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Organizational or Interpersonal Conflict?

If there’s a disagreement at work, what difference does it make whether it’s organizational or interpersonal? And what’s the difference in the first place?

Based on the research about conflict in organizations, I usually distinguish between organizational and interpersonal conflict as being based on who the disagreeing parties are: between the organization and its constituents including employees, or between individuals. 

In general an organizational conflict involves a dispute based on an organizational policy or practice. The dispute between employees and an organization about taking a stand on laws related to social policies or climate change is an organizational conflict.  

An interpersonal conflict is a disagreement between two or more people at this time in this situation and may not be about something to do with work at all. If different people were involved, there might not be a disagreement over the same issue, which might be something like who’s responsible for maintaining the copier or even who should be MVP in the playoff. It’s more about the people than the organization. 

However, based on some informal research I did, it seems that most people see disagreements at work as interpersonal even if they center on an organizational policy or practice. For example, a disagreement over a new hire may raise concerns over the organization’s typical recruitment policy that might seem unfair to staff members who see the process as a form of discrimination. This difference is then redefined as an interpersonal disagreement by criticizing another person of being short-sighted or unaware, rather than disagreeing over the policy itself.

This distinction may be subtle but it’s important because it points to a way of resolving the disagreement. 

It’s easier, and frankly safer, to frame the disagreement as based on someone’s attitude rather than argue about something they don’t think can be changed. People can then simply agree to follow a rule rather go to HR and try to challenge it, an action that might seem like an inappropriate escalation.

The downside of this approach is that seeing most disagreements as interpersonal might mean that there are underlying tensions being played out as a disagreement over a policy. And that means that the underlying disagreement is never addressed, maybe never even recognized, and will most certainly appear in another context about another issue among the same people. It also means that employees see the organization as less flexible that it might actually be. 

In addition, the need to redefine a disagreement means that leadership has to do a better job of creating an environment that is safe enough for people to raise an issue without fear of retribution or retaliation and without having to redefine it as interpersonal. Leadership may need to become more attentive to the undercurrents of what’s going on and address them before the situation explodes. That’s harder to do when working distantly, but more frequent one-on-one conversations can increase trust levels that support difficult conversations.

Stay well. Stay safe. Have a peaceful week. 


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE

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