4 Reasons for Work Disagreements

Disagreements at work interrupt the process of getting stuff done.

Disagreements can be over seemingly petty matters, like keeping the lunchroom clean. Or they can be over more serious contentious issues, such as who gets vacation time and when.

Wherever disagreements fall on the continuum of conflict, they have the capacity to demotivate us and ensure that important tasks are not done.

In short, disagreements are time-wasters.

Yet if we don’t address and resolve disagreements, they fester and will continue to negatively influence our interactions at work. And then contribute to even more time-wasting.

Workplace disagreements may seem different from our disagreements with significant others, but they are similar in one important way.

Every person enters into a disagreement or conflict with a goal.

If you enter into a discussion where you are challenging another person’s ideas or behaviours, you ultimately have a goal. Finding out what your goal is, is key for understanding and resolving the disagreement. Because if you don’t know why you are doing something, you won’t be able to work on how to resolve it.

You might very well say, “Well, that’s easy, my goal is to win the argument because I’m right and she’s wrong.”

On the surface, this may be one goal, one reason ‘why.’ But consider: is it possible that I have another reason, another goal for beginning/continuing this discussion?

Disagreements generally involve four kinds of goals:

Goal 1: Topic Goals

Sometimes disagreements happen because people have different ideas about what they want or expect from a situation.

These kinds of goals are often called topic goals. With topic goals, people can generally identify a particular topic that they are having an issue with.

For instance, at work a topic goal might be having a clean lunchroom. It may be that all your colleagues might not share your goal of having a clean lunchroom—or at least not to a standard that you feel comfortable with.

A good way to understand if you have topic goal is to complete the statement: “I want _______.” If you can objectively state the issue in a few words, this is your topic goal.

Goal 2: Relationship goals

Relationships are interdependent. This means that what each of you does and says has a direct impact on the other.

And our ways of interacting with each other, whether at work or at home,  over time develop into patterns. Though not always spoken or conscious, relationship patterns abide by certain rules. These rules govern how workmates are going to act and respond to one another.

Disagreements can come in when your relationship rules are not the same another’s relationship rules.

I’ll give you an example that builds on the lunchroom example.

I used to share an office with a lovely woman. We had a positive working relationship except for one issue—she was very messy. Her desk was often littered with half-full coffee cups, food wrappers, and an assortment of leftover dishes.

My concern is that we’d often have meetings with clients in our shared office space. Her desk, to my mind, didn’t resemble a professional working environment.

My relationship goal was about professionalism and mutual respect. I wanted each of us to respect the common workspace, and from my perspective, having a tidy workspace communicates a commitment to professionalism.

What is challenging about relationship goals is that each person has different interpretations and expectations.

For example, my colleague had a different perspective on the common work area. Even though her desk was visible to clients who would come to our office, she saw her desk as her property and not necessarily a part of the common work space, and certainly not an extension of her professionalism.

Whatever your workplace disagreement, there are a few helpful questions you can ask yourself to uncover your goal in this relationship:

1) How do I want to be treated in this situation?

2) What do I want from this person in this situation?

Goal 3: Identity Goals

Identity goals are similar to relationship goals; however, they usually go deeper and are more enduring.

Your personal identity is how you see and describe yourself. Your social identity is the group or groups you align with that correspond to how you see and describe yourself. Social identity helps you and others understand who is a part of the group and who is not.

At work, social identify forms into a more complicated pattern called a ‘workplace culture.’

Workplace cultures are more enduring, and yet often more invisible, so it can be challenging to pinpoint when and if an identity goal is causing disagreements.

A good way to identify an identity goal is if it follows this idea: “I (we) have this goal because this is who I (we) are or what I (we) do.”

Goal 4: Process Goals

People also disagree about how to best deal with conflicts, and these are called process goals.

With this kind of a goal, you might have a vested interest in controlling where, when, and how the conflicts happen. For instance, it might be more important to you to have a casual one-on-one conversation rather than a more formal meeting with a larger group.

Differences about process goals often highlight power dynamics in relationships, as the person with more power usually has the final say in the type of process you will use to resolve the disagreement. 

Questions to ask to uncover process goals:

1) Is where, when, and how the discussion happens important to the outcome in your conflict situation?

2) Do you have the ability to make decisions, or at least have some input, on where, when, and how the discussion happens? If so, you can read this article to learn three helpful communication strategies to constructively approach colleagues when there’s a difference in perspectives.

Finding out the goals underneath your disagreement is key for understanding and resolving it. This ensures the disagreement doesn’t waste your valuable time and energy at work. Find out out your goal, and then you can work on resolving it!