What is Conflict?

To break down the meaning of conflict, it is important we take a look at different synonyms of conflict offered by some dictionaries and management texts. According to these sources, conflict means,

  • √  to clash, disagree,
  • √  a battle or struggle,
  • √  antagonism or opposition,
  • √  incompatibility or interference, and
  • √  a mental struggle.

In their attempt to define conflict, social psychologists venture into a more detailed research and offer 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.

For purpose of this entry, we will expound on the last definition offered by Professor William Wilmot and professional mediator Joyce Hocker to explain the following headings as the determinants of conflict.

1.   Conflict involves an expressed struggle or disagreement

Included in their definition is the provision that a struggle between parties be expressed in order to be considered conflict. It is important to note that the struggle or disagreement may not always be expressed verbally. Sometimes, it may be expressed nonverbally in quite a subtle way.

In addition, the expression might not be directed toward the other person in the conflict. More often, conflicting parties will “vent” to a third party. Not every conflict requires direct, verbal acknowledgment between parties.

2.   Conflict exists in a situation of interdependence

Wilmot and Hocker’s definition also requires that conflicting parties be interdependent. Interdependence means that conflicting individuals are, in some important way, dependent on one another. This entails connection between parties in conflict where one party needs can be fulfilled by the other party’s resources and this transfer of resources works both ways (i.e., both parties need each other's resources to fulfill their needs). This sharing of resources create a sense of interdependence.

3. Inconsistent goals

Another determinant of conflict worthy of explanation is the term “goals.” Basically, a goal is something that you aim to achieve. The intensity of conflict is related to how much the goals at the root of a conflict mean to the parties involved. Goals consist in many types, including content goals, process goals, relational goals, identity goals, and value goals.

Threshold of Conflict

The origin of conflict stems from incompatibility but conflict does not necessarily occur simply because there are incompatibilities, disagreements, or differences within or between social entities. In order for conflict to occur, it has to exceed the threshold level of intensity before the parties experience (or become aware of) any conflict.

In other words, the incompatibilities, disagreements, or differences must be serious enough before the parties experience conflict. There are differences in the threshold of conflict awareness or tolerance among individuals. Thus, some individuals may become involved in a conflict sooner than others under similar situations.

Types Of Conflict

Conflicts—be it in teams, at work, or in our personal lives—occur in at least two basic forms: substantive and emotional. Both types are common, ever present, and challenging. Thus we need to learn about them and more importantly how to successfully deal with them.

1.   Substantive Conflict

Substantive conflict is a fundamental disagreement over ends or goals to be pursued and the means for their accomplishments. A dispute with one’s boss or other team members over a plan of action to be followed, such as the marketing strategy for a new product, is an example of substantive conflict.

When people work together every day, it is only normal that different viewpoints on a variety of substantive workplace issues will arise. At times people will disagree over such things as team and organizational goals, the allocation of resources, the distribution of rewards, policies and procedures, and task assignments.

2.   Emotional Conflict

Emotional conflict involves interpersonal difficulties that arise over feelings of anger, mistrust, dislike, fear, resentment, and the like. This conflict is commonly known as a “clash of personalities.” How many times, for example, have you heard comments such as “I can’t stand working with him” or “She always rubs me the wrong way” or “I wouldn’t do what he asked if you begged me”?

When emotional conflicts creep into work situations, they can drain energies and distract people from task priorities and goals. Yet, they emerge in a wide variety of settings and are common in teams, among co-workers, and in superior-subordinate relationships.

Functional And Dysfunctional Conflict

Conflict will always occur in any interactive situation. This can result in detrimental side effects to the parties involved and to others affected by its occurrence. For example, it can be quite uncomfortably, to work in an environment in which two co-workers are continually hostile toward each other or two teams are always battling for top management attention.

In our observation, we recognize that conflict can have both a functional or constructive side and a dysfunctional or destructive side.

