• Credit | Vilendrer Law, PC

What is Conflict?

Conflict refers to a disagreement or struggle between two or more parties with opposing interests, needs, or values. It can arise in various contexts, including personal relationships, workplaces, communities, and international affairs. Conflict is a natural part of human interactions and can be constructive or destructive, depending on how it is handled.

Social psychologists delve into more detailed research in their effort to define conflict, providing the following descriptions:

  • Conflict exists whenever incompatible activities occur.
  • Conflict is a situation in which interdependent people express (manifest or latent) differences in satisfying their individual needs and interests, and they experience interference from each other in accomplishing these goals.
  • Conflict is the competition between interdependent parties who perceive that they have incompatible needs, goals, desires, or ideas.
  • Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals.

In this entry, we will elaborate on the final definition presented by Professor William Wilmot and professional mediator Joyce Hocker. This will help elucidate the subsequent headings, which serve as the determinants of conflict:

  1. Conflict involves an expressed struggle or disagreement

    Within their definition, it is stipulated that conflict involves the expression of a struggle between parties. It's crucial to emphasize that this struggle or disagreement may not always find verbal expression; at times, it can manifest nonverbally, often in subtle ways.

    Moreover, the expression of the conflict may not necessarily be directed towards the other person involved. Frequently, individuals in conflict may choose to express their feelings or frustrations to a third party. It's important to recognize that not every conflict necessitates direct, verbal acknowledgment between the parties involved.

  2. Conflict exists in a situation of interdependence

    Wilmot and Hocker's definition also stipulates that conflicting parties must be interdependent. Interdependence implies a significant reliance between individuals in conflict. This connection involves a situation where one party's needs can be met through the resources of the other party, and this exchange of resources is reciprocal (i.e., both parties require each other's resources to satisfy their needs). The mutual sharing of resources fosters a sense of interdependence.

    Individuals or groups can experience negative interdependence, where a favorable outcome for one comes at the cost of a favorable outcome for the other — one must suffer for the other to thrive. Conversely, individuals or groups can also have positive interdependence, signifying that all parties rely on each other for a mutually beneficial or detrimental outcome that they will collectively experience. In essence, they will either succeed or face challenges together.

  3. Inconsistent goals

    Another factor influencing conflict that requires clarification is the concept of "goals." Essentially, a goal is something one strives to achieve. The level of conflict intensity is connected to the significance of the goals underlying a conflict for the involved parties. Goals can take various forms, encompassing content goals, process goals, relational goals, identity goals, and value goals. Content goals pertain to our aspirations regarding the distribution of resources or the outcome of an event.

    Conflicts related to content goals frequently arise from a perception of limited resources and may encompass issues such as determining who deserves a promotion, deciding the use of an old storage room, or selecting the location for a new company office. In these situations, individuals desire the same resource, but only one can obtain it, or they have conflicting preferences for outcomes, but only one can be realized.

    For instance, if two employees both aspire to be promoted but there is only one available position, or if one partner advocates for a new office in Dallas while another favors Houston, conflicts emerge due to conflicting content goals.

Threshold of Conflict

Conflict originates from incompatibility, but its occurrence isn't solely dependent on the presence of incompatibilities, disagreements, or differences within or between social entities. For conflict to manifest, it must surpass a certain threshold of intensity before the involved parties perceive or become aware of the conflict.

In simpler terms, the incompatibilities, disagreements, or differences must reach a significant level before the parties involved experience conflict. There is variability in the threshold of conflict awareness or tolerance among individuals. Consequently, some individuals may engage in conflict sooner than others under similar circumstances.

Types of Conflict

Conflicts, whether in teams, workplaces, or personal relationships, manifest in at least two fundamental forms: substantive and emotional. Both types are pervasive, constantly present, and present unique challenges. Therefore, it is crucial to understand these forms of conflict and, more importantly, to learn effective strategies for successfully addressing them.

  1. Substantive Conflict

    Substantive conflict arises from a fundamental disagreement concerning the ends or goals to be pursued and the means to achieve them. An example of substantive conflict is a dispute with a boss or team members over a proposed plan of action, such as the marketing strategy for a new product.

    In the daily collaboration of individuals, diverse perspectives on various substantive workplace matters are bound to emerge. Disagreements may occur over team and organizational goals, resource allocation, reward distribution, policies and procedures, as well as task assignments. It is normal for people working together to hold differing viewpoints on these substantive issues.

  2. Emotional Conflict

    Emotional conflict revolves around interpersonal challenges stemming from emotions such as anger, mistrust, dislike, fear, and resentment.

    Often referred to as a "clash of personalities," emotional conflict is evident in statements like "I can't stand working with him," "She always rubs me the wrong way," or "I wouldn't do what he asked if you begged me."

    When emotional conflicts infiltrate work environments, they have the potential to deplete energy and divert attention from task priorities and goals. Despite their disruptive nature, emotional conflicts are prevalent in various settings, including teams, among co-workers, and in superior-subordinate relationships.

Functional versus Dysfunctional Conflicts

Conflict is an inherent aspect of any interactive situation, and its occurrence can lead to adverse consequences for the involved parties as well as those affected by it. For instance, working in an environment where two co-workers consistently display hostility toward each other or where two teams are in constant competition for top management attention can be notably uncomfortable.

Through observation, it becomes evident that conflict manifests with both a functional or constructive side and a dysfunctional or destructive side.

