Organizational conflict is a state of discord caused by an actual or perceived opposition of needs, values and interests between people working together. Conflict takes many forms in organizations. There is the inevitable clash between formal authority and power and those individuals and groups affected. There are disputes over how revenues should be divided, how the work should be done and how long and hard people should work (team and relationship conflict). There are jurisdictional disagreements among individuals, executives, managers, teams, departments, and between unions and management. There are subtler forms of conflict involving rivalries, jealousies, personality clashes, role definitions, and struggles for power and favor. There is also conflict within individuals — between competing needs and demands — to which individuals respond in different ways.
A process that begins when an individual or group perceives differences and opposition between itself and another individual or group about interest and resources, beliefs, values or practices that matter to them. It occurs or arises due to difference in expectation and knowledge, poor communication, fear, attachment, incompatible values, harassments, stress, scarce resources, past trauma, misunderstandings and perceived oppression. It also arises usually during mergers and acquisitions, union negotiations, performance appraisals, interpersonal issues, changing job functions, downsizing and reorganizations. Conflict has negative effects on organizations such as, increase in turnovers, absenteeism, health issues, wasted resources, increase in production cost and decrease in job satisfaction and performance. Its positive effects include, increases effort of workers, diagnostic information, creativity, learning of new skills and forming of deep bonds. Conflicts can be handled through integrating, forcing, competition, sharing, smoothing, avoiding and compromising.
There are two ways of looking at organizational conflict; the functional and dysfunctional. Each of these ways is linked to a different set of assumptions about the purpose and function of organizations. Conflict that occurs in organizations need not be destructive, provided the energy associated with conflict is harnessed and directed towards problem-solving and organizational improvement. However, managing conflict effectively requires that all parties understand the nature of conflict in the workplace. The dysfunctional view (bad) of organizational conflict is imbedded in the notion that organizations are created to achieve goals by creating structures that perfectly define job responsibilities, authorities, and other job functions. Here, each worker knows where he or she fits, knows what he or she must do and knows how to relate to others in the organization. This traditional view of organizations values orderliness, stability and the repression of any conflict that occurs.
To the “traditional” organizational thinker conflict implies that the organization is not designed or structured correctly or adequately. Common remedies would be to further elaborate job descriptions, authorities and responsibilities, increase the use of central power (discipline), separate conflicting members, etc. This view of organizations and conflict causes problems. Unfortunately, most managers consciously or unconsciously, value some of the characteristics of this “orderly” environment. Problems arise when it is not realized that this way of looking at organizational conflict only fits organizations that work in routine ways, where innovation and change are virtually eliminated. Virtually all government organizations work within a very disorderly context — one characterized by constant change and a need for constant adaptation.
Trying to “structure away” conflict and disagreement in a dynamic environment requires tremendous amounts of energy, and will also suppress any positive outcomes that may come from disagreement, such as improved decision-making and innovation. When a bad conflict worsens it becomes an ugly conflict. Ugly conflicts occurs where the manager (and perhaps employees) attempt to eliminate or suppress conflict in situations where it is impossible to do so. Ugly conflicts in organizations occur when: conflicts run for years, people have given up on resolving and addressing conflict problems, there is a good deal of private “bitching” and complaining but little attempt to fix the problem and when staff show little interest in working to achieve common goals, but spend more time and energy on protecting themselves Under these circumstances there is a tendency to look to the manager or formal leader as being responsible for the mess. In fact, that is how most employees would look at the situation.
It is true that managers and supervisors play critical roles in determining how conflict is handled in the organization, but it is also true that the avoidance of these ugly conflicts must be a shared responsibility. Management and employees must work together in a cooperative way to reduce them, and increase the likelihood that conflict can be channeled into an effective force for change. The functional (good) view of organizational conflict sees conflict as a productive force, one that can stimulate members of the organization to increase their knowledge and skills, and their contribution to organizational innovation and productivity.
Unlike the position mentioned above, this more modern approach considers that the keys to organization success lie not in structure, clarity and orderliness, but in creativity, responsiveness and adaptability. The successful organization, then, needs conflict so that diverging views can be put on the table, and new ways of doing things can be created. The functional view of conflict also suggests that conflict provides people with feedback about how things are going. Even “personality conflicts” carry information to the manager about what is not working in an organization, affording the opportunity to improve.
