After reading this article you will learn about:- 1. Meaning of Conflict 2. Features of Conflict 3. Philosophy 4. Causes 5. Consequences 6. Management.
Meaning of Conflict:
Conflict is a state of discord caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needs, values and interests. A conflict can be internal (within oneself) or external (between two or more individuals). Conflict explains many aspects of social life such as social disagreement, conflict of interests and fight between individuals, groups or organisations.
In political terms, “conflict” can refer to wars, revolutions or other struggles, which may involve use of force. Without proper social arrangement or resolution, conflict in social settings can result in stress or tension amongst stakeholders.
Conflict arises “when two or more parties, with perceived incompatible goals seek to undermine each other’s goal-seeking capability”.
Conflict arises in the situations of competition and co-operation. In competitive situations, two or more individuals or parties have mutually inconsistent goals and either party tries to reach their goal and undermine the attempts of the other to reach theirs. Therefore, competitive situations will, by their nature, cause conflict.
However, conflict can also occur in cooperative situations, in which two or more individuals or parties have consistent goals, but the manner in which one party tries to reach their goal can still undermine the other individual or party.
A clash of interests, values, actions or directions often results in conflict. Conflict refers to existence of that clash. Psychologically, conflict exists when reduction of one motivating stimulus involves increase in another so that new adjustment is demanded. Even when we say there is a potential conflict, we are implying that there is already a conflict of direction even though a clash may not yet have occurred.
“Organisational conflict is disagreement between two or more organisational members or groups arising from the fact that they must share scarce resources or work activities and/or from the fact that they have different statuses, goals, values, or perceptions.”
Features of Conflict:
A state of conflict is characterised by the following features:
1. It arises when two or more individuals or groups think differently.
2. It is caused by different perceptions that different individuals hold about the same object or goal. While A thinks a course of action is right, B does not hold the same opinion. This leads to conflict of opinion on the same subject.
3. It usually arises because of scarcity of resources. When people compete for scarce resources, they hold different views about how best they can utilise those resources to achieve the organisational goals.
Philosophy of Conflict:
The concept of conflict has evolved over a period of time from classical philosophy of conflict to interactionist philosophy. There are three approaches on how management views conflict.
1. Classical approach:
According to this approach, management views conflict as bad and destructive for organisational performance. Conflict of opinion meant to result in anger and resentment. This creates disorder in the organisation and effects its smooth functioning.
Conflict was, thus, dysfunctional (negative) in nature. If there was conflict in the organisational interest and individual interest, it gave importance to organisational interest as individual interest is considered subordinate to organisational interest (as advocated by Fayol). Conflict is thus, destructive as it cannot bind the management and workers together.
Management should, therefore, design organisation structure in a manner that everyone understands the policies and rules clearly. Authority-responsibility structure should be well-defined so that everyone knows his limits of discretion. This would lead to quick resolution of conflict, if at all it arises.
2. Human relations approach:
This is also known as the behaviouralists approach to conflict. While the classical approach views that organisations should not have conflict at all, the human relations approach assumes that conflict is unavoidable. It is bound to happen because of differences in opinion and perception amongst individuals.
As conflict cannot be avoided, it should be resolved in a friendly way. Conflict, thus, naturally occurs in all organisations but should be resolved for the benefit of the organisation and individuals.
3. Interactionist approach:
While the human relations approach accepts that conflict is inevitable and, therefore, acceptable, the interactionist approach takes a broader view of conflict. It encourages conflict in the organisation as conflict promotes diverse opinions and beliefs. This promotes new ideas and easy adaptability to environmental changes.
Conflicts keep the group members lively in discussions and creative in idea generation. Thus, conflict is promoted as it promotes organisational performance.
Causes of Conflict:
Conflicts arise due to the following reasons:
1. Differences in perception:
Differences in perceptions, values and attitudes of individuals or groups over the same problem leads to interpersonal or intergroup conflicts. For example, one group of individuals may want that all employees use HP computers to maintain standardisation while another group may promote different brands of computers to maintain individuality. Differences in views lead to conflicts.
2. Excessive competition:
Organisational resources (men, material, money, space etc.) are scarce and each unit wants maximum share of it. Competition amongst units for maximum share of resources leads to conflict.
3. Differences in goals:
Different goals of individuals or groups leads to conflict amongst them. In order to maximise profits, production department may want to produce limited varieties in large volume so that costs are minimised. Sales department, on the other hand, may feel that selling products of different sizes, colours and models can increase sales and, thus, minimise costs. Differences in group goals leads to conflict between the two. It may even affect the quality of products.
