Conflict in Organizations

Conflict occurs at various levels within the individuals, between the individuals in a group and between the groups in an organisation. An issue between two or more parties who have (or think they have) incompatible goals or ideas. Conflicts may involve deep-rooted moral or value differences, high stakes distributional questions, or can be about who dominates whom. Conflict is a perpetual given of life, although varying views of it may be held. Some may view conflict as being a negative situation which must be avoided at any cost. Others may see conflict as being a phenomenon which necessitates management. Still others may consider conflict as being an exciting opportunity for personal growth and so try to use it to his or her best advantage.

Conflict in Organizations

Definitions of Organizational Conflict

“Working together is not always easy”, it is because of conflict. Conflict is a part of everyday life of an individual and of an organization. It has a considerable impact on employee’s performance, satisfaction and behavior. It is not possible to compress the essential ingredients of conflict in a precise definition because it may take several forms.In simple words it can be explained as a collusion and disagreement. The conflict may be within an individual, between two or more individuals or between two or more groups within an organization.

Some important definitions of conflicts in organizations (organizational conflicts) are:

  • According to J.W.Thomas, “Conflict is a process that begins when one party perceives that another party has negatively affected, or about to negatively affect, something that the first party cares about.”
  • According to Hocker and Wilmot Conflict “an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce rewards, and interference from the other party in achieving their goals.”
  • According to follett, “Conflict is the appearance of difference- difference of opinions of interests”.

Sources of Conflict in Organizations

In organizations, conflicts can be intra-personal, inter-personal, intra-group or intra-organizational in nature. Intra-personal conflict refers to the conflict within an individual. It arises from frustration, numerous goal which requires equal attention but is not possible to devote and goals having both positive and negative aspects. Inter-personal conflict refers to the conflict between two or more individuals with a group. It arises due ti differences in personalities, perceptions, temperaments, values, socio- cultural factors and role ambiguities. Intra-group or intra-organizational conflict refers to the conflict between two or more sections, groups or departments in an organization. Conflict between groups is frequent and highly visible.

Intra-personal conflict arises within an individual member of the organisation. It is same as individual conflict but the organizational problem may be that none of the individual has a known acceptable alternative in terms of his own goals and perception. Intra-personal conflict generally arises because of between individual goal and organizational goal and other situation where there is widespread uncertainty and scarcity of acceptable alternatives. Uncertainty in a situation may be caused by complexity of the problem and lack of past experience in handling such problems. Conflicts also arise because the organizational alternatives are not acceptable to the individual.

Intra-organizational conflict encompasses vertical, horizontal, line-staff, and role conflict. Let us briefly examine these.

Vertical conflict refers to conflicts that occur between individuals at different levels. Conflict between the superior and subordinate is an example of vertical conflict. Such conflicts could happen because of perceived transgression of psychological contract, inadequate and /or ineffective communication, selective perceptions, misperceptions, incongruence in goals, values, cognition, affect, and behavior and any number of other reasons.

Horizontal conflict refers to tensions between employees or groups at the same hierarchical level. Horizontal conflict occurs because of interdependence among the parties concerned in the work situations and /or the common pooled resourced shared. Incompatibility of goal and time orientations often results in horizontal conflict. Differences in time orientations are also instrumental in inter-unit conflicts. Horizontal conflict increases as:

  • Functional interdependence increases among people or groups at the same level (i.e. one has to depend on the other for the completion of its goals)
  • More units depend on common resources that have to be shared, for e.g. raw materials
  • The fewer the buffers or inventories for the resources shared.

Line-staff conflict refers to the conflicts that arise between those who assist or act in an advisory capacity (staff) and those who have direct authority to create the products, processes, and services of the organization (line). Staff manager and line managers usually have different personality predispositions, and goals, and come from different backgrounds. Staff managers have specialized skills and expertise acquired through raining and education and have greater technical knowledge which is intended to help the line managers who are basically money makers for the organization. Staff people serve as advisors for the line people in as much as they have the expertise to streamline methods and help in cost-cutting mechanisms. Line managers may, however, feel that the staff people are a nuisance, coming in the way of their performance by always telling them how to do their jobs and thrusting their ideas and methods. It is not unusual for line people to resent the fact that they have to be “advised” by the staff people. The staff people often frustrated that the line people do not consider all the ideas put forth by them and thereby fail to benefit.

Role Conflicts arise because different people in the organization are expected to perform different tasks, and pressures build up when the expectations of the members clash in several ways. This could be either because of:

  • Inter-sender Role Conflict– different role senders (bosses) expect the individual to perform different things and these expectations and their messages conflict with each other.
  • Inter Role Conflict– role requirements associated with membership in one group conflict with role requirements stemming from membership in other group.
  • Intra-sender Role Conflict– when the same boss expects different incompatible behaviors from one person
  • Person Role Conflict– where the role requirements of an individual conflict with the individual’s moral and ethical values.

