ROCCO SCANZA: Let's begin with the common definitions of conflict. Scholars who study conflict have developed many different definitions for this phenomenon. It is possible to distinguish between three types of definitions-- broad, narrow, and mid-range.
These definitions stem, among other things, from a more deep-rooted perspective on how common conflict is. Keep in mind that the scope of our definition for conflict will play a crucial role in the way we approach its resolution.
Those who view conflict as a broad and omnipresent phenomenon define it as a dynamic process underlying organizational behavior. In other words, conflict is a function of virtually every interaction and behavior.
Those who view conflict as a more narrow and bracketed phenomenon define it as a breakdown in the decision-making process. According to this definition, conflict is the result of a dysfunctional process and is therefore an exception and not the rule.
Finally, the middle ground approach to conflict views it as a state in which the behavior or goals of one actor or actors are to some degree incompatible with the behavior or goals of some other actor or actors. According to this approach, conflict is neither an ever-present fact of life, nor a mere sign of process dysfunction. Rather, conflict is the product of goal and behavior misalignment between two or more parties.
Each of these definitions may appeal to you differently, depending on your personal experience or intellectual understanding of conflict. However, as we proceed into our discussion of conflict resolution, we will see that it is the last definition that provides us with the clearest prescription of how to manage and resolve conflict.
Building on the mid-range definition, some scholars have attempted to pinpoint the key elements of which a conflict episode is founded on. First, conflict is based on opposing interests. Second, the parties to a conflict recognize the existence of their opposing interests.
Third, each party believes that the opposing party intends to block the fulfillment of their interests. Fourth, a conflict episode is, in essence, a process that is influenced by the past interaction between the parties. And finally, conflict entails actions taken by each party in an effort to block the other party's interest.
Now that we have a better handle on what conflict is, let's turn to a discussion of a number of different conflict dimensions. One of the key dimensions of conflict is the level at which it occurs. Conflict can take place at four possible levels.
First, conflict can be intrapersonal. This is the most micro level of conflict and takes place within the individual. For example, when you struggle between two potential plans for the evening, you are experiencing what can be called intrapersonal conflict.
Second, conflict can take place at the interpersonal level. Any conflict between two or more individuals takes place at this level. Arguing with a friend about plans for the evening is an interpersonal conflict.
Third, conflict can take place at the intra-group level. This type of conflict takes place within a given group, be it a sports team, a labor union, a for-profit organization, or a nation.
Finally, conflict can take place at the inter-group level. This is conflict that arises between two or more groups.
It is important to note that when conflict takes place at one of these levels, it does not negate the existence of simultaneous conflict at one or all of the other levels. For example, when conflict occurs between a union and the company, this does not mean that there is no conflict within the union and/ or company management.
Identifying the level at which conflict takes place is extremely central in the process of diagnosing and treating conflict. Now we will turn to the different sources of conflict.
There are many different issues that can give rise to conflict. It is impossible to list and discuss these issues, since they are practically endless. However, researchers have attempted to provide a categorization of dominant sources of conflict.
For example, conflict can stem from value differences between two or more parties. We witness conflicts that stem from such differences every day in the political realm. Conflict between Democrats and Republicans over the use of human embryos for the purpose of medical advances is a perfect example.
Conflict can also stem from status differences between the parties. Workplace conflict between managers and their employees is a good example of how status can serve as a source for such conflict.
Conflict is often the result of scarce resources. As we have discussed, conflict can be defined as a misalignment between different parties and goals. Where there is a lack of resources, such misalignment is exacerbated, since the actions of one party have a higher chance of coming at the expense of other parties, thereby accentuating the misalignment.
Conflict can also be the result of external or environmental pressures. For example, in the context of a workplace setting, pressure placed on employees from upper management may lead to horizontal conflict between peers.
In addition to these sources, conflict may also result from role obligations, diversity insensitivity perceptual differences, and competition. As with the different levels of conflict, identifying the underlying sources of conflict is a key first step in the process of understanding and resolving a given conflict.
A final conflict dimension important to note, especially in the context of organizations, is the distinction between different types of conflict. Organizational scholars have developed a typology of three primary types of conflict in organizations-- relationship conflict, task conflict, and process conflict.
Relationship conflict is conflict that centers around how two or more parties get along. For example, in an organizational setting, when two colleagues experience conflict over how each one is talked or acted towards one another, this is referred to as relationship conflict.
Task conflict is conflict that centers around how to perform or conduct a given project or assignment. In other words, this is not conflict over a personal issue, but rather over the substantive task at hand.
Finally, process conflict is conflict that centers on the rules and procedures that govern the way work is conducted. For example, conflict regarding the way in which decisions are made is a process conflict. As with the previous conflict dimensions, it is important to properly diagnose the type of conflict before attempting to address it.
Furthermore, research has shown that these three different types of conflict have different consequences in terms of organizational outcomes. For example, studies have demonstrated that in certain circumstances, both task and process conflict can be beneficial to a team or organization. Relationship conflict, on the other hand, is consistently associated with negative outcomes.
It is important to note that while the distinctions between the different types of conflict may be easy to do in theory, they are extremely difficult to delineate in practice. Relationship conflict can often spill over into both tasks and process conflict, and vice versa.
We now have a clearer idea of what conflict is and where and why it takes place. But what are the implications about conflict? Is conflict by definition a negative phenomenon? In fact, historically the literature on conflict viewed it as a sign of dysfunction.
