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Workplace conflict is a management problem

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Why can't we all just get along? Because we can't. Welcome to the Petrie dish of human dysfunction called planet Earth. And yes, you really are welcome. Misery loves company.

Conflict is as natural for people as it is for animals. As long as territory, food, mates, and in the case of humans, money, are limited, there's conflict. It is what it is.

Not only that, but as environments go, the workplace is a relatively small, closed system. Talk about a zero-sum game. There are limited raises, promotions, recognition, resources -- everything's limited. It's surprising anything gets done at all. Really.

So, despite the best management and organizational systems, conflict happens, right? Well, yes and no. While it's convenient to blame employee conflict on differences in personality and style or folks just behaving badly, in reality, that doesn't cover it. Not even close.

In my experience, many - if not most - workplace conflicts are a function of management problems. It's true at just about every level in the organization. And when management conflict is chronic, that's almost always a sign of executive dysfunction.

7 signs of a dysfunctional company
7 signs of a dysfunctional boss

Don't believe me? Here are 7 examples of leadership or organizational issues that create breeding grounds for employee conflict.

Shared, split or unclear responsibility. When responsibility is shared or isn't clearly defined, that's a recipe for disaster. That's why I don't believe so-called "two in a box" management works unless the functions are discretely divided. Even then, there are conflicts. I see it time and again at all levels.

Centralized organizational functions. Whenever you have centralized organizational functions like HR, IT, marketing or sales, for example, there's serious potential for conflict between people fighting over resources. Happens all the time. It's a resolvable matrix management issue, but it isn't easy and not every company gets it right.

Ineffective compensation and review systems. Nothing breeds employee-level conflict more than when compensation or review systems are dysfunctional. For example when criteria isn't well-defined, there are more exceptions than rules, or promotions and raises are done by tenure instead of merit.

Up and coming stars thwarted by "the system." The opposite of the above is when review and compensation systems aren't flexible enough to allow for certain individuals with star potential to be identified and offered an accelerated path.

Lack of accountability. When executive or management bonus and compensation programs aren't well constructed -- usually when objectives or metrics are fuzzy or poorly aligned between groups -- that causes a lack of accountability, finger-pointing, back-stabbing, and of course, the blame game.

Poor or nonexistent processes. Conflict is often a sign of growth pains because a company has outgrown its processes and its scalability is limited. Whether it's annual operating planning, budgeting, forecasting, or product development phase reviews, when these or other processes are nonexistent or break down, that creates conflict.

The Peter Principle. Ever get stuck working under an incompetent boss who doesn't deserve to be in his job? Or have to work alongside a peer who likewise isn't cutting it? I bet we all have. In every case I've seen, it creates conflict between individuals.

Now, don't get me wrong. There are certainly times when people just don't get along. But in my experience, the best run companies train their managers from the top down to ask lots of questions before determining the cause of conflict-related issues. On the other hand, when conflicts are chronic, that's nearly always a sign of executive dysfunction.

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