Understand Factors Affecting Conflict (Part 1)

All men have an instinct for conflict: at least, all healthy men. — Hilaire Belloc

CONFLICT in organizations and families are caused and affected by many factors. In this article, I will examine the first 5 conflicting factors:

 1.  Contrasting and Conflicting Values

People have and embrace different values. Some people value freedom, friendship, and fun at work. Others may prefer control, task-orientation and sobriety. This is most apparent between parents and teenagers. Parents value discipline and hard work, whereas teenagers prefer freedom and the flexibility to work whenever they want.

Gen-Y workers enjoy humor and sarcasm but Baby Boomer see that as being too easy-going. It is little wonder that Gen-Y employees may find their managers too traditional and old-fashioned. A young Gen-Y air stewardess once told me, “My in-flight supervisor seldom smiles. He doesn’t mingle with us. He is too serious and expects us to be like him . He needs to relax!” She had the impression that her supervisor was stiff-lipped and unfriendly.

If we continuously clash over values, both parties become perennial thorns in each other’s flesh. We need to understand the values that others hold and accept them as part of who they are.

 2.  Irritating and Exasperating Living Habits

We are all creatures of habit. A while ago, a friend complained to me, “My manager is so anal! He complains that my margins in the report are not exactly 10 centimeters and double-spaced. Does he think we are still in school?” Some managers, like my friend’s, are extremely picky, very tedious and love to micro-manage. Women employees may complain that their male colleagues do not keep the pantry tidy, or that they expect the women to wash their used cups and plates.

My wife, Alison, was brought up in a very clean environment. She could not tolerate untidiness especially in the home’s ‘public’ areas like the dining and sitting rooms. Every day, she would remind us to store away our things and tidy up the cluttered house. Our children were fairly messy, just like their Dad. We left things lying around and forgot to clear things away. Worse, we were very comfortable with the mess we created. These vexing habits became a constant challenge for Alison and us. What grating habits do we have that make life arduous for others? These matters may create tension in the workplace and at home.

3.  Unrealistic and Hidden Expectations

One major cause of workplace conflict is expectation. If expectations are not clarified or spelled out, they can be a source of conflict. This is especially so if the expectations are mismatched or unrealistic.

If expectations are not clarified or spelled out, they can be a source of conflict.

Bee, the finance manager, demanded an answer from Ting, the sales manager: “How can you submit a claim without getting authorization? You should know better! This is the umpteenth time you have done so!”

 Ting snapped, “I did ask my administrator to complete the forms. She obviously forgot. Anyway, there are just too many forms to fill! You should simplify the procedures instead of nit-picking!”

Discussing expectations openly will help both bosses and employees to reach suitable targets and reasonable compromises, and avoid potential misunderstandings. There are two types of expectations which may produce conflict: Unrealistic expectations and hidden expectations.

 a.  Unrealistic Expectations

Sometimes, people have expectations that are too high. They can produce unhealthy stress and unyielding demands, which may create resentment.

As finance manager, Bee had a meticulous eye as she was responsible for keeping the books straight. However, to expect everyone to be as thorough as she was all the time was too idealistic. Moderating her own expectations was a compromise she had to make. Otherwise, people would get on her nerves constantly and vice versa. Bee needed to work around this conflicting situation or else she would be a potential candidate for burn out.

Jane, a high-performing banker-mom expected her children to score straight A’s in every examination. The pressure she placed on her children was stifling. Because of her stellar track record in school and her current career success, she expected her children to perform likewise. The children grew up resentful because this was a constant source of conflict between them.

b.  Hidden Expectations

Most of us have hidden expectations. We will only uncover them when we violate them or when others violate our implicit assumptions.

Roh was a Korean marketing director of a pharmaceutical firm. He expected his sales team to deliver excellent results and maintain an updated list of their clients. Roh wanted the team to record meticulously in order of priority the name of each client and to submit these lists to him every Monday. Even when the sales team clinched big contracts, Roh would be very upset if the procedures were not complied with. The problem was that Roh’s expectations were not communicated clearly to his team.

Instead, he simply kept demanding these lists, which many did not complete. His team members thought they were an option, not an obligation. However, Roh felt that his unspoken rules were being ignored and therefore, his authority defied.

Salina, a 29-year-old human resource consultant, gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Nalina, her over-controlling mother, came to stay with her during the confinement period. Nalina’s stay, however, turned out to be a nightmare. Brought up in the old school of thought, Nalina was very annoyed when Salina washed her hair one week after childbirth. According to Nalina, this would severely compromise Salina’s health. This altercation developed into a full-blown fight between mother and daughter.

On another occasion, Salina bathed her daughter but did not use the right techniques. Nalina reprimanded her incessantly and snatched the baby from her. Stunned and aggrieved, Salina wept bitterly. Her husband, Suraj, intervened and this triggered a shouting match. Maha, Salina’s father, sided with his wife. The confrontation deteriorated into a tag-team wrestling match, with no holds barred.

When hidden expectations are not clearly communicated and abrogated, both parties become intransigent and relationships sour irreparably. We need to examine whether we have communicated our expectations clearly. Many times, we make assumptions, expecting our staff and children to know what we want. Remember, people cannot read our minds.

 4.  Ineffective and Negative Communication Patterns

When we use curt language and aggressive non-verbal cues, we will anger the other party.

Rajiv was a strong and authoritative leader in the production department. Unfortunately, he adopted a shouting culture with his production workers. Unable to control his emotions, Rajiv would demean his staff publicly. Inevitably, this created umbrage among his subordinates. Without any opportunity to retaliate and not wanting to make their boss lose ‘face’, they would grouse and gripe amongst themselves. At times, they would sabotage the production output by deliberately making mistakes.

Strong words and aggressive actions can also infuriate parents and teens. These behaviors create and aggravate conflict situations.

Tang conversed by intimidating and using foul language with his teenage son, Wu. This was how Tang was brought up and he thought nothing of it. However, Wu grew up to be a very indignant young man.

 5.  Selfishness and Self-interest

Every one of us is selfish to a certain degree. Some bosses are driven by their own self-interests. They have their positions and power to protect. They have targets to reach. They are answerable to their boards. They want to protect their well-manicured public image.

Similarly, some staff may also be chiefly concerned about their own short-term gains. They do not have their company’s interests at heart and will switch jobs for a few dollars more. They can also be impatient and want to be promoted quickly.

Park was a very successful businessman and an autocratic father. He wanted his son, Kim, to be as successful as him. Park demanded nothing less than the best from his son: entering the right school, achieving the best grades and getting the highest-paid job. Park was more concerned about his ‘face’ and keeping his own public image. He compelled his son to pursue a law degree instead of theatre studies, which was Kim’s passion and interest. Dependent on his father to fund his studies, Kim reluctantly agreed, but he was exasperated and virulent, and could not wait to leave home.

Selfishness and self-interest are perhaps the most difficult aspects in conflict management because we are often blind to it. Whether bosses or staff, parents or children, we are generally disinclined to admit that we are perpetrators of ‘self-ism’.

This is an adapted excerpt from John’s book, “Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon” – a timely and comprehensive book that gives a fresh approach to conflict management from an Asian perspective.