An example of the inter-sender role is the president asking the manager to write up the report on the new project and submit it in the next four days, and the auditor asking the same manager to go with him to audit the branch offices today, tomorrow, and the day after! Here, the manager cannot possibly fulfill both role expectations. Inter role conflict can be experienced by a supervisor who just attended the manager’s conference where he has been told that strict action should be taken against a group of strikers, and the same supervisor who is also the member of the union being told that, “supervisors should protect the employees from harm”. Here the supervisor’s membership to the two groups results in conflicting loyalties and role expectations. Intra-sender role conflict will be experienced by a supervisor who is asked to get a lot of her section’s work done, while also being asked to take charge of another section because the supervisor of that section is on a week’s casual leave without a replacement. Person-role conflict is likely to be experienced by an individual who is asked by the boss to bribe a government officer to get the job done for the department.

Thus, interpersonal and inter group conflicts often arise when there is disagreement regarding goals or the methods of attaining them. These conflicts can be either constructive or destructive for the people involved. Several methods exist for resolving conflict and they vary in their potential effectiveness. A key revolves around intended outcomes for oneself and others.

Strategies for Managing Conflict in Organizations

Mainly three different strategies are used for handling conflict in organizations:

1. Stimulation of Conflicts

The following methods may be used by the management to stimulate conflict.

  • Reorganization. Changing the structure of an organization is an effective method of stimulating conflict. When work groups and departments are reorganized, new relations and responsibilities arise. Members try to readjust themselves and in this process improved methods of operations may develop.
  • Use of Informal Communication. Managers may manipulate messages in such a way as to stimulate conflict e.g., a department is to be abolished can reduce apathy, stimulate new ideas and force revaluation of existing practices. Rumours may be intelligently planted in the informal communication system. Conflict can also be stimulated by redirecting message and altering channels of communication.
  • Encouraging Competition. Healthy competition between individuals and groups may be stimulated through properly administered incentives. Bonuses, incentive pay and rewards for excellent performance can foster competitive spirit in the organization. As one group struggles hard to out-perform the other, constructive conflict will occur.
  • Bringing in Outsiders. Management may shake up a stagnant organization by bringing in people whose attitudes, values and styles differ significantly from the prevailing norms. When such heterogeneous persons join an organization, status quo is disturbed. Divergent opinions, innovative ideas and originality can be developed.

2. Prevention of Conflicts

To prevent conflicts, the following strategies may be employed:

  • Reducing Interdependence. The potential for conflict is very high when two or more departments are interdependent and share scare resources. Therefore, conflict may be minimized by reducing interdependence among departments.
  • Rotation of Personnel. Rotation of employees between interdependent departments can improve perception and mutual understanding. Employees may see the big picture and exchange views with one another. Employees become more considerate and co-operative.
  • Establishing super ordinate Goals. A difference in goals is a common cause of conflict in organizations. Goal differences can be avoided by establishing mutually agreed goals. A super ordinate goal is a common goal that appeals to all the parties and cannot be achieved by the resources of any single party. In order to achieve the super ordinate goal, conflicting parties sink their differences and cooperate together. For example, severe competition may force different departments to work together to ensure the survival and growth of the organization. Thus, a common threat or enemy may act as a great unifying force.
  • Creation of Mutual Trust and Communication. The greater the trust among the members of the unit, the more open and honest the communication will be. Individuals and groups should be encouraged to communicate openly with each other, so that misunderstandings can be removed and able to understand the problems of each other.

3. Resolution of Conflicts

Some of the common approaches towards conflict resolution are as under:

  • Compromise. This is the traditional method of resolving conflict. It is a process of bargaining wherein the parties negotiate on the basis of give and take to arrive at some agreement. There is no distinct winner or loser because each party is expected to sacrifice something in exchange for a concession. Compromise is commonly used where the conflict involves differences in goals, values or attitudes. It is effective when the sought-after goal, e.g., resources can be divided between the parties.
  • Smoothing. It is the process of suppressing differences existing between parties to the conflict and emphasizing common interests. Sharing of opinions removes misunderstanding and both parties realize that they are not far apart. Smoothing or accommodating may be useful when the conflict is associated with aggressive feelings among the parties. However, it can be used only as a short-term measure for resolving conflict.
  • Problem Solving. In this technique, an attempt is made to bring the conflicting parties together and to share the mutual problems. The focus is on sharing of information to avoid misunderstanding and to find out areas of common interest. Question of who is right or who is wrong is avoided. This method is suitable for resolving conflicts arising out of misunderstanding.
  • Dominance or Confrontation. In this technique, parties to the conflict are left free to settle their score by mobilizing their strengths and capitalizing on the weaknesses of others. Parties use weapons like fights, arguments and intimidation to win over each other. One party’s gain is another party’s loss. This technique is adopted when both the parties adopt a very rigid stand. Confrontation may aggravate the struggle and contribute little to finding out innovative or constructive solutions acceptable to all. The stronger party ultimately dominates the weaker party.

Read More: Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI)

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