Conflict Cookie #1: What kinds of conflict happen in the workplace?

Gabrielle Lis

Remember how your mum taught you to turn lemons into lemonade? In this series of bite-sized articles, we make cookies out of conflict!

Injury management and return to work are often stressful and emotive: a perfect breeding ground for resentment.

Time and again, we hear that seemingly straightforward return to work cases are derailed by conflict. Workers’ comp claims – and claims investigations – can be contentious, so in these instances good conflict management is absolutely vital.

Learning to recognise and manage conflict is a “must-have” skill for RTW coordinators and others involved in the return to work process, especially supervisors and line managers. With this in mind, we’ve prepared a series of Conflict Cookies: four bite-sized articles to help you manage conflict appropriately.

First up, we asked Dr Remi Ayoko about the kinds of conflict that happen in the workplace. 

Dr Ayoko identified three main kinds of conflict that arise at work:

  1. Task-related conflict – Conflict around the kinds of tasks that a job involves.

    For example, a supervisor nominates modified duties for a returning injured worker that the worker feels are unsuitable given their current capabilities.
  2. Process-related conflict – Even when there is agreement about what tasks need to be completed, there may still be disagreement about the best way get these tasks done.

    For example, a line manager in a factory might require his team to follow new OH&S procedures when lifting heavy items, but the team members may feel it is quicker to lift heavy items through a different process.
  3. Relationship conflict – Conflict that centres on disagreements based on personal and social issues that are not necessarily related to work, such as personal attributes of the individuals involved.

    Usually, it brings about resentment, suspicion and irritability.

    For example, a very busy return to work coordinator and an injured worker may not see eye to eye. The injured worker feels that the return to work coordinator never has time and doesn’t listen, and becomes so distressed that he avoids speaking to the coordinator whenever possible.

Conflict isn’t necessarily a negative.

In fact, when managed well, task-related and process-related conflict (more than relationship conflict) can drive workplace improvements.

Relationship conflict, however, tends to impact negatively on workplace morale. Conflict that begins over tasks and processes can easily become personal if it is not dealt with appropriately.

The first step in managing conflict is recognising it, which can be more of a challenge than you’d expect, especially when you’re one of the combatants!

Next article, we’ll give you tips on how to recognise conflict.