Sources of Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict management and dispute resolution are outcomes defined by how the parties engage in conflict as individuals and with each other.

To effectively look at conflict from an analytical perspective is to begin to dig beneath the surface of conflict and disputes and start to look at the ‘DNA’ of conflict.

When looking at conflict as a separate entity, in and of itself, parties are better able to understand the elements of and the nature of the conflict and then employ the best strategies and practices for managing the conflict and resolving the dispute.

Define Conflict

When looking at conflict from an analytical perspective, it is important to define conflict in a way that leaves lots of room for a thorough inquiry to take place. For the purpose of this post, conflict is defined as:

A social situation involving perceived incompatibilities in goals or values between two or more parties, attempts by the parties to control each other, and antagonistic feelings by the parties toward each other. (Fisher, 1990)

In addition, the components to a conflict are ‘incompatible goals or values, attempts to control leading to hostile interactions and antagonistic feelings based in part on misperceptions and misattributions’. (Fisher, 2007) Moreover, the sources of conflict are dimensions of ‘economic, value, power and needs’ (Fisher, 2007) based.

Economic Source of Conflict

An economical source of conflict, as defined by Fisher (2007), is the behaviours between conflict participants that demonstrate ‘competing motives for scarce resources’ (Fisher, 2007).

This concept assumes that there is a fixed amount or a finite amount of resources available for distribution between conflict participants.

An example of this is the conflict we hear about in the news between communities and nations regarding land. Conflict over land, as a scarce resource, stems back through the ages and has been a leading source of war.

Resources have influenced conflict and war in the last 100 years in the form of wars, revolutions and civil claims.

Resources are usually the first point of contention in any conflict and parties are motivated to engage in and demonstrate their resistance to any proposed change regarding scarce resources.

Values as a Source of Conflict

The next source of conflict, which is value based, is best defined as there being ‘incompatible preferences, principles, ideologies and ways of life’ (Fisher, 2007) that emerge between parties as they develop and engage in discussing their respective perspectives to any proposed change.

A change may be proposing a change of view. Conflict emerges in any instance requiring parties to accept and behave in a way different from how they would usually behave. This, in essence, is change.  

Power as a Source of Conflict

Power is the third source of conflict and is defined as being relevant when ‘each party wishes to maximize its influence’ (Fisher, 2007).

An example of demonstrations of parties invoking the power of influence would be when one party decides to either threaten to or call the police during a neighbour dispute about parking.

The disputing neighbour who decides to contact the authorities regarding the other disputing neighbour’s parking practice may believe that he/she would get what he/she wanted if the police became involved.

This is a demonstration of power that is embedded in resistance. When parties feel or sense resistance, they are more likely to use power as a tool to resolve the conflict or dispute.

Resistance is defined by Karp (1984, p. 69) as ‘the ability to avoid what is not wanted from the environment. It is an expression of power in that not getting what you don’t want is as beneficial as getting what you do want.’ (Karp, 1984)

The demonstration of power in the disputing neighbour contacting the police shows that ‘power is the ability to get all you want from the environment, given what’s available.’ (Karp, 1984).

Needs as a Source of Conflict

Needs, as a source of conflict, include the interests of the parties invested in the conflict. Essentially, they are needs and interests that, for whatever meaning or reason, cannot be reconciled. In this situation, there will always be a sense of one against the other.

From an analytical perspective, irreconcilable can also mean a dimension of a scarcity of resources because we will engage in conflict that may not be available to everybody.

Just as the use of power, with the parking example, was used to highlight the disputing neighbour’s demonstration of power, one could also say that before the need to exercise power, the disputing neighbours were engaged in a needs-based conflict over the scarce availability of parking space in their neighbourhood.

Both, in essence, are ‘right’ by their own expression of the conflict, in that they both have the right to feel that their needs and interests are irreconcilable as it relates to parking.

What happens between these two disputing neighbours though, is a phenomenon that is brought about when they are engaged in an escalating conflict and dispute.  


Understanding the sources of conflict in your workplace and relationships helps you to determne the best methods available for approacing discussions towards resolution.

Thank you for reading my post.

Until next time,


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If mastering the science of conflict management is a goal you have for yourself in 2018, complete your FREE professional conflict management assessment to learn how to pro-manage conflict at work. Knowing your style is an important first step to working through conflict situations and finding solutions. Backed with testing in 16+ years of training events, our assessment is designed to provide you with options to prepare for your next journey into a difficult conversation. Get your personalized Conflict Management Assessment at Peak Conflict Solutions.

Want more? Read ‘The Stages of Escalation to Intractable Conflict in the Workplace’.

Interested in mastering conflict management skills? Start by reading ‘How to Focus on the Behaviour and Not the Person in Conflict Management’.

About The Author

Suzanne Marie

Living life to its fullest. Building mighty communities through connection, belonging, security, and love. I am founder and CEO at Peak Conflict Solutions and my purpose in life is to show your workplace how to set the tone for connection, belonging, and security while creating space for conflict management.