A conflict is defined as a difference of opinions, or opposing interests, needs, aspirations, values, ways of working or feelings, which can result in tensions between two or more people. It marks a shift from a constructive expression of differences to incomprehension, intolerance and confrontation. It emerges when the people concerned have the impression that they are being prevented from living as they wish or satisfying their own expectations, feelings or intentions.
Nonetheless, a conflict does not necessarily involve a violation of personal rights.
Two main categories of conflict may arise at work:
- horizontal conflicts, i.e. between peers (e.g. between colleagues at the same level, or between students)
- vertical or diagonal conflicts, i.e. between people who are in a hierarchical or power relationship (for example, between a manager and a junior member of staff, or between a student and a teacher)
In the academic world, a line manager may be not only a person’s administrative manager but also their academic supervisor. In this case, the manager will be guiding and assessing the person’s academic work (for example, when they are preparing for their thesis defence or writing an article) and at the same time, acting as their line manager (for example, distributing work within the team or monitoring their working hours). It is therefore useful to be clear about the role someone is playing when interacting with them, to minimise any misunderstandings.
Resolving conflicts involves examining the problem affecting each of the parties.
Three categories of conflict are frequently found in the working environment:
- organisational conflict: poor distribution of tasks, misunderstanding of roles and responsibilities, lack of clarity about the scope of an activity or project, etc.
- conflict of interest: differences in personal or professional motivation, ambition, interests or objectives.
- conflict of values: cultural differences, in terms of world view or value system.
The following elements often come into play in conflicts at work:
- A lack of communication
- The feeling of being treated unfairly
- Power and influence
- A lack of clarity around responsibilities
- A mismatch of expectations
- Differing interests
- Competition – fighting for a job
The elements that make up a conflict may be separate from each other. However, ignoring an organisational conflict in its early stages can gradually lead to more deep-seated conflicts, which touch on the interests or values of the people concerned. The more open the discussion and clarification are as soon as the first warning signs appear, the more effective and constructive the resolution will be.
In all cases, the employer must take all the steps they could be reasonably expected to take to mitigate, defuse or resolve a conflict.