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Organizational conflict is a state of discord caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needs, values and interests between people working together. Conflict takes many forms in organizations. There is the inevitable clash between formal authority and power and those individuals and groups affected. There are disputes over how revenues should be divided, how the work should be done, and how long and hard people should work. There are jurisdictional disagreements among individuals, departments, and between unions and management. There are subtler forms of conflict involving rivalries, jealousies, personality clashes, role definitions, and struggles for power and favor. There is also conflict within individuals — between competing needs and demands — to which individuals respond in different ways.[1]

Personal conflict

Conflict sometimes has a destructive effect on the individuals and groups involved. At other times, however, conflict can increase the capacity of those affected to deal with problems, and therefore it can be used as a motivating force toward innovation and change. Conflict is encountered in two general forms. Personal conflict refers to an individual's inner workings and personality problems.[2]

Many difficulties in this area are beyond the scope of management and more in the province of a professional counselor, but there are some aspects of personal conflict that managers should understand and some they can possibly help remedy. Social conflict refers to interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup differences.[1]

It was pointed out that there is a basic incompatibility between the authority and structure of formal organizations and the human personality. Human behavior cannot be separated from the culture that surrounds it. [2]

Role Conflict

Another facet of personal conflict has to do with the multiple roles people play in organizations. Behavioral scientists sometimes describe an organization as a system of position roles. Each member of the organization belongs to a role set, which is an association of individuals who share interdependent tasks and thus perform formally defined roles, which are further influenced both by the expectations of others in the role set and by one's own personality and expectations. For example, in a common form of classroom organization, students are expected to learn from the instructor by listening to him, following his directions for study, taking exams, and maintaining appropriate standards of conduct. The instructor is expected to bring students high-quality learning materials, give lectures, write and conduct tests, and set a scholarly example. Another in this role set would be the dean of the school, who sets standards, hires and supervises faculty, maintains a service staff, readers and graders, and so on. The system of roles to which an individual belongs extends outside the organization as well, and influences his functioning within it.As an example, a man's roles as husband, father, son, and church member are all intertwined with each other and with his set of organizational roles. [3]

As a consequence, there exist opportunities for role conflict as the various roles interact with one another. Other types of role conflict occur when an individual receives inconsistent demands from another person; for example, he is asked' to serve on several time-consuming committees at the same time that he is urged to get out more production in his work unit. Another kind of role strain takes place when the individual finds that he is expected to meet the opposing demands of two or more separate members of the organization. Such a case would be that of a worker who finds himself pressured by his boss to improve the quality of his work while his work group wants more production in order to receive a higher bonus share.

These and other varieties of role conflict tend to increase an individual's anxiety and frustration. Sometimes they motivate him to do more and better work. Other times they can lead to frustration and reduced efficiency.[4]

Organizational conflict theories

Maturity-immaturity theory

According to Maslow, Argyris, McGregor, Rogers, and other writers of the so-called growth schools, there is a basic tendency in the development of the human personality toward self-fulfillment, or self-actualization. This implies that as an individual matures, he wants to be given more responsibility, broader horizons, and the opportunity to develop his personal potential. This process is interrupted whenever a person's environment fails to encourage and nurture these desires.

Formal organizations are rational structures that, based on their assumption of emotions, feelings, and irrationality as human weaknesses, try to replace individual control with institutional control. Thus the principle of task specialization is seen as a device that simplifies tasks for the sake of efficiency. As a consequence, however, it uses only a fraction of a person's capacity and ability. The principle of chain of command centralizes authority but makes the individual more dependent on his superiors. The principle of normal span of control, which assigns a maximum of six or seven subordinates to report to the chief executive, reduces the number of individuals reporting to the head of the organization or to the manager of any subunit. Although this simplifies the job of control for the manager, it also creates more intensive surveillance of the subordinate, and therefore permits him less freedom to control himself.[1]

Under such conditions, subordinates are bound to find themselves in conflict with the formal organization, and sometimes with each other. They advance up the narrowing hierarchy where jobs get fewer, and "fewer" implies competing with others for the decreasing number of openings. Task specialization tends to focus the subordinate's attention on his own narrow function and divert him from thinking about the organization as a whole. This effect increases the need for coordination and leads to a circular process of increasing the dependence on the leader. [1]

They may respond to organizational pressures and threats by defensive reactions such as aggression against their supervisors and co-workers, fixated behavior or apathy, compromise and gamesmanship, or psychological withdrawal and daydreaming. All of these defense mechanisms reduce a person's potential for creative, constructive activity on the job. Finally, employees may organize unions or unsanctioned informal groups whose norms of behavior are opposed to many of the organization's goals. As a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, all of these reactions to the constraints of the formal organization merely serve to reinforce and strengthen them.

The conflict between the formal organization and the individual will continue to exist wherever managers remain ignorant of its causes or wherever the organizational structure and the leadership style are allowed to become inconsistent with the legitimate needs of the psychologically healthy individual. Everyone recognizes the necessity for order and control in organizations. Those of us who enter management, however, must learn to recognize in addition that order and control can be achieved only at the expense of individual freedom. [1]

Subordinates adapt to these conditions in the organization in several ways. In the extreme, they may find the situation intolerable and leave the organization. Or they may strive to advance to positions of higher authority, there to adopt the controlling style they are trying to escape.

