HR departments and personnel managers often see employee complaints as a first sign that all is not well in the company. But often, workplace conflict is a symptom of bigger organizational problems within the business. Recognizing conflict styles and causes can help you get to the root of those problems and change your workplace culture for the better.

What Organizational Dysfunction Means

No one comes to a business consultant saying they have organizational dysfunction, but it is at the heart of many workplace problems. Organizational dysfunction is the misalignment between a company’s purpose and the structural, cultural, or leadership patterns it uses to get there. While most successful businesses have clear financial objectives, their “softer” purposes may go unstated, and as a result, unsupported.

Sometimes, those goals conflict, creating organizational dysfunction all on their own. For example, if your company has a goal of attracting and retaining top talent, while also keeping costs down, you could end up offering too little compensation to highly qualified candidates, resulting in high turnover and recruitment challenges. However, in other cases, it is not the goals themselves, but how they are implemented that can cause workplace conflict and organizational dysfunction.

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How Workplace Conflict Serves a Symptom of Organization Problems

Disagreements between employees and interpersonal conflicts are a natural part of doing business. But too much – or too little – workplace conflict can be a warning sign to management that there are problems in their organizational systems and structures. Healthy workplace conflict looks like disagreements between colleagues that are aired comfortably and resolved through dialog and collaboration. When that’s not happening, it could be because:

Your Employees are Afraid of Conflict

If your employees don’t trust one another, or the company, to come at conflict in healthy and constructive ways, they may not raise their disagreements at all. This conflict-avoidance strategy happens when workers are afraid to rock the boat, worrying that they may be disciplined or even terminated for having a difference of opinion. Working with a business consultant to build employee trust will help improve company functionality and productivity.

Interpersonal Conflict Goes Unresolved

When employees perceive that a company’s actions don’t match its stated values, they will leave. This is especially true within the context of workplace conflict. When an employee files a serious complaint against a coworker – maybe even a sexual harassment claim – a failure to investigate, respond to, and address that complaint in a timely and appropriately transparent way (while protecting the accused employee’s privacy), can create organizational dysfunction and foster resentment. Ensuring that HR and managers follow through to resolve those disputes is essential to keeping your team working together well.

Mismatched Culture and Conflict Resolution Strategies

Employees and managers alike come to the workplace with their own conflict resolution strategies. Some of these are set by policy, but many others are formed long before the employee is hired. This can create a disconnect between those written policies and what happens between employees. For example, when a highly competitive manager is put in charge of a team structured for collaboration, that manager may see normal collaboration process can be seen as conflict or an obstacle to be overcome. Using leadership training, coaching, and mentorship can help to align employees’ conflict resolution strategies with the company’s overall goals.

How to Treat Workplace Conflict to Improve Company Culture

Just like many physical illnesses, organizational dysfunction isn’t easily corrected on your own. It often takes an objective perspective to see how the symptom of workplace conflict traces back to the root causes of organizational dysfunction. Working with a business consultant to assess your company’s goals, systems, policies, and practices can act like chiropractic care for your company. Over time, through careful corrective action, your company can come into better alignment, and foster a healthier workplace culture, better equipped to accomplish your goals.

David Stanislaw is an organizational development specialist with over 25 years’ experience helping business owners and managers develop leadership skills to drive their businesses and lead their employees through one-on-one executive coaching. Contact us to meet with David and advance your professional development today.