Functional Conflict

Functional conflict, also known as constructive conflict, yields benefits for individuals, teams, or organizations. On the positive side:

  • Conflict can bring crucial problems to the surface, allowing them to be addressed.
  • It has the potential to prompt careful consideration and reconsideration of decisions to ensure the adoption of the right course of action.
  • Conflict can expand the pool of information used for decision-making.
  • It provides opportunities for creativity that can enhance performance.

An effective manager or team leader possesses the ability to stimulate constructive conflict, especially in situations where satisfaction with the status quo impedes necessary change and development.

Dysfunctional Conflict

Dysfunctional conflict, also referred to as destructive conflict, operates to the detriment of an individual or team. It saps energy, undermines group cohesion, fosters interpersonal hostilities, and overall creates a negative work environment.

Examples of this type of conflict include situations where two team members cannot collaborate due to interpersonal differences, leading to destructive emotional conflict, or when members of a work unit fail to act because they cannot reach an agreement on task goals, resulting in destructive substantive conflict.

Destructive conflicts of these kinds can diminish performance and job satisfaction, contributing to issues like absenteeism and job turnover. Managers and team leaders should remain vigilant to the signs of destructive conflicts and act promptly to prevent, eliminate, or at least minimize any harm caused.

Levels Of Conflict

Conflict is inherently an interactive process. While we often conceptualize conflict as occurring between two individuals, a valid example of interpersonal conflict, scholars highlight that conflicts within teams and organizations manifest in various forms.

The spectrum of conflicts encountered in the workplace encompasses those arising from interpersonal, intrapersonal, intergroup, intragroup, and interorganizational levels. Effectively managing conflict across these social levels entails maintaining a moderate level of conflict in each, as described below.

  1. Intrapersonal Conflict

    Intrapersonal conflict occurs within an individual and is characterized by cognitive and/or affective dimensions. This typically involves a clash between two competing desires or goals, but in this case, these desires or goals are in conflict within the same person.

    For instance, a decision on whether to report a colleague's inappropriate financial practices may trigger an intrapersonal conflict between a value for justice and accountability and a value for loyalty and friendship toward the colleague. Intrapersonal conflict can manifest in various forms, such as approach-approach, approach-avoidance, and avoidance-avoidance. Each of these forms is characterized by distinct features, which we will explore one by one.Opens in new window.

  2. Interpersonal Conflict

    Interpersonal conflict refers to the expression of incompatibility, inconsistency, or disagreement in a social context between individuals. This can encompass conflicts between peers or between superiors and subordinates in the workplace.

    The contexts in which interpersonal conflict may arise are diverse and can include the study of conflicts in acquaintanceships, friendships, dating, marital relationships, family socialization, healthcare, workplace dynamics, the span of one's life, and intercultural interactions. To delve deeper into this topic, you can find additional information hereOpens in new window

  3. Intragroup Conflict

    Intragroup conflict, as defined by Rahim (2001), "refers to the incompatibility, incongruence, or disagreement among the members of a group or its subgroups regarding goals, functions, or activities of the group" (p. 143). Examples of intragroup conflict include disputes among coaches in an athletics department, conflicts among cardiology faculty in a university hospital, and disagreements among students who are members of an undergraduate student senate.

    This type of conflict is localized within the group and may have limited consequences for those who are not members of that group. However, if not managed effectively, such conflicts could negatively impact overall organizational effectiveness.

    Intragroup conflict often revolves around how problems should be solved and how scarce resources should be allocated. To explore this topic further, you can find additional information hereOpens in new window.

  4. Intergroup Conflict

    Intergroup conflict involves aggregates of people within an organization, such as work teams or departments, as parties in the conflict. An example of intergroup conflict is when two divisions engage in conflict over scarce fiscal resources. This type of conflict can become intricate when members within a single group hold differing views about the conflict. For instance, in labor negotiations, dissension often arises among members of the union or members of the management team regarding how the conflict should be resolved.

  5. Intraorganizational Conflict

    Intraorganizational conflict pertains to disagreements between organizational subsystems rather than within them. An example could be disagreements between cardiology faculty and pediatrics faculty regarding priorities for ordering new medical equipment, involving conflict between multiple departments or units within the organization.

    In many cases, colleges and universities establish formal mechanisms to address intraorganizational conflict. For instance, budget committees may serve as adjudicators for conflicting resource claims. However, there are instances where intraorganizational conflict remains unregulated, leading to potentially damaging consequences.

  6. Interorganizational Conflict

    Interorganizational conflict encompasses disputes between two or more organizations. These conflicts often arise due to the competition and rivalry between two or more firms operating in the same market or competing for the same consulting contract. For instance, different energy suppliers may find themselves in interorganizational conflict as they compete for a larger market share.

Conflicts can be managed and resolved through various strategies, including communication, negotiation, mediation, and sometimes, compromise. Effective conflict resolution often requires understanding the underlying causes of the conflict, promoting open communication, and finding mutually acceptable solutions.

It's essential to note that not all conflicts are negative. Some conflicts can lead to positive outcomes, such as increased creativity, improved problem-solving, and strengthened relationships, when managed constructively. However, unresolved or mismanaged conflicts can have detrimental effects on relationships, productivity, and overall well-being.

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  • References
    • Organizational Behavior by John R. Schermerhorn, Jr., Richard N. Osborn, Mary Uhl-Bien, James G. Hunt
    • Module 3: Managing Conflict and Workplace Relationships, By James O'Rourke, Sandra Collins

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