Personal conflict refers to an individual’s inner workings and personality problems. Conflict sometimes has a destructive effect on the individuals and groups involved. At other times, however, conflict can increase the capacity of those affected to help deal with problems, and therefore it can be used as a motivating force toward innovation and change. Conflict is encountered in two general forms. Many difficulties in this area are beyond the scope of management and more in the province of a professional counselor, but there are some aspects of personal conflict that managers should understand and some they can possibly help remedy. Social conflict include interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup differences
Another facet of personal conflict has to do with the multiple roles people play in organizations. Each member of the organization belongs to a role set, which is an association of individuals who share interdependent tasks and thus perform formally defined roles, which are further influenced both by the expectations of others in the role set and by one’s own personality and expectations. For example, in an organization, employees are expected to learn from the instructor by listening to him, following his directions, undertaking assigned tasks, and maintaining appropriate standards of conduct. The manager is expected to provide the employee with high-quality working materials and resources, give advice and direction, conduct evaluation tests and work appraisals, provide a conducive working environment, and set a good example. The system of roles to which an individual belongs extends outside the organization as well, and influences his functioning within it.
As an example, a man’s roles as husband, father, son, and church member are all intertwined with each other and with his set of organizational roles. As a consequence, there exist opportunities for role conflict as the various roles interact with one another. Other types of role conflict occur when an individual receives inconsistent demands from another person; for example, he is asked’ to serve on several time-consuming committees at the same time that he is urged to get out more production for his work unit. Another kind of role strain takes place when the individual finds that he is expected to meet the opposing demands of two or more separate members of the organization. Such a case would be that of a worker who finds himself pressured by his boss to improve the quality of his work while his work group wants more production in order to receive a higher bonus share.
Conflict within groups
Conflicts between people in work groups, committees, task forces, and other organizational forms of face-to-face groups are inevitable. As we have mentioned, these conflicts may be destructive as well as constructive. Conflict arises in groups because of the scarcity of freedom, position, and resources. People who value independence tend to resist the need for interdependence and, to some extent, conformity within a group. People who seek power therefore struggle with others for position or status within the group. Rewards and recognition are often perceived as insufficient and improperly distributed, and members are inclined to compete with each other for these prizes. In western culture, winning is more acceptable than losing, and competition is more prevalent than cooperation, all of which tends to intensify intragroup conflict. Group meetings are often conducted in a win-lose climate — that is, individual or subgroup interaction is conducted for the purpose of determining a winner and a loser rather than for achieving mutual problem solving.
The win-lose conflict in groups may have negative effects such as: divert time and energy from the main issues, delay decisions, create deadlocks, drive unaggressive committee members to the sidelines, interfere with listening, obstruct exploration of more alternatives, decrease or destroy sensitivity, cause defensiveness, members to drop out or resign from committees, arouse anger that disrupts a meeting, interfere with empathy, leave losers resentful, incline underdogs to sabotage, provoke personal abuse. Conflict in the group need not lead to negative results, however, the presence of a dissenting member or subgroup often results in more penetration of the group’s problem as well as more creative solutions. This is because disagreement forces the members to think harder in an attempt to cope with what may be valid objections to general group opinion. But the group must know how to deal with differences that may arise.
True interdependence among members leads automatically to conflict resolution in the group. Interdependence recognizes that differences will exist and that they can be helpful. Hence, members learn to accept ideas from dissenters (which does not imply agreeing with them), they learn to listen and to value openness, and they learn to share a mutual problem-solving attitude to ensure the exploration of all facets of a problem facing the group. Intergroup conflict between groups is a sometimes destructive, sometimes necessary, since event occurs at all levels and across all functions in organizations. Intergroup conflict may help generate creative tensions leading to more effective contributions to the organization’s goals, such as competition between sales districts for the highest sales. Intergroup conflict is destructive when it alienates groups that should be working together, when it results in win-lose competition, and when it leads to compromises that represent less-than-optimum outcomes. Intergroup conflict occurs in two general forms- Horizontal and Vertical strain.
