Where Does Conflict Come From?

For whatever reason, we’ve been conditioned to view tension and conflict as signs of dysfunction. Feeling or witnessing them makes us feel as though things are damaged. But tension and conflict are natural states—just like joy, love, or sadness—and they hold tremendous interpersonal, relational, and organizational value when treated like first-class citizens. So, rather than avoiding tension and conflict, we should make a point to get value from them.

In order to do that, we have to address our default tendency, which is to view tension and conflict as adversarial. In short, we often take tense moments personally, interpreting them as me-versus-you propositions. And this makes everything harder. According to the people who research it, most conflict at work occurs because two or more people are just trying to do their jobs and their dutiesnot their charactersbump into each other in less-than-ideal, but sometimes unavoidable, ways.

In their book Conflict in Organizations, Steve Turner and Frank Weed explore the variables that underpin conflict at work. They do a great job showing that organizational tension and conflict tend to stem from the interplay of three variables: Organizational Demands, Autonomy, and Worth.

Let’s define these variables and then view them through the lens of a customer success manager named Charlie: 

Organizational Demands are the responsibilities and expectations of you in your role as part of a team or organization. 

Here are a few of the many organizational demands put on Charlie, the customer success manager:

•  He manages 60+ customer accounts at any given time.
•  He is tasked with growing his customers’ spending by $50,000 each quarter.
•  He needs to give each of his service.

Autonomy is the level of coordination required to meet your organizational demands. When you do not need to rely on anyone to meet an organizational demand, you have complete autonomy. For most of us, our organizational demands have varying degrees of autonomy, some requiring more cooperation and coordination than others.

Let’s look at one of Charlie’s organizational demands and examine the level of autonomy he has to achieve it:

•  Charlie has been challenged to expand his book of business by $50,000 each quarter. He cannot do this autonomously. He coordinates with the marketing team to create collateral that impresses his clients. He has to rely on the product team to create value that customers want to spend more money on. And he has to work within his customers’ financial constraints.

Worth deals with the things that contribute to your positive self-evaluation at work. If you like the feeling you get from doing something, your feeling of worth goes up. Feelings of worth can increase even when you don’t like a particular task; for example, if you know how important the task is to the business or your teammates, your experience of worth can go up:

•  When Charlie upsells a customer, the event positively contributes to his feeling of worth.
•  When Charlie loses a customer, he feels a negative sense of worth.
•  When Charlie gets a positive review from a customer, his feeling of worth goes up.

Conflict and tension can occur when any combination of these three variables rub up against one another. Here are a few more examples from a day in the life of Charlie.

Organizational Demand versus Organizational Demand

On one hand, Charlie must be very responsive to his customers—but on the other hand he is asked to work with 60+ different customers. These two demands create an age-old tension between quality and quantity. He might feel frustrated on the days when every customer seems to need something and he knows he is not living up to the ideal standards for responsiveness.

Autonomy versus Organizational Demand

Charlie is tasked with getting great customer case studies to help the sales and marketing teams do better work. But some customers may not want to share their great results with the whole wide world. His teammates and friends in marketing really want the case studies, but the customers may not want to give them—this creates the feeling of conflict.

Worth versus Organizational Demand

Charlie was the first customer success manager at his company and found personal fulfillment in working directly with a large enterprise customer. However, the account has grown and Charlie is being asked to turn it over to a newer, but more experienced teammate. The tension of a fulfilling duty and what best serves the organization sparks angst and conflict.

I could keep going with examples, but will stop for now. The main point is this: By thinking in the context of these three variables, we can start to see conflict more clearly—not as a personal thing, but as a something that is bound to occur when two or more people are trying to get their jobs done.

Next week, I’ll share some tactical tips that I’ve learned. They help me better express how I feel when I am in a state of tension or conflict. I hope they do the same for you.

As always, would love to hear your thoughts,



This is Max’s note—a weekly thoughts from Lessonly’s CEO about learning, leadership, and doing Better Work. Sign up below to subscribe via email. No spam, we promise!

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