Conflict within groups

Conflicts between people in work groups, committees, task forces, and other organizational forms of face-to-face groups are inevitable. As we have mentioned, these conflicts may be destructive as well as constructive.

Conflict arises in groups because of the scarcity of freedom, position, and resources. People who value independence tend to resist the need for interdependence and, to some extent, conformity within a group. People who seek power therefore struggle with others for position or status within the group. Rewards and recognition are often perceived as insufficient and improperly distributed, and members are inclined to compete with each other for these prizes. [5]

In westen culture, winning is more acceptable than losing, and competition is more prevalent than cooperation, all of which tends to intensify intragroup conflict. Group meetings are often conducted in a win-lose climate — that is, individual or subgroup interaction is conducted for the purpose of determining a winner and a loser rather than for achieving mutual problem solving. [1]

Negative effects of group conflicts

The win-lose conflict in groups may have some of the following negative effects [6]:

  1. Divert time and energy from the main issues
  2. Delay decisions
  3. Create deadlocks
  4. Drive unaggressive committee members to the sidelines
  5. Interfere with listening
  6. Obstruct exploration of more alternatives
  7. Decrease or destroy sensitivity
  8. Cause members to drop out or resign from committees
  9. Arouse anger that disrupts a meeting
  10. Interfere with empathy
  11. Leave losers resentful
  12. Incline underdogs to sabotage
  13. Provoke personal abuse
  14. Cause defensiveness

Results of group conflicts

Conflict in the group need not lead to negative results, however. The presence of a dissenting member or subgroup often results in more penetration of the group's problem and more creative solutions. This is because disagreement forces the members to think harder in an attempt to cope with what may be valid objections to general group opinion. But the group must know how to deal with differences that may arise. [2]

True interdependence among members leads automatically to conflict resolution in the group. Interdependence recognizes that differences will exist and that they can be helpful. Hence, members learn to accept ideas from dissenters (which does not imply agreeing with them), they learn to listen and to value openness, and they learn to share a mutual problem-solving attitude to ensure the exploration of all facets of a problem facing the group. [6]

Intergroup conflict

Conflict between groups is a sometimes necessary, sometimes destructive, event that occurs at all levels and across all functions in organizations. Intergroup conflict may help generate creative tensions leading to more effective contributions to the organization's goals, such as competition between sales districts for the highest sales. [3] Intergroup conflict is destructive when it alienates groups that should be working together, when it results in win-lose competition, and when it leads to compromises that represent less-than-optimum outcomes.

Intergroup conflict occurs in two general forms. Horizontal strain involves competition between functions: for example, sales versus production, research and development versus engineering, purchasing versus legal, line versus staff, and so on. Vertical strain involves competition between hierarchical levels: for example, union versus management, foremen versus middle management, shop workers versus foremen. [3] A struggle between a group of employees and management is an example of vertical strain or conflict. A clash between a sales department and production over inventory policy would be an example of horizontal strain.

Certain activities and attitudes are typical in groups involved in a win-lose conflict. Each side closes ranks and prepares itself for battle. Members show increased loyalty and support for their own groups. Minor differences between group members tend to be smoothed over, and deviants are dealt with harshly. The level of morale in the groups increases and infuses everyone with competitive spirit. The power structure becomes better defined, as the "real" leaders come to the surface and members rally around the "best" thinkers and talkers. [5]

In addition, each group tends to distort both its own views and those of the competing group. What is perceived as "good" in one's own position is emphasized, what is "bad" is ignored; the position of the other group is assessed as uniformly "bad," with little "good" to be acknowledged or accepted. Thus, the judgment and objectivity of both groups are impaired. When such groups meet to "discuss" their differences, constructive, rational behavior is severely inhibited. [6] Each side phrases its questions and answers in a way that strengthens its own position and disparages the other's. Hostility between the two groups increases; mutual understandings are buried in negative stereotypes.

It is easy to see that under the conditions described above, mutual solutions to problems cannot be achieved. As a result, the side having the greater power wins; the other side loses. Or the conflict may go unresolved, and undesirable conditions or circumstances continue. Or the conflict may be settled by a higher authority. [6]

None of these outcomes is a happy one. Disputes settled on the basis of power, such as through a strike or a lockout in a labor-management dispute, are often deeply resented by the loser. Such settlements may be resisted and the winner defeated in underground ways that are difficult to detect and to counter. When this happens, neither side wins; both are losers. If the conflict is left unresolved, as when both sides withdraw from the scene, intergroup cooperation and effectiveness may be seriously impaired to the detriment of the entire organization. Disputes that are settled by higher authority also may cause resentment and what is called "lose-lose" consequences. Such settlements are invariably made on the basis of incomplete information —without data that the conflict itself obscures — and therefore are poor substitutes for mutually reasoned solutions. Again, both sides have lost. A specific approach to resolving intergroup conflict is outlined in the next chapter on organization development. [5]