Horizontal strain involves competition between functions: for example, sales versus production, research and development versus engineering, purchasing versus legal, line versus staff, and so on. A clash between a sales department and production over inventory policy would be an example of horizontal strain. Vertical strain involves competition between hierarchical levels: for example, union versus management, foremen versus middle management, shop workers versus foremen. A struggle between a group of employees and management is an example of vertical strain or conflict. Certain activities and attitudes are typical in groups involved in a win-lose conflict. Each side closes ranks and prepares itself for battle. Members show increased loyalty and support for their own groups. Minor differences between group members tend to be smoothed over, and deviants are dealt with harshly. The level of morale in the groups increases and infuses everyone with competitive spirit.
The power structure becomes better defined, as the “real” leaders come to the surface and members rally around the “best” thinkers and talkers. On the other hand, each group tends to distort both its own views and those of the competing group. What is perceived as “good” in one’s own position is emphasized, what is “bad” is ignored; the position of the other group is assessed as uniformly “bad,” with little “good” to be acknowledged or accepted. Thus, the judgment and objectivity of both groups are impaired. When such groups meet to “discuss” their differences, constructive, rational behavior is severely inhibited. Each side phrases its questions and answers in a way that strengthens its own position and disparages the other’s.
Hostility between the two groups increases; mutual understandings are buried in negative stereotypes. It is easy to see that under the conditions described above, mutual solutions to problems cannot be achieved. As a result, the side having the greater power wins; the other side loses. Or the conflict may go unresolved, and undesirable conditions or circumstances continue. Or the conflict may be settled by a higher authority. None of these outcomes is a happy one. Disputes settled on the basis of power, such as through a strike or a lockout in a labor-management dispute, are often deeply resented by the loser. Such settlements may be resisted and the winner defeated in underground ways that are difficult to detect and to counter. When this happens, neither side wins; both are losers. If the conflict is left unresolved (it becomes an ugly conflict), as when both sides withdraw from the scene, intergroup cooperation and effectiveness may be seriously impaired to the detriment of the entire organization.
Disputes that are settled by higher authority also may cause resentment and what is called “lose-lose” consequences. Such settlements are invariably made on the basis of incomplete information —without data that the conflict itself obscures — and therefore are poor substitutes for mutually reasoned solutions. Strategies for Managing Group Conflicts include: Avoidance – a management strategy which includes non-attention or creating a total separation of the combatants or a partial separation that allows limited interactions. Smoothing – technique which stresses the achievement of harmony between disputants. Dominance or Power Intervention – the imposition of a solution by higher management, other than the level at which the conflict exists. Compromise – strategy that seeks a resolution which satisfies at least part of the each party’s position.
Confrontation – strategy featuring a thorough and frank discussion of the sources and types of conflict and achieving a resolution that is in the best interest of the group, but that may be at the expense of one or all of the conflicting parties. Trained conflict resolver can begin with an economical intervention, such as getting group members to clarify and reaffirm shared goals. If necessary, he or she moves through a systematic series of interventions, such as testing the members’ ability and willingness to compromise; resorting to confrontation, enforced counseling, and/or termination as last resorts To conclude, the notion that conflict should be avoided is one of the major contributors to the growth of destructive conflict in the workplace. The “bad” view of conflict is associated with a vision of organizational effectiveness that is no longer valid (and perhaps never was). Conflict can be directed and managed so that it causes both people and organizations to grow, innovate and improve.
However, this requires that conflict not be repressed, since attempts to repress are more likely to generate very ugly situations. Common repression strategies to be avoided are: nonaction, administrative orbiting, secrecy and law and order. Thus, conflict affecting organizations can occur in individuals, between individuals, and between groups. Also, conflicts within and between work groups in organizations are often caused by struggles over control, status, and scarce resources. The constructive resolution of such conflicts can most often be achieved through a rational process of problem solving, coupled with a willingness to explore issues and alternatives and to listen to each other. Conflict is not always destructive, it may be a motivator. When it is destructive, however, managers need to understand and do something about it.
A rational process for dealing with the conflict should be programmed. Such a process should include a planned action response on the part of the manager or the organization, rather than relying on a simple reaction or a change that occurs without specific action by management. If managers should subscribe to the flexible vision of effective organizations, and at each conflict situation provide opportunity to improve, they can have the chance to harness the energy of conflict, directing it to be productive. Rather than trying to eliminate conflict, or suppress its symptoms, their task becomes managing conflict so that it enhances people and organizations, rather than destroying people and organizations. So, the task is to manage conflict, and avoid what we call “the ugly”….where conflict is allowed to eat away at team cohesiveness and productivity.