Understanding Intergroup Conflict: From Causes to Consequences

  • Credit | Vilendrer Law, PC
  • Disagreements are inevitable in life, and sometimes these disagreements fall along group lines. This is where intergroup conflict comes in. But what exactly is it, and why does it happen? In this blog post, we'll delve into the world of intergroup conflict. We'll explore its definition, the various causes that fuel these conflicts, the potential consequences they bring, and even touch upon some ways to navigate them.

What is Intergroup Conflict?

Intergroup conflict refers to the discord, tension, or antagonism that arises between distinct social, cultural, ethnic, religious, or organizational groups. It emerges when individuals strongly align with their group and perceive others as adversaries or outsiders, fostering an entrenched "us versus them" mindset.

This dichotomy often triggers heightened emotions, skewed perspectives, and confrontational conduct, impeding effective communication, cooperation, and mutual understanding. The intensity of intergroup conflict spans from subtle bias and prejudice, to outright violence and warfare.

The Manifestations & Dynamics of Intergroup Conflict

The manifestations of intergroup conflict are diverse, ranging from subtle forms of prejudice and stereotyping to overt acts of discrimination and violence. Ingroup favoritism, outgroup derogation, and intergroup polarization are common dynamics that exacerbate tensions and deepen divisions between groups. Furthermore, social identity theory suggests that individuals derive a sense of self-esteem and belonging from their group memberships, leading them to defend their group's interests and devalue others'.

Sources and Triggers of Intergroup Conflict

Intergroup conflict can stem from various sources, ranging from competition for resources and power to differences in values, beliefs, and ideologies. Historical grievances, socioeconomic disparities, and political tensions also contribute to its escalation. Moreover, perceptions of injustice, discrimination, or marginalization can fuel resentment and animosity between groups, perpetuating cycles of conflict and mistrust.

Within organizations, intergroup conflict can arise in two main forms: vertical or horizontal. Vertical conflict occurs between groups at different hierarchical levels, such as between departments competing for limited resources. Horizontal conflict, on the other hand, happens between groups at the same level, like rival marketing and sales teams.

The Consequences of Intergroup Conflict

The consequences of intergroup conflict reverberate across multiple domains, affecting individuals, communities, and societies at large. It undermines social cohesion, trust, and solidarity, eroding the fabric of civil society.

Economic development, political stability, and intergroup relations are also jeopardized, impeding efforts towards peace, reconciliation, and sustainable development.

Moreover, intergroup conflict often perpetuates cycles of violence, displacement, and intergenerational trauma, inflicting long-lasting scars on affected populations.

Overall, intergroup conflict can have a wide range of negative consequences, both for individuals and for society as a whole. Some of these consequences include:

  • Violence and War: In its most extreme form, intergroup conflict can erupt into violence and even war, causing immense human suffering and destruction.
  • Social Division and Tension: Conflict can create deep divides within communities, making cooperation and social cohesion difficult.
  • Psychological Distress: Individuals caught in the crossfire of intergroup conflict can experience anxiety, fear, and trauma.
  • Economic Costs: Conflict can disrupt trade, damage infrastructure, and hinder economic development.

The Conflict Episode: A Cyclical Process

Researchers developed the concept of the conflict episode to explain how conflicts between groups arise and unfold. According to Thomas (1992), it's a cyclical process that begins with one party becoming aware of a conflict.

This awareness can stem from various concerns, like a threat to a group's interests or a perceived difference in goals. This initial awareness triggers a range of thoughts (cognitions) and emotions within the party. These cognitions and emotions then combine to influence the party's behavioral intentions, essentially their plan to address the conflict.

These intentions translate into observable actions or behaviors, which in turn trigger a reaction from the other party. The other party's response likely impacts the first party's thoughts and emotions, creating a feedback loop. This loop shapes how the conflict progresses.

Finally, the episode culminates in conflict outcomes - the results of the interaction. These outcomes can resolve the conflict or set the stage for a new episode related to the same issue, restarting the cycle.

The Inevitable Conflict in Complex Organizations

Complex organizations are a breeding ground for conflict. This isn't a bad thing, but it's a reality acknowledged by researchers like Downs (1968) who proposed a "law of intergroup conflict," suggesting some level of friction is almost always present between groups. In these organizations, specialized units, called subsystems, are formed to handle specific tasks efficiently. Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) recognized this very structure as a source of potential conflict.

These subsystems, designed for efficiency, develop their own unique cultures with distinct goals, norms, and work styles. While this internal focus fosters effectiveness within the subsystem, it can create challenges when collaboration with other subsystems is necessary to achieve overall organizational goals.