4. Interdependence of tasks:
When work is passed from one unit to the other, interdependence amongst units can lead to conflict. Output of first unit becomes input of second unit. If first unit fails to process its work on time, the second unit will have to wait and stay idle till it receives the process. This can cause inter-group conflict.
5. Habit patterns:
Some people like to argue and debate. They enjoy conflict as a matter of habit. It acts as a motivator for them to improve their performance.
6. Personal characteristics:
When group members differ in work attitudes, age, education, temperament and status levels, the potential for inter-group conflict is high.
7. Ill defined authority – responsibility relationships:
When authority and responsibility of individuals and groups is not properly defined, people do not understand each other’s role. There is lack of consistency in work activities and communication distortions take place. This becomes a source for inter-group conflict.
Consequences of Conflict:
Conflict has both positive and negative consequences. Positive conflict is known as functional conflict and negative conflict is known as dysfunctional conflict.
Positive Conflict (Functional Conflict):
Conflict is not only inevitable, it is also desirable. It is constructive and encourages new ideas to solve organisational problems. It promotes change and keeps the organisation going in the desired direction.
It believes that conflict has the following positive consequences:
1. High degree of cohesion:
Inter-group conflict gives rise to commitment and loyalty amongst members of the group. Group members unite together, take advantage of opportunities, overcome threats and take strong actions to resolve their problems. All members of the group work together for a common goal.
It promotes group cohesiveness if people of different groups compete with each other. In order to do better, members of each group work together. They become loyal and bonded to each other which promotes organisational performance.
2. Improvement in quality of decisions:
When group members face conflict, they think of all possible solutions to the problem, evaluate the decisions and use their creative and innovative abilities to arrive at the best decisions. Inter-group conflict, thus, improves the quality of decisions and stimulates creativity and innovation. When people have conflicting opinions, they deeply analyse facts of the case. Deep understanding of concepts promotes new thinking, new ideas and, thus, fosters innovation.
3. Emergence of leaders:
Everybody does not think alike in conflicting situation. Group members bestow power on those who can positively contribute to the problem situation to take decisions. Increased power gives rise to leaders who act as the group captain. This also reduces rivalry amongst members to become group leaders.
4. Response to change:
Conflict promotes change if people do not readily agree to each other. Differences in opinions, values and perception introduce new ways of working which is different from the traditional thinking. Conflicts challenge the existing state of affairs and promote new ideas and reassessment of current group practices. Conflict signals something wrong with the present system of working and promotes ability to assess the present and desire for a better future. Conflict, thus, increases responsiveness of group to change.
5. Increased productivity:
It is empirically proved that productivity of conflicting groups is more than those which have close agreement amongst the members. Members with different perceptions and interests produce high-quality solutions to problems. This improves productivity of the group. Conflicts highlight weaknesses in the existing system of management. These weaknesses can be removed to improve efficiency of the organisation’s operating system.
6. Releases strain:
If group members do not agree with pre-defined values and norms, conflicts give them a ground for voicing their reservations. This releases strain that would otherwise remain suppressed in their minds. In conflicting situations, people openly express their thoughts and feelings, even if they are against the thought process of other members of the organisations. This releases strain and provides mental satisfaction to the members.
Negative Conflict (Dysfunctional Conflict):
In positive conflict, differences in opinion do not hurt anyone’s feelings. People respect each other’s ideas and arrive at new solutions to the problems to develop working relationships. In negative conflict, on the contrary, people show disrespect for others’ ideas. They aim to promote their interests at the cost of others.
The negative consequences of conflict are as follows:
1. Mental strain:
Excessive conflict creates tension and frustration amongst people. This not only harms the individuals (as they may enter into a state of depression) but also harms the organisation (people do not positively contribute to organisational productivity).
Conflict breeds antagonism and discontentment. This reduces power to think creatively and reduces group effectiveness. If people do not arrive at mutually agreeable solutions, it results in discontentment. People are not satisfied with their jobs. This lowers the organisational productivity.
3. Communication breakdown:
When individuals or groups develop conflicting ideas, they avoid interacting with each other. This reduces communication amongst them leading to inter-group rivalry and loss of productive ideas.
As conflicts lead to disagreement and communication breakdown, people do not agree with each other leading to splitting up of groups and units. This diverts energy from organisational goals and leads to instability in the organisational structure.
Discontentment can lead to resignation from jobs. If results are not in favour of people who strongly oppose certain decisions, they do not wish to work in those organisations and look for other job outlets. If these people are dynamic and creative individuals, it is loss for the organisation.
5. Distorted perceptions:
Groups hold strong perceptions about their activities and disregard those of the other group. They highlight their strong points and competitors’ weak points. This leads to deviation from organisational goals.
6. Competitive struggle:
Conflict leads to competition. Rather than arriving at consensus, agreement or settlement, competitive struggle declines group’s ability to think and act positively.
