There are lots of theories about how to resolve workplace conflict. Avoidance, however, is not one of them (at least not in the long term). Even a seemingly minor dispute can evolve into a much larger issue, and the first time human resources (HR) hears about an ongoing conflict should not be when you’re handing in your resignation. Unresolved conflicts in the workplace both kill productivity and fuel interoffice gossip. Constructive disagreement, on the other hand, is the lifeblood of many of the most effective teams; when members of a team or organization feel safe to disagree with each other, increased innovation, broader thinking, and enhanced decision-making are often the result.
Of course, not all conflicts can be avoided or settled, but our goal for this survey was to increase our understanding of the factors contributing to unhealthy conflicts — such as age, industry, emotions, discrimination, and competition — and help you better navigate disagreements in your workplace.
As opportunities for remote and hybrid work continue to increase in availability and popularity, the way we perceive work and the workplace has also changed. Many employers are demanding their workers return to the office, while plenty of others are happy to let their people stay home. However, new modes of working come with plenty of new opportunities for strife.
What kinds of conflicts are workers getting into in 2023? What industries are most affected by interoffice disputes? What emotional factors are leading to conflict? And how are workers typically responding? We surveyed 973 people to find out — and, hopefully, help you gain some clarity on your office feud.
Research suggests that employees who experience regular workplace conflict over the nature of their duties and their at-work relationships typically report lower overall well-being. The negative impact of workplace conflict on well-being can be mitigated by psychological detachment, but only in terms of conflict related to relationships, not the work itself.
One of the best things you can do if you’re struggling in this area is mentally disengage during off hours. For anyone who struggles more with interoffice dynamics, working remotely might be the best thing you can do for your mental health. Awareness of other factors contributing to workplace conflict would also be beneficial, which is where we come in.
According to our survey, more than half of respondents (54%) believed work ethic disparity was the primary reason they experienced workplace conflict, making it the most commonly reported source. Following closely behind our participants’ scorn for slackers was competition between colleagues (40%), inappropriate boundaries with coworkers (34%), and gender discrimination (33%).
The industry our participants worked in also contributed to conflict, mainly in terms of who they disputed with. Those working in architecture and engineering reported having more conflicts with their manager or boss, those working in the communications sector were more likely to butt heads with their supervisor, and those working in health and medicine tended to have more work-related disputes with their fellow coworkers.
We found that age was also a factor in the nature of workplace disagreements experienced by our respondents. Even though conflict among peers was the least commonly reported form of workplace disagreement, those over 50 were the most likely to conflict with their coworkers, whereas, more than any other age group, respondents in their 30s (45%) said inappropriate boundaries of coworkers was their main reason they experienced conflict in the workplace.
With Gen Z entering the workforce and many baby boomers yet to retire, four generations are working together and contributing unique principles, views, expectations, values, and ideas. To capitalize on this broad range of perspectives and get ahead of any emerging conflicts, employers and owners should be aware of these differences and identify how best to share past knowledge and technological advancements across the generations.
Strategies such as flexible work locations and use of space, opportunities for mentorship and teamwork, plug-and-play technological environments, and non-hierarchical organizational structures might help workers of all ages play a little nicer together in the corporate sandbox.
Participants in their 30s reported experiencing racial, gender, and political discrimination more often than any other age group, tied with those in their 20s for discrimination based on age. Most respondents (76.2%) also reported experiencing conflict due to being excluded from an after-work event.
Nearly a third of all respondents claimed to have experienced conflict due to some form of discrimination:
While cultural diversity in the workplace is inherently good, enhancing creativity and broadening the base of available knowledge, some negative outcomes have also been observed. Culturally diverse workforces regularly have different opinions, social norms, values, and traditions, leading to miscommunication and conflict. By actively promoting tolerance, empathy, and teamwork, a strong leadership team can create a working environment that’s safe and comfortable for everyone.
Women in our survey reported experiencing higher rates of conflict than men, particularly when it was between colleagues (43% vs. 39%) and due to gender discrimination (35% vs. 32%). The former observation comes as more of a surprise than the latter, given the extensive research available on gender discrimination in the workplace. Women may be in a long-standing competition with their male counterparts in the patriarchy, but they also have to compete with each other.
An extensive 11-year study of female white-collar workers in Norway uncovered not only an obvious underrepresentation of women at the upper levels of corporate hierarchies — which the researchers attributed to both “sticky floors” and “glass ceilings” — but they also found several trends related to both female assistance and competition. More female leadership improved outcomes for women at lower ranks; better mentorship, role modeling, and access to powerful professional networks also contributed to better results.
But the researchers also discovered that having more female workers at the same level within the same organization actually depressed promotion rates for those women compared to their male peers. Among other variables, the researchers suspected increased competition within and between genders for promotion and gender-specific mentoring and support. Not enough resources to go around is enough to stoke fires in even the most generous hearts, especially in the workplace.
Researchers generally neglected our emotions’ impact on our working environment until the 1990s. Over the past 20 years, there has been an intense focus on organizational psychology and organizational behavior (OPOB) research to make up for it. Recent technology has enhanced the study and measurement of emotions through the use of more objective non-self-reported methods, such as electroencephalography (EEG), quantitative electroencephalography (qEEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). However, the most reliable way of knowing how people feel is a combination of cognitive, physiological, and subjective measures. We also focused on our participants’ feelings surrounding conflicts in their workplaces in our survey.
Just over half of our respondents (51%) have wanted to quit their job due to workplace conflict, while 41% stated that they have followed through. Men reported wanting to leave more than women (54% vs. 44%) and have more often walked out the door (42% vs. 38%).
Other potential sources of workplace conflict, such as poor pay and working conditions, have also led millions of Americans to quit their jobs in the past few years. In 2022, after the employment crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic had mostly subsided, the “Great Resignation” flared up again, with nearly 50 million Americans leaving their jobs (4.2 million in November alone), many in search of better treatment and compensation.
