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Intergroup Conflict in the Workplace

Webster’s Dictionary defines a group as “a number of persons near, placed, or classified together.” Others define a group as a “social unit that consists of a number of individuals (1) who, at a given time, have role and status relationships with one another, stabilized in some degree and (2) who possess a set of values or norms regulating the attitude and behavior of individual members, at least in matters of consequence to them.”

Intergroup relations between two or more groups and their respective members are often necessary to complete the work required to operate a business. Many times, groups inter-relate to accomplish the organization’s goals and objectives, and conflict can occur. Some conflict, called functional conflict, is considered positive, because it enhances performance and identifies weaknesses. Dysfunctional conflict, however, is confrontation or interaction between groups that harms the organization or hinders attainment of goals or objectives.

Causes of Intergroup Conflict

One of the most prominent reasons for intergroup conflict is simply the nature of the group. Other reasons may be work interdependence, goal variances, differences in perceptions, and the increased demand for specialists. Also, individual members of a group often play a role in the initiation of group conflict. Any given group embodies various qualities, values, or unique traits that are created, followed, and even defended. These clans can then distinguish “us” from “them.” Members who violate important aspects of the group, and especially outsiders, who offend these ideals in some way, normally receive some type of corrective or defensive response. Relationships between groups often reflect the opinions they hold of each other’s characteristics. When groups share some interests and their directions seem parallel, each group may view the other positively; however, if the activities and goals of groups differ, they may view each other in a negative manner. When trying to prevent or correct intergroup conflict, it is important to consider the history of relations between the groups in conflict. History will repeat itself if left to its own devices.

Limited resources and reward structures can foster intergroup conflict by making the differences in group goals more apparent. Differences in perceptions among groups regarding time and status, when coupled with different group goals, can also create conflict. Reorganization of the workplace and integration of services and facilities can be stressful to some and create negative conflict. Some individuals within the group have inherent traits or social histories that impact intergroup conflict, but problems within intergroup relations are not usually caused by the deviate behavior of a few individuals.

Consequences of Intergroup Conflict

Intergroup conflict causes changes to occur, both within the groups in conflict and between them. Within the groups, members will usually overlook individual differences in an effort to unite against the other side, and with this concerted effort the focus is on the task. The group can become more efficient and effective at what they do, and members can become more loyal, closely following group norms. Problems can occur, however, when the group loses focus of the organization’s goals and becomes closed off from other groups. Haughtiness and isolation quickly lead to decreased communication. Communication is the key between groups in reciprocal interdependence, and these have the highest negative consequences for lack of effective communication. Miscommunication can be the death knell of any organization.

Solutions to Intergroup Conflict

There are numerous choices available to circumvent conflict, to keep it from becoming damaging, and to resolve conflict that is more serious. These include simple avoidance where possible, problem solving, changing certain variables in the workplace, and in-house alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs. Any resolution method should depend on why the conflict occurred, the seriousness of the conflict, and the type. A face-to-face meeting, as in problem solving, can be very effective in conflicts of misunderstanding or language barriers. The groups can discuss issues and relevant information, with or without a facilitator, to reach resolution.

Where groups have differing goals, it may be prudent to establish some type of goal that can only be reached when the conflicting groups work together. A superordinate goal not only helps alleviate conflict, it focuses more on performance, which is what the organization needs to survive. A downside to this option is the identification of a common enemy of the conflicting groups, who must come together to prevail. Eventually, the solidarity crumbles and groups begin to again turn against each other.

Another stopgap solution to conflict is simply avoiding it. Although this does not resolve the problem, it can help get a group through a period of time, in which those involved may become more objective, or a greater, more immediate goal would have been met. Along those lines, another solution is smoothing the groups by focusing on common interests and de-emphasizing the differences between them. This approach is especially effective on relatively simple conflicts and is viewed as a short-term remedy.

Yet another quick fix is the authoritative command, where groups, who cannot satisfactorily resolve their conflict, are commanded by management. This response does not usually deal with the underlying cause of the conflict, which is likely to surface again in some way. This would probably be a choice of last resort in this era of individual independence and self-determination.

Although it is not always possible to change a person’s behavior, by focusing on the cause of the conflict and the attitudes of those involved, it will lead to a more permanent resolution. It is also possible to change the structural variables involving the conflicting groups, such as changing jobs or rearranging reporting responsibilities. This approach is much more effective when the groups themselves participate in structural change decisions. Without meaningful input, this resolution method resembles avoidance or forcing and is not likely to succeed, further frustrating all involved.

Any method or response to conflict, lost productivity, miscommunication, or unhealthy work environment can be reconstituted in many forms of ADR. Alternative dispute resolution should also be appropriate to the needs of those involved. It is crucial that the organization determines the needs of its stakeholders, the types of conflict that occur, and the conflict culture (how conflict is dealt with) within the organization before initiating an ADR program. Any program must allow for creativity, approachability, and flexibility if people are asked to utilize it. All employees should be aware or involved in the establishment of an ADR program, if it is to work properly. Without full involvement or input, needs assessment is hit or miss, and assumptions lead to actions, which lead to the same place you were before. This assumicide behavior by an organization’s leadership would not be tolerated in marketing a new product or acquiring a capital asset, so why are people less important?

Any collaborative process intended to address and manage intergroup conflict should have objectives to encourage it. In this major commitment of time and resources, success is its best reward, but to ensure an ADR approach suitable for you, it is important to:

  • Build trust
  • Clearly define participants’ roles and authorities
  • Establish ground rules
  • Promote leadership
  • Bring a collaborative attitude to the table
  • Maintain participant continuity
  • Recognize time and resource constraints
  • Address cultural differences and power imbalances
  • Build accountability and organizational commitment
  • Make this a consensus process
  • Produce early measurable results
  • Link decision making and implementation
  • Promote good communication and listening skills

Conflicts within or between groups can be destructive or constructive, depending on how the conflict is handled.

When an organization is creating a dispute resolution process, there are key factors to success:

  1. A critical mass of individuals who are committed to the process;
  2. A leadership group who perceive it in their best interest and the best interests of the people they serve;
  3. Strategic cooperation among historical enemies;
  4. Realistic and satisfactory outcomes;
  5. A moratorium on hostilities or conflict-seeking behavior.

There also are barriers to success:

  1. Fear of losing power;
  2. Unwillingness to negotiate;
  3. No perceived benefit;
  4. Corporate philosophy;
  5. Top leadership reluctance;
  6. Lack of knowledge about ADR;
  7. Lack of success stories.

Responsible measures to reduce barriers and encourage a true paradigm shift are training, incentives, marketing, periodic review, case studies, and top management support and participation. Facilitators trained in mediation and other forms of ADR are a necessary resource from outside or within the organization. The workplace of the new millenium will have in-house mediation or other conflict management programs to reduce formal claims and act as a risk management business practice.


Webster’s Dictionary,

P.S.I. & Associates, Inc., 1986.

Sherif, Muzafer, In Common Predicament (Social Psychology of Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1966.


Tony Belak

Tony Belak is the Ombuds at the University of Louisville, Associate Director of the Center for Conflict Resolution at La Sierra University, Riverside, California, associate director of the International Center for Compassionate Organizations and the former Executive Director of the International Center for Collaborative Solutions at Sullivan University, Louisville,… MORE >

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