This interdependence, the reliance of subsystems on each other for tasks, resources, and information, combined with their differences, often sparks conflict. Blake and Mouton (1984) termed this "interface conflict." They explain that the very structure of organizations, separating similar functions into departments, creates the potential for conflict when these departments need to work together.

Classic examples of interface conflict include:

  1. Line vs. Staff: Line departments (production, sales) focused on core functions may clash with staff departments (HR, finance) providing support services.
  2. Manufacturing vs. Sales: Manufacturing, concerned with production efficiency, may disagree with Sales pushing for faster turnaround times or product customizations.
  3. Production vs. Maintenance: Production, aiming for high output, may prioritize running machines even if preventative maintenance is needed, creating conflict with maintenance teams.
  4. Headquarters vs. Field Staff: Headquarters, with a broader view, may have different priorities than field staff dealing with day-to-day customer needs.
  5. Labor vs. Management: Disagreements over wages, working conditions, and decision-making processes are a common source of conflict.

By understanding these potential conflicts, organizations can develop strategies to manage them constructively, fostering collaboration and achieving overall success.

Moving Forward: Strategies for Conflict Resolution

While intergroup conflict is a complex issue, there are steps we can take to mitigate its negative effects and promote peaceful coexistence. These steps include:

  1. Promoting Intergroup Dialogue and Contact: By encouraging communication and understanding between groups, we can break down stereotypes and build trust.
  2. Addressing Social Inequalities: Working towards a more just and equitable society can reduce competition for resources and feelings of resentment.
  3. Education and Conflict Resolution Training: Equipping individuals and communities with the skills to manage conflict constructively can foster peaceful solutions.

Understanding intergroup conflict is a crucial step towards building a more peaceful and inclusive world. By recognizing the causes and consequences of these conflicts, we can work together to create a future where groups can coexist and thrive.

Win-Lose Conflict: The Dark Side of Us vs. Them

Win-lose conflict is a competitive approach to conflict resolution where one party aims to achieve its goals entirely at the expense of the other. This mentality creates a situation where one group is seen as the winner and the other as the loser.

The Dark Side of Us vs. Them

When groups engage in win-lose conflicts, a peculiar dynamic emerges. Competition within each group actually decreases, and group members become more unified. This heightened sense of "us vs. them" leads to increased conformity to group norms and loyalty to the group cause, but this boost is temporary. Schein (1980) points out that task-oriented behaviors become prioritized over building positive relationships.

Think of it as a wartime mentality. Facing an external threat, the in-group (your own group) closes ranks, downplays internal disagreements, and prioritizes group loyalty to present a united front against the out-group (the opposing team). This phenomenon, while fostering short-term cohesion, can lead to "groupthink," hindering creative problem-solving due to a lack of diverse perspectives.

Furthermore, win-lose conflict breeds distortions in perception and judgment. Brewer (1979) observed that during intense conflict, groups tend to exaggerate their own achievements while downplaying those of the other side. Members view the out-group with suspicion and negativity, resorting to stereotypes and dehumanization to justify aggression (Wilder, 1986). This creates a vicious cycle as each group focuses only on information that reinforces their existing beliefs.

Two key perceptual errors exacerbate these issues:

  1. Overlooking Common Ground: Groups fail to recognize similarities in proposed solutions, magnifying even minor differences. Areas of potential agreement are disregarded.
  2. In-Group Superiority Bias: Members of each group believe their solutions are inherently better, even after careful consideration (Blake et al., 1964). This hinders compromise and collaboration.

Win-lose conflict, while seemingly straightforward, can have unintended consequences for groups. Understanding how this type of conflict fosters internal cohesion but hinders creative problem-solving and collaboration is crucial. By recognizing the potential for perceptual biases and actively seeking common ground, groups can move towards more constructive conflict resolution strategies.


Intergroup conflict represents a formidable challenge to human coexistence and progress, but it is not insurmountable. By cultivating empathy, tolerance, and respect for diversity, societies can transcend the divisive forces that fuel intergroup tensions. Embracing dialogue, reconciliation, and collective action offers a pathway towards building inclusive, equitable, and peaceful communities. In the face of adversity, it is through unity and understanding that humanity can triumph over division and strife, forging a brighter future for generations to come.

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  • References
    • Managing Conflict in Organizations by M. Afzalur Rahim
      International Encyclopedia of Organization Studies, Volume 1, edited by Stewart Clegg, James R. Bailey
    • 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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