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Conflict Theory

Everyone experiences conflict in their life so it should be no surprise that it also occurs in the workplace. However, organizational conflict theory says there are several varieties of conflicts within a given enterprise, with interpersonal being only one type. Departments have conflicts with one another, senior managements have power struggles and teams/organizations even have conflict with other teams/organizations. Let’s therefore look a little more closely at each of these conflict types:

Interpersonal Conflicts

Many individuals are simply “not on the same page” or do not get on with one another. This may be a matter of style or approach or just that they just don’t like the look of one another. It may well be that if they weren’t obliged to deal with one another they could have more polite and even friendly conversation as acquaintances. But when forced to work together to achieve goals or to share workspace on a consistent basis, friction may arise. In these situations, managers will usually have to take on the roles of both mediators and counselors to help diffuse the situation and find resolution, or make a difficult choice to transfer or remove someone based on inability to function in a team.

Role Conflict

Some conflicts between individuals have little or nothing to do with personalities, but are caused by circumstances related to their roles and/or tasks they are expected to perform. Much of this arises from overlapping responsibilities or status issues (the relative ability of one person to tell another one what to do or not do). An example of this might be a maintenance supervisor telling a production supervisor not to operate a piece of equipment as it is may break down. Not only do these two people have different reporting lines but different objectives (one for keeping costs down and the other for keeping revenues up in broad terms). They therefore easily run into conflict as a result of their different roles and goals-even though, on another day in a different set of circumstances they could find themselves having no such conflicts and be able to collaborate very productively.

Inter-group Conflict

Although it is similar to role conflict, inter-group conflict typically occurs because the goals of whole teams are not completely clear or there is duplication or overlap of functions causing disputation. An example here might be conflict between the finance and information technology department. The finance department needs to use new online “cloud-based” software to present the businesses invoices to customers electronically. The IT department not only sees the particular application being proposed to be problematic (as it doesn’t answer many of their standard questions about system compatibility and seems to be using some “questionable” data transfer processes) but also feels that the finance department is straying into responsibilities that should really belong to IT such as selecting the software or system, and running it technically). The tension or difficulty is neither party’s fault but it is nonetheless very real and may cause many arguments and others problems (such as delays and obstructive behavior) which can go on for months if not dealt with. If the inter-group conflict persists beyond a few weeks or months it may even become part of the company “climate” and be potentially very destructive to the organization and everyone involved.

Approaches to Conflict Resolution

Organizations have a fairly limited set of choices when it comes to resolving conflict when it occurs: These are avoidance, smoothing, confrontation and compromise. The avoidance and smoothing choices rest largely on time slowly eroding the difficulties being experienced. Confrontation and compromise, on the other hand, involve specifically directing one of the conflict parties, making an executive decision to resolve the conflict in favor of one party or other or forcing a mediation with hopes for a collaborative solution emerging.

Before any strategy is chosen the other area that needs careful consideration when seeking to resolve conflict is to determine when the symptoms are more overt or covert. Overt symptoms of conflict are more obvious of course and may include complaints, arguments, industrial action, reaction to an employee being disciplined or dismissed etc. Covert symptoms may include general employee discomfort, tension, rumors, sabotage, absenteeism, or non-cooperation. These more covert symptoms should not be ignored as they indicate that conflict exists and that action needs to be taken to identify and address the sources of the conflict.

The symptoms of conflict are of course quite different from the sources or reasons for conflict. Sources of conflict can be categorized in a number of ways including:

ideological: different values or political and cultural beliefs
social: different personalities and styles, for example conflict between a loud and outgoing person and a quiet, more introverted person
structural: different levels of legal power and status, for example conflict about the lack of power and status afforded to minority groups
resources: different access to income, goods and services, for example conflict about rates of pay received by different categories of employees
objectives: different needs as expressed by goals, for example conflict between a supervisor and a worker about the timing of a vacation or leave.
Of course some conflict situations may be attributable to a number of sources rather than just one. For example, resources based conflict is often accompanied by structural conflict. In the 1960s and 1970s it was argued that due to having less power and status in society, women also had less access to resources such as education and training, which meant that they had less access to reasonable jobs and remuneration.

We need to identify the sources of conflict, so that we can understand the true nature of the conflict and how it can best be resolved. For example, if access to resources is the primary source of conflict, we could expand the available resources or divide them in a different way. If structural factors are the source of conflict we could increase the legal power and status of disadvantaged groups.


Conflict theory suggests that are many different kinds of conflict and it is critical to identify which we are dealing with ahead of time. We also need to appreciate whether the conflict symptoms are overt or covert and what the possible sources of it may be. It is ultimately important to remember that conflict is not a problem in itself as it can lead to more individual and organizational creativity in many cases. However, we don’t want it to fester so the more able we are to resolve conflict at the earliest possible stages the better.


Jon Warner

Jon Warner is a Los Angeles based executive coach and management consultant with extensive expertise in organizational development, change management and business optimization. He is also a developer and user of many business and people assessment models, including the use of Psychology Type in business to help optimize individual performance… MORE >

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