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Interpersonal or Systemic: When the Rules Are the Problem

Interpersonal or Systemic: When the Rules Are the Problem

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand that in workplace or organizational settings, people think is interpersonal conflict sometimes is actually about organizational factors.

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Interpersonal or Systemic: When the Rules Are the Problem

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If you've ever spent much time in an organization or workplace setting, you may have experienced conflict or witnessed conflict. So what caused the conflict? Was it factors within the organization, the system as a whole, the way things operate, did that lead to the conflict, or was it something interpersonal? It's an interesting question to ponder when we look at workplace conflict. I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to explore those issues with you.

I'd like to look at conflict within the workplace in terms of interpersonal, is it interpersonal conflict, or is it structural? Of course, we all know interpersonal conflict has to do with the relationships between people. You don't need to be in a workplace to have experienced interpersonal conflict. It can happen in the workplace.

But there's also structural conflict. Now, structural conflict comes out of the actual rules and practices that are formalized within this organization. Might even be informal, but these rules and practices sometimes lead to the conflict. So it's interesting to ponder whether or not it's interpersonal or structural.

Now, another thing that influences us when we begin to look at these conflicts is attribution bias. Now, we've talked about attribution bias before, but just to review. We as human beings have a tendency, when we're part of a group, to see the members of our own group more positively. It's easier for us to give positive traits to those members.

So if we're part of, say, a particular employee group, we may give more positive traits to those people in that group. And we tend to ascribe more negative traits, or it's easier to give more negative traits to people who are not in our group. So it's interesting to see how that might play out in a work setting, where you have people in different groups, employees, supervisors, managers.

So, for example, a conflict may appear to be interpersonal. OK, I think I'm having interpersonal conflict here. It could be around scheduling. You know, I go to my supervisor, and I'm trying to do something around scheduling. I've asked for some particular shifts off. I work in a factory setting where we're working shifts. I have asked ahead of time for some scheduling. And I'm told I can't have it.

Now, I thought that I was in line to get this. There's seniority here. But there have been some new rules put into place. My supervisor has to follow those rules in terms of how shifts are assigned. And there's no leeway here. So the supervisor is just simply following these new rules that are prescribing how he has to assign me to shifts. Doing these sort of personal favors for people based on seniority, based on other things, is not allowed anymore.

Well, what the supervisor is doing, maybe he doesn't want to do this. But there are new rules in place. So this really is a structural issue. But it's very easy for me to see this as interpersonal because of attribution bias. We tend to kind of hold a little resentment here towards the supervisor who is not going to give us the shift change that we asked for that maybe we got it in the past.

This can also happen around deadlines. We have a manager that seems to keep pushing us to work harder, faster, push out more. Fast paced environment, they've laid some people off, people are sick, you gotta do this, and pushing these deadlines. We start to feel a conflict here with this manager who seems to have no regard for the fact that we have another life. We make it personal.

But the manager is getting pushed from above to get the work done, and that's what's happening. There's something systemic here in terms of the work pace and getting things done and out the door. And it's systemic, we're one of the components in the system here. And we're feeling the pressure from our manager, who's feeling the pressure from his manager or her manager. But it's easy to feel that this is interpersonal.

Now, we can also see this happen if we have a friend maybe who's been promoted. This person's been our friend, and now they've become promoted. It might even be just a team leader. Suddenly they're telling us what to do. Well, she's become kind of bossy. There's a different role here in terms of how we are behaving now. This person was part of our group. We all worked on these projects together. We all kind of whined and complained together, or we patted each other on the back. Now this person is telling us what to do.

She's in another group, the out-group. It's easier to give negative attributes to somebody in our out-group. We just kind of do it unconsciously. So these are some examples of how things that appear to be interpersonal in a workplace setting can really be structural. They can be structural.

Now, a conflict can be both. OK? A conflict can be both of these things, interpersonal and structural. So if that's the case, let's just say you do have a manager here who has to, you know, follow some rules here that are really making everybody complain. But this person is just not a very good communicator, and very brusque, and kind of rude. And there are some interpersonal elements here that have always been here with this particular manager. And now that there are these new rules that he or she is enforcing, it's gotten even worse.

So there really are some interpersonal elements here as well as some structural elements. And there are many cases when this may be true. So how do you handle that as a conflict intervener, if you are called in to work with this? Well, first of all, you do want to deal here with this interpersonal first. Deal with the interpersonal piece of it. And you do that using the regular conflict resolution process.

Once you've dealt with the interpersonal, you can work together with the parties to jointly problem solve how can you address the rules here which are also causing conflict in this organization. So is there a way we can change the rules, work with them? Let's have a joint problem solving session. So you would do that secondly.

So once again, conflict within a workplace is often caused by multiple factors. Some might be interpersonal, others are structural or systemic, sometimes both elements are in the same conflict. But it's important to notice and be able to separate what is what here. And if you find yourself in a situation as an intervener where there's both interpersonal and structural, it's always good to deal with the interpersonal first and then problem-solve the structural. So thank you for joining me today, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
Attribution Bias

A tendency to assign more positive traits to members of one's own group and to assign more negative traits to non-members.

Interpersonal Conflict

Conflict based on interpersonal relational issues rather than structural factors.

Organizational Rules/Practices

Formalized instructions about behavior or action within a given organization.

Structural Conflict

Conflict caused by misaligned rules or practices of an organization.