What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate: Recognizing the Sources
of Conflict


In the 1967 movie, "Cool Hand Luke", the cruel jail warden and the irrepressible prisoner realized they had a conflict that just wouldn't go away. In fact, at different points in the movie, each uttered a version of the famous phrase: "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Conflicts are going to happen. But it is often the failure to communicate that continues to cause the conflict to grow. And when that happens, it can take years for an issue to be resolved. Just because a crisis is over or averted, without communication, that conflict and potential for future conflict is not resolved.

Many years ago, I trained a group on working together more effectively. It turns out that there had been a very bitter strike, during which about half of the employees crossed the picket line and went back to work. Eventually, the strike was settled and everyone returned to work. However, even 15 years later, the two groups still would not talk to each other. They sat at separate tables, refused to acknowledge each other and only worked with the "other side" out of pure necessity.

Obviously, although the strike ended, hurt feelings endured. What's worse, when those extreme divisions occur, it doesn't just end with the current employees. Every new employee who comes into the workplace feels compelled to choose a side, and eventually, the unresolved conflict becomes part of the institution.

Most managers would rather pretend that conflict doesn't exist and fail to realize that it can actually be a good thing. Conflict can bring together opposing views that lead to a new, better vision. Understanding that, and being able to share that perspective as you help opposing sides respectfully communicate, is essential for turning conflict into collaboration.

Being prepared to address conflict can help a manager keep the organization healthy, so let's look at some common reasons it occurs in the workplace.

  • Skill deficiency – Employees with poor communication skills are usually more prone to conflict. Think about the child who is just learning to express herself with language and the frustration she feels when she is not being understood. Poor communicators often feel the same way. If co-workers do not have the skills to express their concerns respectfully while genuinely listening to the concerns of others, someone's feelings are bound to get hurt. One person will think the other doesn't understand him – and doesn't WANT to understand him. Before long, each side has hardened its position and won't even try to be flexible.

  • Different interests – Sometimes two views are so diametrically opposed that conflict is inevitable. Think about agreeing on which television station to watch in the break room, where one employee wants to watch soap operas and another wants to watch news. We need to figure a compromise that addresses the wants, needs and interests of both parties.

  • Stress – More than 70 percent of today's workforce say that stress on the job is causing conflict. Many employees feel "under the gun" to be more productive, all the while wondering about job security and feeling that any lost argument could have a negative effect on job status.

  • Organizational deficiency – Managers think it's their job to eliminate conflict. Most organizations don't have procedures for addressing conflict, and they seldom train employees to resolve it before it becomes a major stumbling block to the work group. It is important to have a system that:

    1. gives employees the interpersonal skills they need to resolve issues and
    2. includes procedures for employees to use if they need help addressing a conflict.
  • Lack of resources – When time, people, material or money is limited, conflict is inevitable as everyone fights to get their share. This can be an issue among managers, who are attempting to get more work done with less.

  • Personality clash – Occasionally, we can't just "all get along". Some employees like a good fight – either because they enjoy the conflict, because they are bored or because they are looking for entertainment. Often, they are behind the scenes, egging on others to act.

From my experience, these are the sources of most organizational conflicts. At the heart of each one is the inability of the two sides to communicate effectively, effectively listen and genuinely work for a solution that meets everyone's needs. But a good manager – one who understands the value of conflict – is able to bridge the communication gap and attend to the concerns of the opposing side. And he always remembers that he and the other employee(s) are on the same side in a quest to resolve the problem.

Copyright © Paul Glover

About the Author
Paul Glover

With his distinctive, direct and oft-humorous approach, "recovering attorney" and long-time business and executive coach Paul Glover bares his knuckles to present 76 strategies and tips to thrive in the Knowledge Economy in his new book, WorkQuake, published by Round Table Companies. The blogger for coined the term WorkQuakeTM of the Knowledge Economy to capture his unique insights and tools to implement organizational change in the knowledge economy. Paul's writing has been featured in The Business Edge, Vistage,, and Food Manufacturing. He is based in Chicago.

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