Thus, conflict affecting organizations can occur in individuals, between individuals, and between groups. Conflicts within work groups are often caused by struggles over control, status, and scarce resources. Conflicts between groups in organizations have similar origins. The constructive resolution of such conflicts can most often be achieved through a rational process of problem solving, coupled with a willingness to explore issues and alternatives and to listen to each other.[1]

Conflict is not always destructive, it may be a motivator. When it is destructive, however, managers need to understand and do something about it. A rational process for dealing with the conflict should be programmed. Such a process should include a planned action response on the part of the manager or the organization, rather than relying on a simple reaction or a change that occurs without specific action by management.[1]

Conflict resolution


When personal conflict leads to frustration and loss of efficiency, counseling may prove to be a helpful antidote. Although few organizations can afford the luxury of having professional counselors on the staff, given some training, managers may be able to perform this function. Nondirective counseling, or "listening with understanding", is little more than being a good listener — something every manager should be. [4]

Sometimes the simple process of being able to vent one's feelings — that is, to express them to a concerned and understanding listener, is enough to relieve frustration and make it possible for the frustrated individual to advance to a problem-solving frame of mind, better able to cope with a personal difficulty that is affecting his work adversely. The nondirective approach is one effective way for managers to deal with frustrated subordinates and co-workers.

There are other more direct and more diagnostic ways that might be used in appropriate circumstances. The great strength of the nondirective approach (nondirective counseling is based on the client-centered therapy of Carl Rogers), however, lies in its simplicity, its effectiveness, and the fact that it deliberately avoids the manager-counselor's diagnosing and interpreting emotional problems, which would call for special psychological training. No one has ever been harmed by being listened to sympathetically and understandingly. On the contrary, this approach has helped many people to cope with problems that were interfering with their effectiveness on the job.[1]


Management is presumed to be guided by a vision of the future. The manager reflects in his decision-making activities the values of the organization as they have developed through time, from the original founder-owner to the present top-management personnel. In navigating a path between the values of the organization and its objectives and goals, management has expectations concerning the organization's effectiveness and efficiency and frequently initiates changes within the organization. On other occasions, changes in the external environment — market demand, technology, or the political, social, or economic environment — require making appropriate changes in the activities of the organization. The organization faces these demands for change through the men and women who make up its membership, since organizational change ultimately depends on the willingness of employees and others to change their attitudes, behavior, their degree of knowledge and skill, or a combination of these. [7]

Personality change

In many contexts, the manager appears to be asking an employee to change his personality to conform to new requirements. This was the challenge that faced Freud as he used psychoanalysis in treating his patients, who had varying degrees of neurosis. The relationship between the psychoanalyst and his patient is one in which the individual seeking help is asked over a period of time to reach into his memory, and through free associations to communicate with the psychoanalyst about past incidents and events. The patient is peeling off layer after layer of experience stretching over a lifetime, with the support, understanding, and guidance of the psychoanalyst. [7]

As the patient unfolds his life story, he may reach a particular incident or event that may be a root cause of his problem in living a "normal" life. If such an event in his past took place in preverbal infancy or before, he may never be able to recall it. Nevertheless, the psychoanalytic relationship itself, because it involves a high degree of trust and confidence and an opportunity to admit to a sympathetic and understanding listener hidden anxieties and fears, may provide the therapeutic experience that is needed for the patient to decide that he has solved his problem. Though there are various theories of psychotherapy in addition to traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, the processes of therapy are often quite similar. In any case, changing an individual's personality is rarely possible in the short run. After all, it presumes changing the meaning that an individual has assigned to his life experiences. The Neo-Freudian point of view, however, assumes that an individual is amenable to personality change until he dies, though any change must become increasingly difficult as the individual adds layer upon layer of experience as he moves along life's path. Changing the core of an individual's personality within a "reasonable" time may offer little hope of success. [7]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Richard Arvid Johnson (1976). Management, systems, and society : an introduction, 148-142, Pacific Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear Pub. Co.. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Johnson" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Johnson" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Johnson" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Johnson" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Johnson" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Johnson" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Johnson" defined multiple times with different content
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Chris Argyris (1957). Personality and organization; the conflict between system and the individual, 47-54, New York: Harper & Row.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Daniel Katz; Robert Louis Kahn (1966). The social psychology of organizations, 18-33, New York: Wiley. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "conf5" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "conf5" defined multiple times with different content
  4. 4.0 4.1 Henry P Knowles; Börje O Saxberg (1971). Personality and leadership behavior, Chapter 8, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co..
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Theodore M Mills (1967). The Sociology of Small Groups, 14-17, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "conf3" defined multiple times with different content
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 John E Jones; J William Pfeiffer (1973). The 1973 annual handbook for group facilitators, 106-109, San Diego, Calif.: University Associates.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Alfred W Clark (1976). Experimenting with organizational life: the action research approach, New York: Plenum Press.

See also