Is Conflict Often Caused by Perceived Unfairness?

You are sitting on a park bench and see someone find $10. Too bad you didn’t see it first! That person asks if you want to split the money. If they offer to split it 50-50, many of us would accept, or perhaps decline because “finders’ keepers.” What if the finder suggests you split the money 90-10. That is not fair! That person wants to cheat us! Forget the fact that a 90-10 split would give you $1 you didn’t have before; forget the fact that the other person found the money. It’s not the facts that matter; it’s the perception. Conflict is often caused by perceptions of what is fair and what is not and what we perceive the other person’s intentions are. In the workplace, managers and supervisors may be causing conflict and not even be aware of it.

Is someone being unfair? Is someone receiving treatment that is favorable, or is someone being unfairly targeted? It’s hard to say. A supervisor may schedule himself for the best shifts and give nights and weekends to others. Is this unfair? Maybe. Maybe not. But that does not even matter as much as the perception. Perception is everything. This supervisor is essentially unfair then, until he/she can change that perception.  That’s not fair, is it?

When we are in a trusting relationship, we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, even when they act in a way that, in different circumstances, might look like an obvious transgression. As soon as that trust vanishes, then everything looks bad, whether it is or not. So, for instance, when your supervisor schedules you to work every Friday and Saturday night, you are going to assume his intentions are bad, that he is doing this to punish you or prevent you from having a life on the weekend.  If you feel hurt or slighted, your mind immediately superimposes a bad intention in the mind of the person who has hurt you.

We do this all the time, even with inanimate objects. For instance, “This car is always breaking down on me!” The car isn’t breaking down to spite you. As tempting as it might be to think that it’s paying you back for not changing the oil, there is no intention.

It’s a survival technique to assume the worst. If we always assume there is underlying intention behind those things which injure us, then we avoid them and presumably live to fight another day. Our fast-thinking brain leaps to conclusions, and this can save our lives. When we see a tiger bare its teeth at us, for instance, our brain snaps into action and tells us to run.

Unfortunately, our fast-thinking brain kicks in when slow thinking might be more beneficial. If someone simply doesn’t smile at you in the morning as you pass her in the hall, for instance, we immediately think this person is angry at us, giving us “the cold shoulder”, or that “she hates me”. Maybe she’s just distracted. Maybe she hasn’t had her morning coffee.  We assume ill intention when there may not have been anything of the kind behind the act. This can be dangerous, especially when we don’t go to the trouble of trying to figure out what the intention was.  This is not to say we need to confirm the intention behind every comment or gesture but if we have attributed “bad intention”, it’s better to be sure.

In the workplace, you have a diverse group of people, each with his/her own experience, attitude, expectations, and worldview. That conflict arises is not surprising. Often, though, it’s not based on the actual event, but on the perceptions surrounding events – in fact this is always the case. It is useful for supervisors to understand this so they can determine how best to handle conflict. It is also helpful for every team member to keep in mind so we can start telling our slow-thinking brain to kick in and give us a chance to digest events before reacting.

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