However, in the 1950's, sociologists began challenging this dominant view of conflict. According to these scholars, conflict was in fact associated with some negative repercussions, but in addition there are positive implications to conflict. For example, conflict could highlight a certain dysfunction in an organization that demands attention but that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
More recently, organizational behavior scholars have also been emphasizing these two faces of conflict. Such scholars have demonstrated how task conflict, for example, increases the evaluation of different options and can therefore lead teams that experience such conflict to outperform teams with no task conflict.
The existence of both positive and negative implications for conflict underscores the complexity associated with managing and resolving conflict. How can conflict be addressed so as to enhance its benefits and minimize its costs? We will return to this question in our discussion of dispute resolution options.
Let's now turn to some of the specific benefits and costs of conflict. We have already mentioned some of the possible benefits of conflict, but there are additional ones.
For example, conflict can stimulate innovation. By introducing a number of conflicting opinions and approaches, conflict can force a team or organization to think outside its traditional box. In other words settings with little or no conflict may remain stagnant and lack the variation in options and alternatives that can induce creativity or improve the decision-making process, and finally, lead to improved performance.
In addition, challenge by conflict-- parties are forced to clarify and articulate their positions. This can often be of great benefit, even if the original position prevails. Notice that the majority of the benefits listed stem from conflict that can be categorized as task or process conflict. Here again we see that differentiating between categories of conflict is crucial.
Our discussion of the possible benefits of conflict does not imply that there are no downsides to conflict. In fact, conflict can come at a very high personal and organizational cost.
First and foremost, conflict may entail a high monetary cost. The time and energy spent by individuals and organizations in order to resolve and respond to conflict has a real cost. The energy spent confronting and dealing with conflict can create high levels of stress and burnout and low levels of satisfaction, which have a cost not only to the individuals involved, but also to the group organization they are affiliated with.
Conflict can also obstruct communications and therefore impede the natural and vital interactions between the parties. Furthermore, left untreated, conflict can create an environment with high levels of distrust and suspicion. In an organizational setting, all of these can lead to a low level of organizational commitment. Finally, as discussed earlier, conflict can interfere with relationships.
Now that we have discussed the different definitions, dimensions, and consequences of conflict, we need to address the question of how to analyze and assess a given conflict episode. What are the central criteria that need to be examined?
The following seven criteria are a partial list of the considerations that need to be examined in the assessment of conflict. Notice that these considerations begin with the individual parties involved in conflict and gradually broaden the scope to examine the environment and third-party actors.
First, it is important to analyze the nature of the parties involved in the conflict episode. What are the individual or group characteristics of the parties in the conflict? This can help in identifying underlying values or perceptions that could be fueling the conflict at hand.
Second, it is important to assess what the past relationship between the conflicting parties is. What is the nature of the relationship between the parties? Are there any status differences between the parties? Understanding the nature of the relationship can also help to clarify the underlying sources of conflict.
Third, we must examine the specific issue giving rise to the conflict at hand. For example, is the conflict episode centered on a task related issue, or is it centered on a relationship related issue?
Fourth, the environment in which the conflict episode is occurring is also important to assess. In the workplace setting, we might seek to examine the general organizational culture in which the conflict resides. We should ask questions such as, what are the external pressures driving the parties to the conflict and their surroundings?
Fifth, and related to the environmental consideration, we must examine the nature of third parties who have an interest in the conflict. Who is the audience to whom the conflict at hand relates?
Sixth, we must examine the tactics and strategies employed by each of the parties to the conflict. As we will discuss later, there are a number of strategies that parties can use in order to resolve conflict. Before deciding which ones are appropriate, we must assess how the parties have handled the conflict prior to intervention.
Finally, we must assess the consequences of the specific conflict episode. As we discussed, it is crucial to evaluate the negative and positive consequences of conflict.
Before concluding this section of our discussion, it is necessary to note that there are different perspectives regarding conflict in terms of its inevitability and possibility for treating or managing conflict. Understanding these perspectives is central to the effort to resolve and manage conflict. How one views the nature of conflict dictates the strategies and tactics employed in the process of managing and resolving it.
Some scholars argue that conflict is an inevitable and natural fact of life. According to this perspective, there is little organizations can do to eliminate conflict. This is not to say that conflict cannot be treated or managed.
Other scholars maintain that conflict is not an inherent, integral part of all activity. According to this perspective, certain actions and measures can eliminate and repress conflict.
Second, regardless of how one views the inevitability of conflict, the question remains whether it can be treated. In other words, are there steps that individuals and organizations can take in an effort to treat and resolve conflict once it arises?
Here too there is considerable debate about whether and to what degree conflict can be treated. Understanding one's underlying perspective regarding the capacity to treat conflict shapes the way conflict is dealt with when it occurs.
Finally, assuming that conflict can be treated, there is great debate as to the appropriate manner in which to treat conflict so as to harvest its benefits and minimize the costs. For example, some claim that the court system is where the majority of conflicts should be resolved. Others maintain that there are alternative and more appropriate forms in which conflict should be addressed.
It is at this point that we will turn our discussion to some of these alternative mechanisms for dealing with conflict.
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All interactions, all relationships, include the possibility of conflict. In the business world, great strides have been made in recent years in understanding conflict and mitigating its negative effects. This study room presents various definitions and characterizatons of conflict, and then discusses how conflicts can be resolved through negotiation, mediation, and arbitration.
This video is part 2 of 4 in the Conflict Resolution series.