Functional Conflict

Functional conflict, also called constructive conflict, results in benefits to individuals, the team, or the organization. On the positive side,

Indeed, an effective manager or team leader is able to stimulate constructive conflict in situations in which satisfaction with the status quo is holding back needed change and development.

Dysfunctional Conflict

Dysfunctional conflict, or destructive conflict, works to the disadvantage of an individual or team. It diverts energies, hurts group cohesion, promotes interpersonal hostilities, and overall creates a negative environment for workers.

This type of conflict occurs, for example, when two team members are unable to work together because of interpersonal differences—a destructive emotional conflict—or when the members of a work unit fail to act because they cannot agree on task goals—a destructive substantive conflict.

Destructive conflicts of these types can decrease performance and job satisfaction as well as contribute to absenteeism Opens in new window and job turnover. Managers and team leaders should be alert to destructive conflicts and be quick to take action to prevent or eliminate them—or at least minimize any harm done.

Levels Of Conflict

Conflict is an interactive process. So we may think of conflict as something that happens between two people, which is a valid example of what we call interpersonal conflictOpens in new window. But scholars point out that conflicts in teams and organizations need to be recognized and understood in other forms as well.

The full range of conflicts that we experienced at work includes those emerging from the interpersonal, intrapersonal, intergroup, intragroup, and interorganizational levels. The management of conflict at these various social levels involves the maintenance of a moderate amount of conflict in any of these levels, as described below.

Intrapersonal Conflict

Intrapersonal conflictOpens in new window occurs within an individual and is characterized by cognitive and/or affective dimensions. This usually involves two competing desires or goals, but in this case the desires or goals are competing within the same person.

A decision about whether to report a colleague’s inappropriate financial practices, for example, may generate an intrapersonal conflict between a value for justice and accountability and a value for loyalty and friendship toward the colleague.

Intrapersonal conflict can take one of several forms: approach-approach, approach-avoidance, and avoidance-avoidance. We look at the central features of each one by one hereOpens in new window.

Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal conflictOpens in new window refers to the manifestation of incompatibility, inconsistency, or disagreement in a social context between individuals—for example, conflicts between peers or between superiors and subordinate in the workplace.

Interpersonal conflict contexts may include the study of conflicts in acquaintanceship, friendship, dating, marital relationship, family socialization, health care, workplace, life span, and/or intercultural context. Learn more hereOpens in new window

Intragroup Conflict

Intragroup conflictOpens in new window 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).

Some examples include conflict among coaches in an athletics department, conflict among cardiology faculty in a university hospital, and conflict among students who are members of an undergraduate student senate. The conflict is centered within the group and may have few consequences for those who are not members of that group, although such conflicts could have a detrimental impact on overall organizational effectiveness if they are not managed well.

Intragroup conflict is often about how problems should be solved and how scarce resources should be allocated. Learn more hereOpens in new window

Intergroup Conflict

Intergroup conflictOpens in new window considers aggregates of people within an organization (e.g., work teams, departments) as parties in the conflict. As an illustration, two divisions fighting over scarce fiscal resources are involved in intergroup conflict.

Not surprisingly, intergroup conflictOpens in new window can become complicated when members of a single group hold varying views about the conflict. For example, in labor negotiations, dissension often occurs among members of the union or members of the management team regarding how the conflict should be resolved.

Intraorganizational Conflict

Intraorganizational conflict involves disagreements between (rather than within) organizational subsystems. Cardiology faculty may disagree with pediatrics faculty regarding priorities for ordering new medical equipment. In this case, the conflict involves multiple departments or units of the organization.

Colleges and universities often have formal venues for addressing intraorganizational conflict. Budget committees, for example, can adjudicate conflicting claims for resources. In other instances, however, intraorganizational conflict remains unregulated—sometimes with damaging consequences.

Interorganizational Conflict

Interorganizational conflict involves disputes between two or more organizations. Interorganizational conflicts often occur as a result of the competition and the rivalry that characterizes two or more firms operating in the same market or vying for the same consulting contract. For example, different energy suppliers may engage in interorganizational conflict when they are competing for a larger market share.