7. Subordination of group goals to individual goals:
Members promote personal goals rather than group goals. They think of ways to promote their personal interests rather than organisational interests. This reduces organisational efficiency. People divert energy from constructive to destructive thinking.
They think of how to win over conflicting situations rather than pursuing organisational goals. Short-term personal problems, thus, supersede long-term interests of the organisation. People focus on personal goals at the cost of organisational goals. This results in goal displacement as short-term perspective overpowers the long-term perspective.
8. Threat to group survival:
In extreme situations, members can stop working. This stops functioning of the group and threatens its survival.
Management of Conflict:
Conflict cannot and should not be avoided. There is always an optimum level of conflict at which organisational performance is the highest. When the level of conflict is low, the organisation will not be adaptive to change. This threatens its long-run survival.
When the level of conflict is too high, it creates chaos and disruptions in the organisation. This also threatens its long-run survival. There is need, therefore, for managers to resolve conflict. They should promote functional or constructive conflict and avoid dysfunctional or destructive conflict.
Management of conflict involves:
1. Stimulation of functional conflict and
2. Resolution of dysfunctional conflict.
1. Stimulation of functional conflict:
The following methods help to stimulate or encourage constructive conflict:
(a) Bring managers with backgrounds, values and styles different from those who are presently working in the organisation.
(b) Add or delete individuals and groups to the existing network. This will re-distribute power and, thus, stimulate conflict.
(c) Break old teams and departments and re-organise them. New work, members and responsibilities will be created requiring adjustment with each other. This will give rise to conflict and new and improved methods of operation.
(d) Allow members to openly communicate with each other. Members can freely discuss their problems, disagree with each other and have a wide perspective for decision-making.
(e) Foster competition by paying financial and non-financial incentives for good performance. This will promote conflict as each member will try to outperform others.
(f) Replace authoritarian managers with behavioural managers. They promote interaction amongst group members and bring out their hidden desires thereby, resulting in conflict.
(g) Create an environment of creative and innovative thinking. When members find new ways for doing the work, it will promote conflict and productive suggestions.
(h) Introduce changes in people, structure and technology.
(i) Allow compromise where each party is concerned about their goal accomplishment and is willing to engage in ‘give and take’ to reach a reasonable solution.
(j) Allow collaboration where parties try to manage conflict without making concessions by coming up with new ways to resolve differences.
2. Resolution of dysfunctional conflict:
These methods suppress or resolve conflict rather than promote them.
They are as follows:
(a) Introduce changes in the organisation structure so that conflicting parties are separated and placed at different positions.
(b) Introduce participative style of management where decisions reflect the opinion of all.
(c) Integrate individual goals with organisational goals so that both individuals and organisations promote each other’s interests.
(d) Managers should call the conflicting parties, listen to their arguments and try to get one side into giving in. This is helpful when manger has more information than the parties and he can satisfy each one of them.
(e) Provide incentives (financial and non-financial) to all rather than those who report outstanding performance.
(f) Install training programmes for improving relationships amongst individuals and groups.
(g) Avoiding action or taking no action saying that information is insufficient will postpone and resolve the conflict on its own.
(h) Conflict can be resolved through compromise. Managers can convince each party to sacrifice some objectives in order to gain others.
(i) Allow arbitration where conflicting parties submit to the judgement of a third party.
(j) Transfer people from one work unit to the other and allow overlapping of membership. When one person is a member of two groups, conflict gets reduced.
(k) Obeying rules strictly reduces conflict. Let every conflicting situation be handled according to rules.
(l) Allow the parties to resolve conflict through consensus. The parties try to find solutions together rather than winning over each other.
(m) Establish superordinate goals. These are goals set for level higher than that of conflicting parties and include the conflicting parties’ lower level goals. The parties deviate from conflicts at their level to higher level goals. Achieving superordinate goals resolves conflicts at their level.
Five ways of addressing conflict are identified by Thomas and Kilman:
One should avoid or postpone conflict by ignoring it or changing the subject. Avoidance can be useful as a temporary measure to buy time or as an expedient means of dealing with minor, non-recurring conflicts. In more severe cases, conflict avoidance can involve severing a relationship or leaving a group.
People should work together to find a mutually beneficial solution to the problem. Though this is a win-win solution to conflict, collaboration can also be time-intensive and inappropriate if there is absence of trust, respect or communication amongst participants.
Conflicting parties find a middle ground in which each party is partially satisfied.
Both the parties should assert their viewpoint at the potential expense of another. It can be useful when achieving one’s objectives outweighs one’s concern for the relationship.
If above measures do not help to resolve conflict, one party surrenders its needs and wishes to accommodate the other party.