Resolving Organizational Conflict

Stages of Conflict And Their Antecedents

Conflict can be resolved in many ways. But true conflict resolution—a situation in which the underlying reasons for dysfunctional conflictOpens in new window are eliminated, can be elusive. And when conflicts go unresolved, the stage is often set for future conflicts of the same or related sort.

Rather than trying to deny the existence of conflict or settle on a temporary resolution, it is always best to deal with important conflicts in such ways that they are completely resolved. This requires a good understanding of the stages of conflict, the potential causes of conflict, and indirect and direct approaches to conflict management.

Stages of Conflict

Most conflicts develop in stages, as shown in the Figure below, conflict antecedents establish the conditions from which conflicts are likely to emerge. When the antecedent conditions become the basis for substantiveOpens in new window or emotional differencesOpens in new window between people or groups, the stage of perceived conflict exists.

There is quite a difference between perceived and felt conflict. When conflict is felt, it is experienced as tension that motivates the person to take action to reduce feelings of discomfort. For conflict to be resolved, all parties should perceive the conflict and feel the need to do something about it.

Figure illustrating the Stages of Conflic
Figure illustrating the Stages of Conflict

Manifest conflict is expressed openly in behavior. At this stage removing or correcting the antecedents results in conflict resolution, while failing to do so results in conflict suppression. With suppression, no change in antecedent conditions occurs even though the manifest conflict behaviors may be temporarily controlled. This occurs, for example, when one or both parties choose to ignore conflict in their dealings with one another.

Conflict suppression is a superficial and often temporary state that leaves the situation open to future conflicts over similar issues. Although it is perhaps useful in the short run, only true conflict resolution establishes conditions that eliminate an existing conflict and reduce the potential for it to recur in the future.

Hierarchical Causes of Conflict

The structure of organizations as hierarchical systems means that conflict is inevitable as individuals and teams are designed to work with one another. In such environment, it is well known that conflict will occur.

The following are the types of conflict that occur in organization as a result of its hierarchical settings.

  1. Vertical conflict
    Vertical conflict occurs between levels and commonly involves supervisor-subordinate and team leader-team member disagreements over resources, goals, deadlines, or performance results.
  2. Horizontal conflict
    Horizontal conflict occurs between persons or groups working at the same hierarchical level. These disputes commonly involve goal incompatibilities, resource scarcities, or purely interpersonal factors.
  3. Line-staff conflict
    Line-staff conflict involves disagreements between line and staff personnel over who has authority and control over decisions on matters such as budgets, technology, and human resource practices.
  4. Role ambiguity conflict
    Role ambiguity conflicts are also common in organizational environments. They occur when the communication of task expectations is unclear or upsetting in some way, such as a team member receiving different expectations from the leader and other members. Conflict is always likely when people are placed in ambiguous situations where it is hard to understand who is responsible for what, and why.

Contextual Causes of Conflict in Organizations

The context of the organization as a complex network of interacting subsystems is a breeding ground for a number of conflicts including the following.

  1. Task interdependency
    Task and workflow interdependencies cause disputes and open disagreements among people and teams that are required to cooperate to meet challenging goals. Conflict potential is especially great when interdependence is high—that is, when a person or group must rely on or ask for contributions from one or more others to achieve its goals.
  2. Structural differentiation
    Structural differentiation, a situation where different teams and work units pursue different goals with different time horizons, escalates conflict.
  3. Domain ambiguities
    Conflict also develops out of domain ambiguities when individuals or teams lack adequate task direction or goals and misunderstand such things as customer jurisdiction or scope of authority.
  4. Resource scarcity
    Actual or perceived resource scarcity can foster destructive conflict. Working relationships are likely to suffer as individuals or teams try to position themselves to gain or retain maximum shares of a limited resource pool. They are also likely to resist having their resources redistributed to others.
  5. Asymmetry
    Power or value asymmetries in work relationships can also create conflict. They exist when interdependent people or teams differ substantially from one another in status and influence or in values. Conflict resulting from asymmetry is likely, for example, when a low-power person needs the help of a high-power person who does not respond, when people who hold dramatically different values are forced to work together on a task, or when a high-status person is required to interact with and perhaps be dependent on someone of lower status.

In the next entry we discuss indirect and direct conflict management strategiesOpens in new window.