The Cost of Conflict in the Workplace and What to Do About It

Beverly Betz

Exec. Dir. of Psychology for Traitify | Love for film, fiction, knitting, and babies | Mentor/Visionary in Psychology

The American Institute of Stress states: “Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades .” In fact, a recent study out of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that 43% of a sample of retail workers say that their job has a negative impact on their stress levels, eating habits (28%), sleeping patterns (27%), and weight (22%). It is not much of a stretch to assume that a significant portion of the stress these Americans feel relates to interpersonal conflict experienced at work. In addition to the negative impacts to the individual of stress and conflict, there are significant costs to businesses as well. Data show that 36 percent of workers suffer from work-related stress that costs U.S. businesses $30 billion a year in lost workdays.

Because intrapersonal conflict at work is a major contributor to stress, we keep seeing ‘conflict in the workplace’ appearing again and again, in both popular and professional media. The most common approaches to conflict resolution, in either written form or face-to-face counseling, involve a set of prescribed behavioral steps aimed at resolving differences. While those steps may be generally helpful, at least for some people, they do not leave any room for recognizing the unique differences of the individuals involved. During the resolution process, a more outgoing, or extrovertive person, for example, might be quite comfortable with directly stating his/her frustration with a co-worker, while a more introvertive or shy individual will not. Some of the health problems and overwhelming stresses with which workers suffer would be dealt with more readily if knowledge of personality differences were used to help guide the process of  interceding in interpersonal tensions before they develop into complicated conflicts.

Integral to an earlier, individualized kind of proactive workplace counseling is the ability to work sensitively with two individuals by appreciating personality differences (which can include coping mechanisms, relational patterns and so on). Having access to personality assessments, which help identify personality traits in the workers a therapist or counselor is trying to help may increase the chances of successful intervention. For example, perhaps the source of friction was that one worker (let’s call him Shawn) had very high standards and couldn’t let a project go until every detail was exactly the way he wanted it to be.  Even though he did a great job, it drove his co-worker (Lauren) crazy because she felt they would keep getting more and more behind on projects until she was reaching her breaking point. Although they typically worked well together, their resentments began to build, until they came to a head when a deadline approached on a large project and they fell behind schedule. Shawn felt like Lauren was always breathing down his back, never leaving him alone. The therapist, armed with the knowledge that  Shawn was very detail-oriented, while the Lauren was not, but that Lauren was very loyal, and she worked harder to get along than Shawn did, approached each to help them to understand themselves and each other. Aided by the personality information, the counselor was able to intervene sensitively, and help the working pair understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and iron out their differences before their resentment and anger had built into a fully blown conflict and stressful rupture.  

The key to defraying the high cost to individuals and business from worker downtime and illness due to interpersonal conflict and stress is intervening early, based on a nuanced knowledge of personality, rather than a predetermined behavioral regimen universally (and rather randomly) applied.


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