The three causes of conflict and how to address them…

Our work to date on performing teams relies heavily on three key functioning behaviour sets:
» Communication & Candour
» Trust & Vulnerability
» Commitment & Accountability
Embracing candour or frank, challenging, and sometimes confronting conversations is crucial to success. We have been proselytising an empathetic approach to candour where we first seek to understand the other person.
Empathy is critical in working through conflict, whether it is in the workplace, on teams, or even in our personal lives. We have experienced an increasing need to deliver workshops and seminars on conflict management and, on some occasions, consulting in this area, mainly where conflict affects performance or working relationships.
So, what are the three leading causes of conflict, and how do we negotiate through them?


The most common source of conflict is the context where a specific action or behaviour is seen from differing lenses, often resulting in quite contrasting conclusions on what has occurred.
A typical example is in the office kitchen, where you may notice a colleague (let’s call him Larry) whose cup is left unwashed in the sink.
Whilst it may be reasonable to assume that Larry has left it without consideration for his colleagues, perhaps not for the first time, leaving you justifiably upset – a source of conflict – there may be an alternative context to this event.
Perhaps Larry had to take an urgent phone call or was needed to assist with an acute crisis with a client and had to leave in a hurry.
Understanding context is critical in circumstances where there is dissonance.
There is often a gap between our intentions and our actions.
Most people will judge us on our actions whilst we tend to see ourselves through the lens of intent.
Larry intended to wash his cup, wipe it dry and put it away, but he was called away without much notice and could not fulfil his intentions.
We, as humans, don’t see intentions, only God does, so we are left with limited knowledge of the facts before us, and often not all of them.

Lack of context is the most common source of conflict because of the intent-action dissonance, and the best way to overcome it is to communicate appropriately.

So, everyone is aware of the intentions rather than being left to make assumptions with few facts.
Where communication from the protagonist is lacking – it falls on others to pursue what we call ‘empathetic enquiry’, where we seek to understand, with empathy, what one’s intentions are, or what contextual information we do not have to understand actions and behaviours better.
“Larry, I noticed your cup in the sink today. Did someone else use it and leave it there? Did you forget to wash it? Were you called away or interrupted?” These questions seek first to understand rather than assume the worst.


The second source of conflict arises from human frailty – weaknesses.
As none of us is perfect, we make mistakes. These mistakes affect our performance.
Despite our noble intentions, we often let ourselves and those around us down.
Weaknesses in emotions, affinities, or limitations with our physical, mental, or behavioural abilities affect those around us – at work and home.
Whilst most of our work focuses on the miracle of teams where complementary strengths come to the fore in an environment of trust and vulnerability, we cannot ignore human weaknesses and their impact.

It is not uncommon for those with exceptional strengths to also have significant weaknesses… geniuses can be eccentric.

To minimise an individual’s weaknesses in a team environment and even make them irrelevant, we must have the humility and sincerity to acknowledge them.
The next step is to recognise when those weaknesses affect the team and work and what actions and behaviours would be taken to minimise them.
Finally, we must put complementary people, rituals, and support mechanisms in place for optimal team performance.
If someone on the team, for example, has an insecurity that manifests itself through negative humour or tends to put people down, humiliate others or even bully them, acknowledging this weakness and having an empathetic, clear, and agreed way to call this out and limit its frequency over time to ultimately eliminating it is what we recommend.


On rare occasions, we encounter people who have developed deep-seated character traits that do not align with the organisation. There may even be a misalignment of their True North, where their conscience does not correlate to what is generally accepted as socially, morally, and ethically acceptable.
Even in such instances, there is a responsibility to have a meaningful conversation about this dissonance – for every person must be given an opportunity, reasonable time, and support to change.
But when this fails, it may be wise to part ways.

If you can’t change people, then you must change the people. Their existence on the team will have a detrimental effect on others, regardless of their contribution.

When such individuals are star performers, leaders and managers have tough decisions and often tend to ignore, downplay, or justify the ‘True North’ problem. But such a utilitarian mindset is almost always short-lived. What profit is there in gaining the whole world but at the cost of one’s soul? And how we live our lives must never be compromised.
The team can be at even greater risk when people with ‘True North’ concerns find themselves in leadership positions. Toxic, unethical, and even dangerous cultures and environments tend to form and, over time, may spell the demise of the entire organisation.
Once adequate opportunities for change have failed, people with characters that do not align with the organisation must be exited swiftly. Delays could prove costly affecting organisational performance, organisational culture or through the loss of otherwise good team members.