In many ways, interpersonal conflict is a normal, and even inevitable, outcome of human interaction – the daily collision of many different personalities, values, beliefs and habits makes it impossible for one to agree or get along with everyone they meet. However, when it comes to the workplace, managing the severity and frequency of interpersonal conflicts is necessary for the effective and cohesive functioning of the organisation.

Employers must make sure they are aware of the ways interpersonal conflict can arise and take shape amongst their workers – failing to do so can result in escalations of conflict which cause lasting damage to employee performance, relationships and teamwork dynamics.

Within moderation, interpersonal conflict can actually be healthy, helping employees to better understand each other and work towards more innovative and creative solutions. But whilst avoiding disputes is not the solution, learning how to fuel them towards a mutually beneficial outcome is not always easy, making the ability to recognise and address them a key skill for all employers and managers.

The 6 Different Types of Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal conflicts can come in many different forms – being able to distinguish and categorise them is important because this makes it easier to choose appropriate strategies to help resolve the issue.

There are six primary categories under which most interpersonal conflicts can be grouped. They include:

1. Pseudo Conflict

Pseudo-conflict is rooted in miscommunication – it occurs when an individual interprets the words, actions or behaviour of another individual in a manner that doesn’t align with the original intention.

For example, consider an employee who takes on a task without being asked to do so, thinking they are helping their colleague who appeared to be struggling. However, their colleague perceives it as a lack of trust in their ability to handle the task themselves and becomes defensive. This misinterpretation of the employee’s intention can lead to tension and conflict between them, impacting their ability to work effectively together and potentially damaging team morale.

Pseudo-conflicts also include interpersonal conflicts that occur when different opinions clash on a particular issue – for example, one employee thinks the team should present live but another believes that a video presentation is the better option. Essentially, pseudo-conflicts come down to perceptual differences between individuals and resolving them is generally quite simple- just taking some time to help the employees clarify their perspectives, communicate their needs and figure out where their aims align is usually enough because malicious intent is generally not involved.

2. Fact Conflict

Fact conflicts occur when two people disagree over the facts of an event, situation or idea. For example, one employee argues that an upcoming event is on a certain date and their co-worker argues it’s actually on a different day. In another case, an employee might argue that their research found a certain piece of information that is contradicted by the research of another employee. Because the interpersonal conflict in these scenarios relies on concrete information that can be verified, resolving them is a simple matter of checking the facts.

3. Value Conflict

Value conflicts can be a more difficult form of interpersonal conflict to navigate. They occur when two individuals have certain differences in their value systems (the set of beliefs and attitudes which govern the choices a person makes in all areas of their life). Disputes regarding values often occur about subjects that are generally controversial such as religion, abortion or alternative medicine. The reason why these can be difficult for employers to resolve is that one’s values are a deep-seated aspect of their identity and trying to reach a conclusion with which both parties agree is extremely difficult. 

To address such issues, rather than trying to get parties to see eye-to-eye on the issue, it’s best to encourage them to recognise the values of the other person and accept that they differ from their own. Acknowledging and understanding another person’s opinion even when you disagree with it allows people to feel heard without creating cause for arguments.

4. Ego conflict

Ego conflicts occur when an argument between two parties turns into a matter of pride – at that point, winning the argument becomes more important than understanding and listening to each other and the facts of a situation. They can turn hurtful quickly, especially when an argument deviates from the topic at hand and turns personal. This can cause the involved parties to become defensive and more likely to say harsher things about each other. As a result, ego conflicts can be one of the most difficult forms of interpersonal conflict for employers to navigate because they involve one’s sense of self-respect and dignity.

Ego conflicts can be the outcome of other unresolved conflicts where built-up resentment can take form unexpectedly in situations where it may feel uncalled for. They can escalate further if individuals refuse to back down, ultimately harming the ability of two people to work effectively together.

One way to help resolve the matter is to make sure that all parties have time and space to calm down and step away from the heightened emotions of the dispute. This gives them the capacity to see things with a fresher perspective. Once the heat had died down, it’s useful to return the conversation to the initial cause of concern and go from there, mediating the conversation so it stays on topic and relevant to the issue being discussed.

5. Policy conflict

Policy conflicts arise between individuals who are both being impacted by a certain event or situation (e.g. being in the same team for a company project) and disagree on the implementation of a certain policy or procedure. This could be when a policy is being utilised to guide a task, make an important decision or solve a problem. Employees may disagree not only on which policy is being used but also on the way it has been interpreted and applied to their specific context.

Resolving this type of interpersonal conflict takes a combination of examining the policy to differentiate between the facts and the grey area, identifying areas of agreement and coming to a compromise as a team.

6. Meta Conflict

Meta-conflicts are essentially when people have disputes about their disputes – think phrases such as “Why do you never listen to what I’m saying?!” or “You always react like this, you’re impossible to talk to!”. When they occur, employers should take note and consider revisiting how the workplace is doing in terms of general communication and the effectiveness of its conflict resolution strategies – they may be due an update if you’re noticing an increase in meta-conflicts (or conflicts in general).

To conclude, employers need to be able to recognise and distinguish between the different types of interpersonal conflict. Whilst it may be an unavoidable aspect of human interactions, it can harm workplace dynamics and productivity if left to fester unaddressed. Polonious can aid employers invested in reducing the risk of interpersonal conflict by helping ensure procedural fairness and transparent decision-making in investigations.