This has left many employers, primarily those in low-wage industries, scrambling to fill a widening expanse of open positions. And with so many of our respondents desiring to quit in the face of conflict, we may only see this gap getting wider if conditions don't improve.
Participants in their 30s were more likely to experience a decline in productivity (35%) due to conflict than any other age group. But a dip in efficiency and output wasn’t the only response our 30-something respondents had to disagreement — they were also most likely to:
Organizational psychologists and sociologists have watched millennials (born 1980–1995) closely since they entered the workforce, at least partly because they grew up during the early 2000s technology boom. According to a study published in the Journal of Human Resources Management and Labor Studies, millennials are significantly more attracted to employment that offers greater work-life balance opportunities than jobs that offer more opportunities for career advancement.
If this is true, and millennials care more about well-being than financial gain, it could explain why they are more reactive to workplace conflict than both their younger and older contemporaries.
The most common emotions leading to tension or incivility in the workplace are stress (45%), anger (44%), and frustration (38%). But that’s not all — other triggering emotions include:
We found that men are most likely to experience conflict at work due to stress (42%), anger (42%), and jealousy (40%), whereas women are triggered most by stress (52%), anger (48%), frustration (38%), and fear (38%).
Each age group reported a different emotion that was most likely to create conflict for them:
Stress was the primary emotional cause of conflict for employees and managers (50% and 45%, respectively), while jealousy (48%) reigned supreme for those working at the executive or senior management levels.
In an extensive review of the literature on hospitality employees and emotions, the researchers found that labor-intensive work requiring lots of social interaction can lead to strong, variable emotions, which affect both the employees’ work and personal lives. Negative emotions, at least among hospitality employees, may not be fully avoidable; work stress, job insecurity, workplace gossip, and sexual harassment can all result in negative emotional outcomes.
By creating a safe and supportive working environment, one that includes a thorough understanding of emotional triggers and promotes prosocial emotions (like empathy and gratitude), employers can do a lot to mitigate negative emotions.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a third of U.S. workers (33%) are currently or have been involved in a workplace romance, a surprising 6% increase compared to rates recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic. Most U.S. workers (75%) claim to be comfortable with interoffice relationships, while more than a quarter (26%) are open to entering one. With so many people on board with relationships in the workplace — or jumping into one themselves — it’s not surprising that the majority of our respondents (67%) have experienced conflict in this area.
Men in our study were slightly more likely to engage in workplace romances than women, but the majority of both our male and female respondents (68% and 62%, respectively) claimed to have had a workplace romance that resulted in conflict. Notably, participants who identified as homosexual or bisexual reported more interoffice romance issues (79%) than their heterosexual colleagues.
The older (and perhaps wiser) our participants were, the less likely they were to become tangled in an interoffice romance.
Compared to their older colleagues, millennial employees tend to have a more positive attitude toward workplace romances (thanks in part to Jim and Pam from The Office) and generally allow their work and private lives to become more closely intertwined. However, positive effects are rarely observed as a result of this commingling. All positive emotional outcomes could just as easily be attributed to feeling happier at work because of improved coworker relations and job-related advantages, such as favoritism and promotions — not hooking up with one of their colleagues after hours in the break room.
As our respondents rose in the ranks, they were also more likely to experience conflict due to a workplace relationship:
Certain industries appeared to allow for more fraternization (and subsequent conflict) than others, as well:
According to a study published in the International Journal of Business Communication, those working in healthcare, education, administration, and other professional industries are typically more conservative about workplace relationships. They were more likely to consider them unprofessional and opt for their prohibition compared to those working in STEM, finance, trade, sales, or blue-collar and manual labor industries.
This study also confirmed our finding that senior managers within all industries were more likely to participate in interoffice relationships and felt more comfortable having future relationships.
When considering their professional reputation, however, senior managers working in STEM, finance, trade, and sales thought workplace romances strongly reflected a person’s aggressive business nature. Historically masculine industries (such as finance, trade, sales, and STEM) were more likely to see expressions of romance and sexuality in the workplace aiding career advancement. However, given the risk of conflict associated with interoffice relationships — and that managerial employees are typically responsible for generating policies, modeling appropriate behavior, and shielding the organization from lawsuits and reputational damage — these findings (and ours) appear to be somewhat counter-intuitive.
When our respondents found themselves battling with their colleagues, the vast majority (88%) said human resources (HR) eventually got involved. Of those who received HR support, 79% said they would go to HR again if another issue emerged, whereas just 6% of respondents felt HR’s involvement didn’t help the situation. Those most likely to get HR involved were:
Understandably, not everyone is in a rush to air their dirty laundry at work. Workplace conflict classes can help; nearly 8 out of 10 survey participants (79%) said they were required to take a workplace conflict class and found it helpful, and 6% said it wasn’t helpful. (11% didn’t take a class). You’ll know it’s time for HR to get involved when:
One could easily argue that the best way to settle a conflict is to avoid it altogether, but when that’s not possible, there are other ways to deal with even the most heated disagreements in a productive manner:
We conducted a survey for individuals who have experienced conflict in the workplace and asked them questions to learn more about who is causing the conflict, who is most affected, what type of conflicts are occurring, what are the effects of it, and HR’s role in conflicts in the workplace.
Innerbody Research is committed to providing objective, science-based suggestions and research to help our readers make more informed decisions regarding health and wellness. We invested the time and effort into creating this report to identify the various causes and negative effects of conflict in the workplace. We hope to reach as many people as possible by making this information widely available. As such, please feel free to share our content for educational, editorial, or discussion purposes. We only ask that you link back to this page and credit the author as Innerbody.com.
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