Workplace conflict doesn’t always manifest as people yelling at each other or storming out of meetings. Quite the contrary – most unhealthy conflict simmers underneath the surface and slowly degrades your organization’s productivity, harmony, and morale.
But, how do you actually know if there’s unhealthy conflict in your workplace?
First, make sure you understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict. Then, check for these 6 signs of unhealthy conflict.
Signs of Unhealthy Conflict
Resentment in the workplace often shows up as people rehashing issues from months or even years ago. You might notice that they’re reluctant to take on new tasks or work with a certain person or team. Maybe they were passed over for a promotion years ago, got assigned to a project they despise, or feel that their good work has gone unrecognized for too long.
Pay attention to how people rationalize their reluctance because there may be hints to the issues they’re hanging on to.
2. Declining Morale
Your employees don’t seem as engaged as they used to be, and they rarely (if ever) show any excitement for their work anymore.
This can often be traced back to a change in leadership or an organizational shift that may have overlooked or didn’t revisit some unintended consequences.
Disengagement can manifest as isolation or declining quality of work, but it looks different for everyone. Maybe they suddenly stopped participating in after-work social events or cut off all casual communication with their peers. Some change, either personal or professional, is probably the cause.
If you’re the manager of someone showing signs of disengagement, it could be a great time for a one-on-one meeting to check-in on how they’re doing.
Research shows that the most productive teams work in an environment with a high degree of trust and psychological safety. Productivity can be tricky to measure, but if you notice a sudden decline, it could be the result of a decline in or the absence of psychological safety.
Look for signs of major change – a change in leadership or team structure that may be a contributor.
5. Lack of Trust & Respect
This is a big one. If you notice that these words are being thrown around a lot (“I don’t trust X to handle this project” or “I don’t feel that Y respects my work”), don’t ignore it. These are huge red flags that unhealthy conflict is brewing at the workplace. Find out the source and address it as effectively as possible.
6. Circular Conversations
You keep having the same conversation with your employees or coworkers over and over again, and it’s not going anywhere. If this is the case on your team, it likely means that the root issue isn’t getting resolved – even if you’ve held a meeting to resolve it – and you need to do some serious excavation to figure out what it really is that’s getting in the way.
Now that we know the signs of unhealthy conflict, let’s take a look at why it might be happening…
Causes of Unhealthy Conflict
1. Personality Clash
Sometimes, unhealthy conflict is born out of something as simple as clashing personalities. Coworkers are bound to have vastly different backgrounds, upbringings, and life experiences. All of these come together to make up our personal work and communication styles.
We have to value the uniqueness each person’s experiences bring to an organization and how they add to a diverse and thriving workplace culture. We also have to take the time to get to understand how each person’s uniqueness shapes our team and workplace dynamics to ensure how we can best support each other – or identify what might be getting in the way when things aren’t going so well.
2. Poor Communication
This is a big one, and it’s at the root of a ton of workplace conflict. Miscommunication comes into play in a million ways. Maybe leadership has failed to clearly state expectations of productivity, procedures, rules, and responsibilities. Maybe you don’t understand the chain of command, or your boss has never taken the time to check in on your job satisfaction. (Here are 10 tips for communicating through a conflict resolution).
Being intentional about communicating early and often can head off unhealthy conflict at the pass.
3. Personal Issues
When an employee or coworker is going through a hard time at home, it will probably have some effect on their behavior at work. Whether they’re going through a divorce, caring for a sick parent, or struggling with their own health, stress at home may often be projected on those around us. Because many workplace cultures generally don’t encourage openness and vulnerability – and even when they say they do employees don’t always feel comfortable raising concerns – it can be extremely taxing to try and bottle up your emotions and proceed like nothing is wrong.
If you notice a sudden, unexplained change in behavior, personal issues may be the culprit. Remember to treat your fellow team members as humans and take the time to get to know them and listen to them.
Now that you know how to recognize unhealthy conflict in the workplace and what might be behind it, what do you do about it?
If you hold onto one thing from this article, it should be this – pay attention. Look for signs that unhealthy conflict may be sabotaging your healthy workplace, and don’t ignore red flags out of fear. Engaging in an attempt to resolve the conflict will not only help to potentially solve the problem but will also help build a strong company culture grounded in trust and respect.
When your employees feel that they can express dissent, disagreement, and admit to mistakes without facing monumental, personal repercussions, everyone is better equipped to produce the absolute best work possible.
About the Author
For the past decade, Natalie has worked as a consultant with executive teams—both nationally and internationally—to develop strategies aimed at fostering growth and innovation, shifting organizational culture, and engaging employees.
She has driven large-scale change and innovation initiatives inside Fortune 500 companies alongside sales, customer service, R&D, and new product innovation teams, to name a few.
Natalie has certifications in mediation, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR), and yoga instruction (200RYT).
She was promoted to CEO before the age of 30. She is now Owner and Principal Consultant at ONE EIGHTY, LLC.