It should not be surprising that our discomfort with conflict has carried over into our organizations. Organizations generally hate conflict. Until recently conflict was viewed as abnormal and treated as a shameful corporate secret. In fact, as recently as ten years ago when we offered training programs in organizations, we were often asked not to use the “c-word” in our title. Clients preferred names like “Reaching Agreements That Last” or “Dealing with Differences,” as if admitting the need for conflict resolution skills would disclose some serious corporate flaw.
Of course conflict was there. People had opposing interests and different perspectives at work just as they had at home, except that it was unacceptable in most organizations to acknowledge these differences.
One reason for suppressing conflict was that managers did not and still do not welcome contrary opinions from their subordinates. Another reason was “company etiquette”; it was more diplomatic to sweep differences under the mat than to risk offending colleagues with whom you had to work every day. Certainly, it was bad taste to lose your temper, and emotional responses were usually career inhibiting.
Over the past ten to fifteen years, the situation has improved in that more organizations accept that conflict is natural and not something to be ashamed of. Frontline and managerial employees are more and more often identifying conflict resolution skills as necessary tools for dealing with coworkers, managers, and customers. Perhaps this greater openness reflects the fact that the amount of conflict in organizations is unavoidable and is increasing, for reasons we will discuss shortly.
Conflict is a product of diversity and interdependence. Organizational conflict arises because people who have different personal and professional interests must work together to achieve the organization's goals. Because these people have different interests and may actually be in opposition to each other, they often become concerned that others may block them from meeting their needs.
Organizations are made up of people who have different and quite often opposing values, goals, beliefs, perspectives, interests, personalities, and communication styles. These differences arise from a variety of sources, some personal and some organizational. (Fernandez, 1993)
Individuals have unique mixes of personal characteristics and cultural identities that alter the lens through which we view our experiences. Skin color, ethnic origin, socioeconomic class, religious belief, sexual orientation, and physical challenges are some of the influences on our values and outlook. While these characteristics help us connect with other likeminded people, they can also create tension and misunderstanding with those who are different. (Allen et al, 2000)
Other important differences are our personalities and personal preferences. For example, some of us are goal oriented while others are more laid-back. Some of us value high income the most and still others put the highest priority on family life. Some of us like working alone while others prefer working in teams. Some are good with details and others have a broader perspective. And so on.
In addition to these individual differences there are differences that flow from the professional or functional areas we work in. Marketing people tend to see the world differently from financial people. Human resources specialists often have different values and perspectives than do accountants. This diversity frequently arises because different kinds of people are drawn to different fields of work. It is compounded by the influence that the profession has on the people in it. For example, an outgoing, imaginative, entrepreneurial person is more likely to become a marketer than an accountant. Once in the marketing business, the person will probably be rewarded more for vision, risk taking, and intuition than for caution and accuracy. (De Bono, 2004)
When you have many people working in specialized groups, it is important to provide them with a clear idea about the goals, direction, and values of the overall entity. This enables them to carry out their responsibilities in ways that contribute to the success of the enterprise. We need this direction and expect our leaders to provide it. However, when we become leaders we often fail to provide it to others.
As a result many people in many organizations are forced to invent their own corporate vision. When you have different versions of goals, direction, and values among different individuals and groups, you increase the probability of unproductive conflict.
Groups are often given responsibilities that are in opposition to those of other groups. To some extent this is inevitable and is in the nature of organizations. Salespeople want to sell as much as they can, and their job is made easier if the product can be customized and the price kept low. Production managers want to keep costs low, and this is best accomplished through long runs of similar items. Finance wants the sales to be profitable, so the price cannot be too low. Everybody is right—to a point. Conflict centers on trying to find the right point. Similar tensions exist throughout all organizations. (Dimnet, 1963)
Barbara: In one large plant of a public utility, serious tensions developed between the members of one group that operated the equipment and the members of another group responsible for preventative maintenance. The maintenance group had the authority to shut down equipment for maintenance at their discretion. The shutdowns inconvenienced the operators, who doubted the need for many of the shutdowns yet had to work extra time to make up for the closures. The result was serious tension with workplace safety implications.
Conflicting responsibilities may be inherent in the nature of organizations, but management sometimes creates additional conflict by being unclear about responsibilities. Even when people have jobs that are quite distinct, overlaps may occur in areas on the margins. An important purpose of job descriptions is to clarify these areas. However, in many organizations job descriptions are several years old, so that even if they were clear when they were written, subsequent developments have rendered them hopelessly out of date. Conflict arises when two or more people, usually acting in good faith, find that they are interfering with one another in carrying out their perceived duties. (Eisenhardt et al, 1997)
People act on the basis of their understanding of the information available to them. People who have different information or who interpret information differently will act in different ways. Information is not always shared in organizations. Sometimes there are good competitive or legal reasons for this, but it still causes trouble; so does providing complex data without helping people interpret them.
Conflict arises because people act on information in ways that others do not understand and therefore misinterpret. All of the types of diversity described in the preceding examples created the potential for conflict. If the people holding diverse views had been working independently, conflict would not have arisen. Conflict emerged because these very different people had to work together.
Allen, N., and Hecht, T. D. “Team-Organization Alignment and Team Behaviour: Implications for Human Resource Management.” Human Resource Management Research Quarterly, 2000, 4(3), 1–5.
De Bono, E. Conflicts: A Better Way to Resolve Them. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Revised Edition
Dimnet, E. Quoted in A.F. Osborn, Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving. New York: Scribner, 1963.
Eisenhardt, K. M., Kahwajy, J. L., and Bourgeois, L. J., III. “How Management Teams Can Have A Good Fight.” Harvard Business Review, 1997, 75(4), 77–84.
Fernandez, J. P. The Diversity Advantage. San Francisco: New Lexington Press, 1993.