Intergroup Conflict

Understanding Intergroup Conflict

Intergroup conflict refers to the collective incompatibility or disagreement between two or more divisions, departments, or subsystems usually in connection with perceived differences in tasks, resources, goals, norms, and orientations.

Intergroup conflicts can arise between groups at different levels in the organizational hierarchy (vertical conflict) or between groups at the same level (horizontal conflict). For example, two departments fighting over scarce fiscal resources are involved in intergroup conflict.

The Conflict Episode

The conflict episode is a construct devised by researchers to explain how conflicts originate between groups. Thomas (1992) opines that the conflict episode begins as a process with one party’s awareness of a conflict.

This awareness may involve a variety of concerns or issues (e.g., a threat of a group’s interest or a perceived goal difference). This in turn, leads to diverse cognitions and emotions, which result in behavioral intentions regarding how to cope with the conflict. These intentions are the combined motivational forces produced by cognitions and emotions.

Behavioral intentions in turn lead to observable behavior, reacted upon by the other party. This behavior itself likely affects and reshapes a party’s thoughts and emotions in form of a feedback loop.

Finally, behavior results in conflict outcomes. These outcomes conclude the episode, but may in turn launch a subsequent episode about the same or related issue.

Conflicts in Complex Organizations

There is a law of intergroup conflict, which states that all groups are in partial conflict with each other (Downs, 1968). In complex organizations having differentiated subsystems with different goals, norms, and orientations, it appeared that intergroup conflict would be an inevitable part of organizational life (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967a, p.42).

Complex organizations create different subsystems with homogenous tasks and distinct goals to increase overall organizational effectiveness. Although these subsystems develop distinct norms, orientations, and attitudes (i.e., they become internally homogenous), they are required to work with each other for the attainment of organizational goals.

This interdependenceOpens in new window of the subsystems on tasks, resources, and information and the heterogeneity among them often are the major generators of conflict between two or more subsystems. Blake and Mouton (1984; see also Brown, 1983) classify this as interface conflict. They explain why this conflict is common in organizations:

The potential for interface conflict is already present in the structure of modern organizations. Structures that combine similar work activities into functional groupings and separate them from others that are different are viewed as effective for maximizing effort and avoiding duplication. Interface conflict is likely to arise, however, when separated organization components must reconnect and work together to achieve a goal. (Blake & Mouton, 1984, pp. 4 – 5)

Some of the classic examples of organizational intergroup conflict are between line and staff, manufacturing and sales, production and maintenance, headquarters and field staffs, and labor and management.

The Win-lose Situation in Intergroup Conflict

When intergroup conflict of win-lose orientation occurs, competition among members within each group is reduced, and the groups become more cohesive. The group members tend to conform to the group norm more, and they become loyal to the group. Although this is temporary, team conformity and loyalty increases substantially. In each group there is greater emphasis on task-oriented behaviors relative to relations-oriented behaviors (Schein, 1980).

Under external threats, the ingroup members close ranks, play down their disagreements, and become more loyal to the group so that a united front can be maintained against the outgroup. In other words, an increase in the intergroup conflict may reduce intragroup conflict. This encourages groupthink, which will affect the problem solving capability of the groups.

One of the possible consequences of win-lose intergroup conflict is that it creates significant distortions in the judgment and perceptual processes of the conflicting groups. During periods of intense intergroup conflict, judgmental and perceptual distortions become progressively greater. The achievements of one’s group are seen as superior to those of the opposing group (Brewer, 1979).

The members of the ingroup perceive the members of the other group as enemies, and they describe each other with negative stereotypes. The members of each group are likely to hear only those things that are consistent with their group’s positions. Sometimes ingroup members dehumanize the outgroup as a way to justify intergroup aggression (Wilder, 1986).

Two types of errors occur that tend to magnify the differences between groups and escalate the conflict. The two groups fail to see the similarities in their solutions and see only the differences between their solutions. In other words, areas of agreement are seen as less than they actually are.

The other kind of perceptual error relates to the belief of the ingroup members that their solutions are superior to those of the outgroup. These errors occur even though members of both groups consider the solutions carefully and feel they understand them well (see Blake, Shepard, & Mouton, 1964).