Conflict frequently arises in the workplace. Goal incompatibility between groups or individuals, differentiation, task interdependence, scarce resources, ambiguity, and communication problems can all lead to a situation that promotes conflict. There are a number of conflict management styles that can be used to effectively resolve such conflicts: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. However, although each individual has his/her own preferred conflict management style, not every style is optimally effective in every conflict situation. To maximize the effectiveness of conflict management efforts, management and parties to the conflict need to be aware of their short- and long-term goals and strategies for both the task and the people involved, their personal involvement and emotions in the conflict, their personal conflict management style, and which styles work best in which situations.
It often seems as if whenever two or more parties attempt to work together there are at least three opinions. Although sometimes this situation can lead to synergy and a more creative final product, in many cases it leads to conflict. Although the most common view of conflict is that it is by its very nature dysfunctional and needs to be resolved, in many cases -- if it is properly managed -- it can be both functional and help the conflicting parties work together better or to produce a better product than if the conflict had not arisen in the first place. Conflict between groups may also improve team dynamics, cohesiveness, and task orientation. However, if the conflict becomes too emotionally charged, a win-lose mentality can arise, with negative results such as groupthink, frustration, job dissatisfaction, and stress.
Very few people have the option to work in complete isolation of others. Even those who telecommute or work independently frequently find themselves in a position in which they need to interact with others: clients, suppliers, editors, etc. In virtually any situation in which there is more than one party with interests in the outcome, conflicts are likely to arise. In this context, conflict refers to any situation "in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by" the interests or actions of another party (McShane & Von Glinow, 2003). Conflict can manifest in any number of ways ranging from a mild disagreement between individuals to an all-out war between nations.
In the workplace, conflict typically begins with a situation that is conducive to conflict, such as the need to share a single piece of equipment or other scarce resource. For example, Group A needs the copier to reproduce a proposal for a tight deadline for a potential client and Group B needs to use the copier to produce a deliverable to an equally tight -- and incompatible -- deadline for a current client. As the parties come to believe that conflict exists, the situation usually next manifests itself in actions that outwardly demonstrate that an underlying conflict exists (e.g., a member of Group A tries to monopolize the copier so that it cannot be used by Group B). Conflict need not lead to a dysfunctional workplace, however. Through appropriate conflict management techniques -- either actions taken by one or more parties to the conflict or by an objective outside party in the attempt to de-escalate the conflict -- the severity and form of the conflict can be altered to maximize its benefits and minimize its negative consequences of the situation.
Types of Workplace Conflict Goal Incompatibility
As shown in Figure 1, conflict can arise from any one or more general sources in the workplace (McShane & Von Glinow, 2003). First, conflict can arise in the workplace due to incompatible goals between individuals or groups. For example, if two individuals are competing for the same promotion, it is likely that conflict will arise unless more than one position is available. Goal incompatibility becomes an even stronger source for potential conflict in situations in which there are financial rewards for achieving one's goals since, in such situations, employees tend to be more motivated to achieve their own goals at the expense of others. A second source of conflict in organizations is differentiation. This occurs when individuals or groups of employees hold divergent beliefs and attitudes as a result of their different backgrounds, experiences, or training. For example, differentiation often leads to conflict situations following business mergers and acquisitions. In such situations, the cultures, practices, and shared experiences of the formerly separate entities lead to an "us-them" situation.
A third source of potential conflict in organizations is task interdependence. This is the degree to which individuals or groups must share common inputs, interact during the course of performing their separate tasks, or receive outcomes that are partly determined by the mutual performance of both parties. There are three basic types of task independence:
- Pooled interdependence,
- Sequential interdependence, and
- Reciprocal interdependence
The lowest level of interdependence is pooled interdependence. Under this condition, individuals or teams work independently of each other except for their common reliance on a resource or authority. An example of pooled interdependence is the common reliance on a single copy machine, cited above. Sequential interdependence is a situation in which the output of one person or group becomes the direct input for another person or group. This situation frequently arises in assembly-line situations where the output of one process becomes the input to another process (McShane & Von Glinow, 2003). For example, the packing department cannot complete its task unless the department that makes the boxes or packing materials first completes its task. The third type of interdependence in organizations is reciprocal interdependence. This is the highest level of interdependence and occurs in situations in which work outputs are exchanged back and forth among individuals or groups. An example of this type of interdependence would be the relationship between bus drivers and maintenance crews. The drivers cannot drive the buses unless the maintenance crews maintain them, and the maintenance crews cannot maintain the buses unless the drivers bring them into the depot.
Scarce Resources, Ambiguity, Communication
A fourth type of situation that can lead to conflict in the workplace occurs when there are scarce resources. For example, if multiple technicians need the same laboratory equipment and there is insufficient equipment for each to have his or her own, conflict is likely to arise. Ambiguity in the workplace can also lead to conflict because such...