Organizational Conflict

What Is Organizational Conflict?

Organization is mainly characterized by human beings in interaction with each other. In such an interactive environment, there is bound to be conflicts or opposing interests which sometimes result in detrimental side effects to the parties involved or to the organization as a whole.

Conflict is defined as the expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive opposition of goals, aims, and values, and who see the other party as potentially interfering with the realization of these goals.

This definition highlights three general characteristics that we may think of as the three I’s of conflict:

The basis of organizational conflict lies in these.

Miller (2003) explains that organizational conflict usually involves the perception of incompatibility regarding various organizational programs.

He concludes that conflict takes place when the behaviors of the members are interdependent, and that it involves the expression of incompatibility (or interaction), not the mere existence of incompatibility. Communication is therefore the means by which conflict is incited and dealt with constructively.

Causes of Organizational Conflict

  1. Mutual exclusive goals
    A typical source of conflict in the organization is when two people or two units have mutually exclusive goals which cannot be reached simultaneous. For example, a manager who believes in strict adherence to the time clock might clash with a new employee who believes in getting the work done on a more flexible schedule.
  2. Limited resources
    Groups or individuals that are committed to reach their goals will want to ensure that they have all the resources required. In any organization, resources are limited and all demands cannot be satisfied to the same degree. This is a frequent area of conflict.
  3. Competition for status
    The concern of people with their position relative to others has much influence on their behavior and performance. An example of frequent conflict is when a young, highly educated person is called on to supervise the work of older persons who have gained their status through their years of experience with the organization.
  4. Incompatible value orientations:
    In a large organization, people will have different backgrounds and different value systems and will perceive things from different viewpoints—a possible cause of conflict, especially when not understood. Those in different functional departments will have varying beliefs and opinions on what is best and how it should be done.

Basic Types of Organizational Conflict

In the following list of organizational conflicts, the first three are seemingly interpersonal conflicts, but they become organizational because the conflictive individuals represent organizational units and levels that are in contest over resources, how best to render care, or who has authority and power.

  1. Goal conflict
    Goal conflict involves discords that focus on competition for rewards or status. Studies examining the roots of individual’s conclusions about conflicting goals between units and departments identified both a structural and psychological basis. Research showed that reasons for employees’ perceptions of competitive goals include a party’s lack of concern for each other’s interests.
  2. Cognitive conflict
    Cognitive conflict occurs when ideas or opinions are perceived as incompatible. This kind of conflict is due to a misunderstanding or misperception. Once the cognitive dissonance is cleared up, the conflict can be resolved.
  3. Affective conflict
    Affective conflict Opens in new window occurs when feelings or emotions are incompatible (i.e., people or groups becomes angry with one another).
  4. Vertical conflict
    Vertical conflict is rooted between levels. It occurs when subordinates resists attempts by superiors to restrict their autonomy. But also arises from misunderstandings, lack of consensus on goals, and so on.
  5. Horizontal conflict
    Horizontal conflict occurs within the same hierarchic level (e.g., when each team, unit, or department strives for its own goals regardless of the effect on other departments).
  6. Line-staff conflict
    Line-staff conflict sometimes results when line managers feel that staff managers are using their technical knowledge to intrude on the line managers’ areas of legitimate authority. Open conflict is particularly likely when staff managers control resources used by line managers.
  7. Role conflict
    Role conflict occurs when there is inconsistency or misunderstanding about the job a person is supposed to be doing. Such a misunderstanding can take place between a subordinate and a superior, between different groups that depend on each other, or between an individual’s notions of acceptable behavior and his or her job.

Conflict in organizations is probably inevitable due to the nature and design of the structure itself. It can be both destructive and constructive. It can destroy work relationships or create impetus for needed organizational change. Through communication, organizational members create and work through conflicts in ways that can be either functional or dysfunctional. In our next entry here we examine the levels of organizational conflicts.