What causes tensions at work?
By Hebba Youssef
Does your workplace have any unresolved tensions?
Not me trying to get you to spill the tea… 🫖
Maybe there’s a recent conflict between two coworkers, a disagreement that has carried on for weeks, coworkers that try to avoid working together, or even two employees that don’t like each other.
Its more common than you think!
Employees in the US spend on average 2.8 hours a week involved in conflict with 85% of employees reporting they’ve experienced some type of conflict. 🤯
I gasped at those stats. 2.8 HOURS A WEEK?! 🤯🤯🤯
But it makes sense because we’re all different people with our lived experiences and our default styles trying to find a way to work with others.
And oftentimes thats where the tension comes in. But the key here is not to let tension go unresolved!
Because unresolved tensions in the workplace can negatively impact:
- Employee wellbeing
- Team dynamics
AND they can lead the way to a toxic culture, because rarely do unresolved tensions just fade away. Even though most people may wish that they did.
Diffusing tensions can feel impossible unless you know what is the root cause of tension.
Two of the most common root causes:
- communication issues
- different working styles
Let’s dive into each and see how tension can manifest.
This ends up being the top source of tension that I see in the workplace. IMO, most things come down to miscommunication.
Because people communicate differently and we’ve all somehow convinced ourselves were excellent at communicating!
Tension can easily arise between employees with different communication styles.
Verbal communicators prefer face to face conversations and real time dialogue where they can go back and forth. They can find themselves struggling with tone and context via writing. (This is my preferred mode!)
Whereas written communicators prefer written comms like messages or emails where they can carefully craft their response. They can find verbal communicators overwhelming and may even find replying to things in real time to be stressful.
Don’t forget there’s also non-verbal, visual and listening communicators as well!
Differences in style can easily give way to miscommunication especially when one party feels their preferred style of communication is not being understood or respected.
To note: when teams communicate effectively productivity can increase by as much as 25%!! 🤯
Pro-tip: at the start of every relationship in the workplace I ask the question: “What is your preferred communication style?”
Don’t listen to the other person if they say, oh whatever you like! Because that’s clearly not the case, everyone has their preferred mode.
The really cool thing about the workplace is that every person is unique and you might have the opportunity to meet many different people!
But that can also cause tension because different working styles means differences in how work gets done.
A few different working styles:
- Structured: Individuals prefer rules and defined processes. They tend to be highly organized and detail-oriented and may prefer working alone. Ambiguity can lead to discomfort for those with this working style.
- Creative: Individuals are flexible and open-minded. They tend to value working collaboratively or through brainstorming sessions. They thrive in environments that are high risk and experimental.
- Analytical: Individuals are highly logical and data-driven, preferring to work with numbers rather than concepts. They tend to be detail-oriented and may prefer to work alone.
- Collaborative: Individuals value teamwork and working with others. They tend to be highly communicative and want to bounce ideas off of others.
- Independent: Individuals prefer to work alone and with minimal supervision. They value autonomy and prefer projects where they can set their own goals and timelines.
Imagine a structured individual paired with a creative individual. Their styles are naturally at odds with each other! BOOM tension.
Other ways tensions can manifest from different working styles:
- Misunderstandings about how information is interpreted
- Clash of priorities
- Clash of problem solving techniques
- Lack of flexibility
- Different working pace
- Resistance to change
Pro-tip: at the start of every relationship in the workplace I ask the question: “What is your preferred working style?” If folks can’t answer you can share the 5 types above and ask them to pick the one that most resonates with them!
Spoiler alert: understanding these different working styles and accommodating styles is the key to inclusion.
How HR teams can diffuse tensions at work:
Working in HR feels like being a diplomat sometimes. We’re sometimes thrown into the center of a conflict and told to fix it.
Fun fact: In middle school I became a certified peer mediator. I like to think my path into HR started then. 😂
Two things HR teams can do to diffuse tensions at work:
1. Stop them before they can even start. As an employee is onboarding have every manager ask the following questions:
- What’s your preferred communication style?
- What’s your preferred working style?
Bonus points: have everyone in your organization answer those questions and record their answer somewhere.
Encourage every employee to reference these questions when beginning to work with someone new across the organization.
I truly believe knowing the answers to these questions could diffuse potential tensions.
Now, what if you already have a ton of conflict in your workplace?
2. Train every single employee, manager and leader on conflict resolution.
This guide is FULL of tips, tricks and a framework for conflict resolution.
By training folks to resolve their conflict eventually conflict could be normalized.
I think a lot of folks see conflict as bad and instead of admitting there is conflict they’d rather push it down and ignore things.
But the reality is that it actually makes tensions higher at work!
Next time things feel intense at work remember tension and conflict are quite normal in the workplace and resolving it is key.