Substantive & Affective Conflicts

Recognizing the Two Major Types of Conflict

ConflictsOpens in new window—be it in teams, at work, or in our personal lives—occur in at least two basic forms: substantive and affective. Both types are common, ever present, and challenging. Thus we need to learn about them to understand its nature and implications.

  1. Substantive Conflict
    Substantive conflict is a fundamental disagreement over ends or goals to be pursued and the means for their accomplishments. This conflict often occurs when two or more organizational members disagree on their task or content issues.

    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.

    Substantive conflictOpens in new window has also been labeled task conflict (Eisenhardt et al., 1997; Jehn, 1997a; Pelled et al., 1999), cognitive conflict (Amason, 1996; Cosier & Rose, 1977; Holzworth, 1983), and issue conflict (Hammer & Organ, 1978, p. 343).
  2. Affective Conflict
    Affective conflict occurs when two interacting social entities, while trying to solve a problem together, become aware that their feelings and emotions regarding some or all the issues are incompatible (Guetzkow & Gyr, 1954).

    According to Pelled et al., affective conflict is “a condition in which group members have interpersonal clashes characterized by anger, frustration, and other negative feelings” (p. 2).

    Affective conflict is commonly termed as a “clash of personalities” because it involves interpersonal difficulties that arise over feelings of anger, mistrust, dislike, fear, resentment, and the like.

    This category of conflict has been labeled psychological conflict (Ross & Ross, 1989, p. 139), relationship conflict (Jehn, 1997a), emotional conflict (Pelled, Eisenhardt, & Xin, 1999), and interpersonal conflict (Eisenhardt, Kahwajy, & Bourgeois, 1997).

It is appropriate to distinguish between substantive and affective conflicts. Whereas affective conflict is concerned with the feelings or emotions of the conflicting parties, substantive conflict is associated with the task or other business-related issues involved in such a situation.

When affective 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.