There are two kinds of conflict: creative and destructive. Val Moore discusses destructive, or “dysfunctional” conflict.

Destructive conflict occurs when disagreements gravitate towards antagonism instead of resolution. It must be managed, otherwise it will have an impact on morale, motivation, performance and public image.

Buchanan and Huczynski (2004) define conflict as “a process which begins when one party perceives that another party has negatively affected, or is about to negatively affect, something the first party cares about”.

People have different ways of looking at things and this conditions how they perceive conflict and how those conflicts should be addressed. There are those that:

  • promote harmony and seek to avoid conflict

  • see conflict as natural — different groups have different needs — and thus healthy

  • go one step further and believe that conflict is needed to drive things forward.

Different types of conflict that the manager must recognise

Organisational

Organisational conflict arises because of the different specialisation within organisations; each specialist function (finance, operations, HR, etc) has a different set of interests in, and approaches to, the activities of the organisation. This will include priorities, the resources that are used and the importance of outcomes.

For example, HR may emphasise the need to train and develop employees, whereas finance may argue in a particular case that there is no evidence that training adds value and that, therefore, it should be seen as less important than costs management.

Structural

Structural conflict can result from unclear boundaries within the organisation, often a consequence of growth that has not been accompanied by appropriate restructuring of roles and responsibilities. Problems can also arise if employees are unclear about who has the authority to deploy tasks and who will manage them within a task.

Interpersonal

Interpersonal conflict can arise from a range of causes. Sometimes people simply take a dislike to one another for no clear reason, while in other cases there may be differences in attitudes or behaviours that are simply incompatible. Rivalry for promotion, for pay rises or bonuses, for recognition, or simply for getting the “better” tasks, can also trigger conflict.

Groups often have norms of behaviour and attitudes to which group members are expected to conform, and non-conformity can generate conflict.

Intergroup rivalry

Another issue is intergroup rivalry, which can also spring from a variety of sources. A common problem is when one group perceives another as getting better treatment for no particular reason (eg the nursery room believes the toddler room gets better resources).

Resolving conflict

Conflict resolution is a complex topic, and there have been several ideas and approaches proposed.

A good example is by Thomas (1976), who states that the key dimensions of a conflict are the relative assertiveness of the parties involved, and the extent to which each is prepared to co-operate with the other to reach a solution. He suggests that there are five general approaches to conflict that tend to be adopted.

  • Competing/forcing: high assertiveness coupled with low mutual co-operation may lead to one party exercising its power to “defeat” the other.

  • Avoidance: each party ignores the conflict because they are not willing to provoke a power-based response — normally this means that the conflict is not resolved and will reappear.

  • Compromising: this is a middle ground approach in which each party accepts some part of the other’s perspective. This can be an expedient approach that does not in fact resolve the underlying issues, which might reappear.

  • Collaboration: this combines high assertiveness with high co-operation, and occurs when each party is prepared to explore the other’s position without enforcing an outcome or “giving way”. The conflict is highly likely to be resolved because of the rational debate about it that leads to an understanding of the needs and wants of each side, and how they can be addressed.

  • Accommodation: one party is willing to give way to the other, perhaps in order to preserve their arguments for another, more important, issue. The immediate problem may be resolved, but long-term, deeper conflict may remain.

Bargaining is an important part of conflict resolution. Walton and McKersie (1965) identify two main kinds of bargaining:

  • distributive bargaining, based on the idea that a fixed set of resources must be divided up between the parties involved. It can itself be a source of further conflict if it leads to a situation in which there are clear winners and losers

  • integrative bargaining takes place when the resources or outcomes available are not fixed, so that each side can be seen as gaining from the result — a “win-win” situation.

A common method of bargaining in a conflict situation is through the use of mediation, in which a neutral third party seeks to bring about a resolution by their examination and presentation of the demands of the conflicting parties. Essentially, the mediator seeks a compromise through which the conflicting parties can each be seen to gain something, or at least “save face”.

Resolving conflicts between individuals

Resolving interpersonal conflicts is another complex area that may be beyond the individual capability of a manager, who themselves might require specialist support. Much depends upon the source and nature of the conflict. In some cases it may be that one of the parties is perceived by others to be weak, and there may be an opportunity to provide assertiveness training to help the person.

In extreme cases, the actions of one party may be considered harassment or bullying, and be illegal. If that is suspected, then the line manager should involve the HR specialist at the earliest opportunity.

Resolving conflicts that arise from external sources may be addressed by relocating one or both parties in the organisation, but that may not work, and may serve simply to exacerbate the problem. There is also the possibility that other employees will “take sides”, and the manager, in particular, should avoid being seen to be partisan. Of course, the manager may be personally involved in the conflict, in which case higher management must become involved.

Last reviewed 24 February 2014