accommodate different perceptions and values too...great skill for anybody in a leadership position.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé

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