Personality clashes—not disagreements about religion, politics or other hot-button issues—are the No. 1 cause of workplace conflict, according to a new survey, which also found that more than one-third of employees have no formal way to complain about discord with colleagues.
“In the end it’s management’s responsibility to prevent a hostile working environment and to coach or redirect people to resolve conflicts,” said Dean Debnam, CEO of Workplace Options, which commissioned the telephone survey of 509 workers Aug. 9-12, 2013. “If you just say, ‘You guys work it out,’ you’re going to have an internal mess, and the tension will infect everyone.”
More than half of survey respondents (56 percent) said personality clashes with co-workers are a source of conflict, according to the company, which helps more than 40 million employees at some 30,000 organizations balance their work, family and personal lives. Thirty-five percent said their employer doesn’t have a formal complaint process for handling these conflicts. More than one in three (38 percent) of those polled went directly to their supervisor when faced with a conflict; 34 percent confronted the person with whom they had a conflict.
Sue Blaney is a consultant at PI Worldwide, which uses the Predictive Index to measure behavior, motivation and drive in the workplace. Such assessments can spot potential personality clashes before they happen, Blaney said in a telephone interview.
For instance, the index measures “dominance,” or the need to have influence and control over people and situations.
“Someone high in dominance can handle conflict well and can tolerate it in their personality,” she said. “They tend to get to the point and to be very direct. Someone with low dominance wants to avoid conflict, and [to them], someone high in dominance may come across like a bull in a china shop, even though the person high in dominance may be perfectly kind and have good intentions.”
Blaney recalled working with nine employees at a large travel agency. Although the agents had worked together for years, they found it enlightening to learn about one another’s personalities through the index.
“[Some would say], ‘Oh, so when he walks in each morning, closes his door, gets to work and doesn’t chitchat with me, I always thought he was being kind of rude; but I can see now he’s low in extroversion.’ Or you may have a manager who’s very detail-oriented and precise [who] hires someone who doesn’t want a ton of directions and thrives when they can be flexible. That would be helpful for the manager to know that this person has a very different style. Knowing that upfront enables me to know how to manage this person more effectively.”
Fifty-seven percent of responding Millennials (those ages 18 to 29) reported personality conflicts in the workplace—more than any other age group. Debnam attributes this statistic to a lack of maturity.
“Young people in other surveys report themselves to be the most disgruntled employees you have,” he said in a telephone interview. “They’re still young people and still maturing with regard to social skills.”
Blaney contends that Millennials’ tendency to have more personality clashes is due to their upbringing.
“I think parenting plays into the expectations that young people have about the workplace that might lead to conflict,” she said. “They have expectations about the amount of independence they should have, their rapid development up the ladder, their flexibility in the workplace. They tend to have a sense of confidence that might rub older people the wrong way if it feels inappropriate.”
The survey also found that 67 percent of those in the service and health care industries reported conflict because of personality issues—the most of the 10 industry categories represented in the survey.
Debnam says this could be because of the stressful nature of jobs in those industries.
“The service industry is about serving people, and that puts stress on relationships,” he said. “Same for health care—you have interactions with customers that can make you tense. If you’re getting pressure from your customer and waiting on a colleague to produce their end of the deal, that can cause conflict. It doesn’t matter if it’s the waitress serving the table and the kitchen is screwing up or if you’re a salesperson and the delivery people are screwing up.”
Debnam suggests that one way companies can prevent conflicts is to clearly define each employee’s duties. Although that may seem like a no-brainer, he said supervisors frequently fail to spell out precisely what’s expected of an employee.
“Organizations tend toward complexity, and people will by nature offload things and say, ‘This is not my responsibility.’ Management has to get involved and be clear about where the responsibility does lie.”
Blaney said she advises clients to identify the cause of the conflict, study how the colleagues involved are responding to each other, then ask the employees to articulate “what resolution will look like. Simply talking to people about how someone operates and how that’s like you or different from you can make a world of difference in helping people work together productively.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.