How Leaders Contribute to Workplace Conflict and How to Fix It

Workplace Conflict

Leaders can inadvertently derail productivity and innovation through their design of organizational systems. Structural conflicts between people and departments are often one of the unintended consequences of this.

And leaders are the only ones with authority to do something about it.

Poor Leadership

According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workforce report, poor management is responsible for the 20% actively disengaged employees. This costs the U.S. $450 to $550 billion annually. Conversely, Gallup found that the most engaged employees (30% of the workforce)—those with the best management—create the most innovative ideas, attract new customers, and are the most entrepreneurial.

A study identified common patterns of behaviors that characterize a bad boss which can be summarized as poor social and people skills.

Leaders must promote people with excellent “soft” skills because these lead to engaged employees who produce hard results.

Employees resent it when poor performance or bad management is not adequately addressed. Their motivation goes down and soon they do barely enough to meet expectations.

People inherently ask:

  • Why give 110% when someone giving only 80% or less can get away with it?
  • Why share their most creative ideas when the immediate supervisor takes the credit or doesn’t want change?
  • Why buck the system if the potential for harm is greater than the potential for gain?

Performance Management Systems

While most performance management systems are structured correctly, executing them is a hit or miss proposition in many organizations.

  • Some managers are plain uncomfortable with giving performance feedback.
  • Well-intentioned senior leaders, expecting their managers to deal with performance issues, only want to see “meets or exceeds” on appraisals.
  • This causes managers to avoid checking the “needs improvement or does not meet” box, fearing it could negatively affect their career or end-of-year bonus for their unit.

Leaders should hold their managers accountable for dealing with poor performers and reward them when they do. And yes, inadequate people skills in a manager constitutes poor performance and it should be addressed.

Competing Reporting Relationships

You see this with cross-functional project teams. Often people on such teams report to a division manager but work under a different project manager. Conflicts can erupt between the two managers who are both vying for the same resource: the employee’s time.

The employee may end up in conflict with either manager due to competing priorities.

Team members may end up at cross purposes because of lack of clarity about goals and time commitments.

Establish a matrix style reporting structure for cross-functional teams. Clarify expectations and priorities regarding specific deliverables, time to work on the project, and reporting relationships.

Unclear or Overlapping Roles and Responsibilities

This type of situation can create bad feelings between employees, turning a simple-to-solve structural conflict into an interpersonal one. These are territorial conflicts as in, “Hey, that’s my job.”

It can leave employees worrying about whether management thinks they can’t do the job, or has plans to downsize. Another conflict related to unclear roles is when tasks fall through the cracks and blame starts flying.

Fortunately though, unclear roles and responsibilities are a common problem and relatively easy to solve.

Reward and Recognition Systems

Individuals need to know that their contributions matter. If they work independently and don’t rely on co-workers for information, resources or idea generation, then an individual reward and recognition system is best. If results require teamwork, a team incentive is also necessary.

A good ratio is to create an incentive that gives 2/3 for individual contributions and 1/3 for teamwork.

Without an individual incentive, some people might coast and ride the coattails of their teammates, creating resentment. Not including a team incentive when you need team creativity and problem solving, could create unproductive competition among individuals.

In addition to company-wide bonuses, consider including localized recognition events and rewards. These can be low-cost but personalization is a powerful motivator.

Of course, the best reward of all comes from allowing employees to identify and solve problems and develop innovations. Tapping into intrinsic motivation is the most powerful of all.

Communication Systems

The structural side of organizational communication systems has to do with how easy it is for employees to communicate with people and decision-makers across units. The more silo-ed and hierarchical the communications are, the more difficult it will be for employees to collaborate and exchange critical information.

The conflicts resulting from an inability to communicate effectively across organizational boundaries usually have to do with unintended consequences of changes made in one part of the organization that has a negative impact on another.

Another type of conflict occurs when work units have different norms and rules about how, when, and to whom to communicate. Misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and missed communication—all can erupt into conflict unless someone catches them early and deals with them.

Design formal communications to facilitate employees’ ability to work together effectively.

One simple tool for extremely effective weekly communication is something called 15Five.

Be Wise

Entire books have been written about each of the categories above. Clearly, much more could be said. The key is to assess how organizational structures might be contributing to employee conflicts and make adjustments.

What would you do to mitigate against the unintended consequences of structure conflicts?


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Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. is President of JPA TANGO
She helps leaders harness the power of conflict to build innovative solutions
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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Daron Henson on April 3, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    This is the type of article with information which must be bombarded at its readers successively to insure that the information becomes routine.

    Thank you and I hope many others get a chance to read this synopsis.

    • Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. on April 6, 2014 at 9:18 pm

      Thanks, Daron. It’s true that with everything leaders have on their plates, reminders like these can only but help. I appreciate you stopping by to comment.

  2. Laura Zera on April 5, 2014 at 2:00 am

    I wonder if some of these issues are easier to tackle in “younger” companies (by that, I mean actual age of company, not its employees), before a culture of “don’t rock the boat” has set in.

    • Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. on April 6, 2014 at 9:21 pm

      Such a great question, Laura. “Younger” companies may have an easier time of it, relatively speaking, since they’re not yet set in their ways. Still, more established firms re-organize occasionally for a variety of reasons and could simultaneously review their organizational structures against the criteria in this article. Thanks for hopping over.