Conflicts At Work: They’re Not About Personality

Conflicts At Work: They’re Not About Personality

Psychology July 16, 2014 / By Annie Murphy Paul
Conflicts At Work: They’re Not About Personality

To solve conflict, you need to find, diagnose and address the real causes and effects—not imaginary ones.

Why do people come into conflict with each other at work? A clash of personalities is one reason that might come readily to mind. But “most work conflicts aren’t due to personality,” argues organizational psychologist Ben Dattner in a post on the website of the Harvard Business Review. Rather, there are usually situational dynamics at work that turn people into adversaries.

It’s simpler and easier to think of work conflicts as personality problems, Dattner notes—one of the reasons why personality assessments are so popular in business settings. He is kind enough to mention a book of mine in his analysis:

Personality tests, Dattner writes, “have been criticized by academic psychologists for their unproven or debatable reliability and validity. Yet, according to the Association of Test Publishers, the Society for Human Resources, and the publisher of the Myers-Briggs, these assessments are still administered millions of times per year for personnel selection, executive coaching, team building and conflict resolution.

“As Annie Murphy Paul argues in her insightful bookThe Cult Of Personality, these horoscope-like personality classifications at best capture only a small amount of variance in behavior, and in combination only explain tangential aspects of adversarial dynamics in the workplace. Yet, they’re frequently relied upon for the purposes of conflict resolution. An ENTP and an ISTJ might have a hard time working together. Then again, so might a Capricorn and a Sagittarius. So might any of us.

“The real reasons for conflict are a lot harder to raise—and resolve—because they are likely to be complex, nuanced, and politically sensitive. For example, people’s interests may truly be opposed; roles and levels of authority may not be correctly defined or delineated; there may be real incentives to compete rather than to collaborate; and there may be little to no accountability or transparency about what people do or say.”

So what’s the right approach to resolving conflicts at work? Dattner’s wise answer:

“Look at the situational dynamics that are causing or worsening conflict, which are likely to be complex and multifaceted. Consider how conflict resolution might necessitate the involvement, support, and commitment of other individuals or teams in the organization. For example, if roles are poorly defined, a boss might need to clarify who is responsible for what. If incentives reward individual rather than team performance, Human Resources can be called in to help better align incentives with organizational goals. Then, think about how both parties might have to take risks to change the status quo: systems, roles, processes, incentives or levels of authority.”

As Dattner suggests, challenging the status quo in this way is risky. That’s why people often prefer personality-related approaches:

“When two coworkers create a safe and imaginary set of explanations for their conflict (‘My coworker is a micromanager,’ or My coworker doesn’t care whether errors are corrected’), neither of them has to challenge or incur the wrath of others in the organization. It’s much easier for them to imagine that they’ll work better together if they simply understand each other’s personality (or personality type) than it is to realize that they would have to come together to, for example, request that their boss stop pitting them against one another, or to request that HR match rhetoric about collaboration with real incentives to work together.”

And yet, as Dattner concludes, “To solve conflict, you need to find, diagnose and address the real causes and effects—not imaginary ones.”


This article originally appeared at The Brilliant Report

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