Many people try to avoid conflict at all costs. Others tend to always blame someone or something else for everything that doesn’t work in their favour. People often look for conflict because that helps them with another condition that may have, usually anger at something or someone else. Directing anger somewhere else is a common ploy for hiding some difficulty or inability.
We are, as humans, hardwired for fight or flight and, innate as each is, either one can lead to conflict. We also by and large want to be right in any argument (why wouldn’t we?) and, importantly, to be seen to be right, to be seen to win. And, of course, our own mindsets, formed by our education, religion, culture, ethnicity, family, chosen media, friends, biases and so on, will create a view of the world which, when not matched by someone else’s, may and often does create immediate conflict.
Conflict is present in all walks of daily life – at the workplace, at home and in society at large. It feeds law enforcement and the legal profession. It’s the reason for contracts. It appears in every profession and in all high streets everywhere on the planet. Conflict is ever present, regarded as maybe engaging and perhaps annoying in its mildest forms and wholly destructive when extreme.
Conflict is a complex subject and there are many sources of conflict. It occurs when individuals, groups or organisations don’t get or appear to not get what they need or want and are seeking to secure either their own self-interest or a particular initiative. Obviously, for most of us, it’s always better to identify conflict at an early stage and come to an understanding which actually avoids conflict. But, alas, that doesn’t often occur.
The concept of conflict is controversial. Some flares immediately although the rumbling issue has been going on for some time. Some is manifest by a long and drawn-out issue that simply won’t die away. Psychologists and sociologists have over time given conflict different meanings. Some define the concept as a process of obstructive behaviour and goal incompatibility. Others would say that conflict is where mere perception (real or otherwise) leads to disruption of a desirable state of harmony and stability. Most people would say that conflict is when two factions can’t agree, sometimes violently.
To understand conflict properly, we have to acknowledge that conflict issues are not ordered of course, although it’s fair to say that misunderstanding, deliberate or real, is a start-point. Differences in values are a big player as are differences in points of view, differences of interest and interpersonal differences. The more fixed any of these are in one side or the other, the more difficult it is to unpick the issues and create resolution. It’s worth saying that each of us has fixed views about many things. As indicated, our mindsets are developed that way – right or wrong and it’s enormously hard to change mindsets once any conflict has taken root.
Conflict can begin when one party perceives that the other opposes or negatively affects the interests of the first. Competition, jealousy, hate, bias, bitterness, non-collaboration, unfairness, lack of compromise are just some causes. Sometimes the rationale for cause is abstract and emotional, sometimes cause is real and factual and no less emotional. Most conflicts are not short-term, although obviously some are, but the majority have a beginning, a slow burn, an explosion (metaphorical hopefully), some kind of prolongation and then (again hopefully) a solution. However, that’s a tidy way of putting what actually in most organisations and in most lives isn’t at all tidy.
Conflict develops because people are different and people’s lives, jobs, roles, areas of responsibility, job descriptions, understanding of the same, pride, self-concept, ego, chemistry and the lack of it, sense of mission and so on - are all different, even by a shade. Individuals, groups and organisations have unlimited needs and different values. It has to be remembered that each of us has a different view of things and situations. Sometimes lack of understanding or education causes us to take a view, sometimes our mindset makes us take a view and sometimes we are cajoled into taking a view. Each of us is often incompatible with others and the views or position of others. Incompatibility, alas, is normally bound to lead to conflict.
Conflicts may be intrapersonal (that’s a conflict with oneself) where we as individuals have conflicting thoughts or opinions which we can’t resolve without help or friendship. If allowed to develop, these can be harming in the extreme and they account for the ever-growing number of stress cases worldwide.
Conflict comes in other forms as well. As you’ll undoubtedly know, interpersonal conflict is between two or more persons. And organisational conflict, whether real or perceived, will be one of two types: intra-organisational and inter-organisational. Different businesses competing against each other for a contract are a good example of inter-organisational conflict. Intra-organisational conflict is that which occurs within an organisation and is normally argument and friction between departments, teams, sections, senior management and so on.
Conflicts may be substantive and affective. These are not as complex as you may think or as hard as they sound. A substantive conflict is associated with a particular job or role, not necessarily individuals: ‘it’s not what I imagined the role was going to be’, my job isn’t as per the description’, ‘the fire drill insists on such and such but we’re not doing such and such’. An affective conflict is emotional.
Substantive conflicts may be over the disputed facts of a situation or whether something is perceived as right or wrong, black or white. Affective conflicts tend to be over ‘softer’ issues and are usually based on perceptions of somebody, something or a group: ‘I don’t like him/them because…’ You can see how affective conflicts often relate to bias and prejudice.
Substantive conflict can actually enhance collaborative decision-making because it relates to things like performance or task disagreements. In this case the conflict can clear things up or clarify for the benefit of everyone. Even though matters may be regarded as black or white, negotiations can be positive in the sense that the issue can be easily aired and discussed at great length usually in a positive spirit and, importantly, where both parties know that the outcome will be friendly and agreeable.
On the other hand, an affective or relationship conflict deals with interpersonal relationships or incompatibilities and centres on (frequently irrational) frustrations and often anger between parties. These rarely end easily, well or at all. Such conflicts can be destructive if they remain unresolved and non-resolution often tends to be because both parties are frightened of the outcome or simply refuse to back down from a held position. In one sense it’s easier (they believe) to keep the conflict process unresolved. An affective conflict is nearly always disruptive to collaborative decision-making and, where it occurs, teamwork becomes difficult. The conflict tends to be caused by being negative, irritable, angry, suspicious, resentful and vengeful for some reason and often results in people remaining negative, irritable, angry, suspicious, resentful and vengeful. So, solving that kind of conflict as is the case really with any conflict necessitates huge care, caution and skill.
Let’s accept that sometimes conflict can be constructive, destructive, restrictive and negative. Destructive conflicts are also known as dysfunctional conflicts, because they prevent a group or individual from attaining any objectives. Nothing gets done. Any conflict is damaging or destructive when it takes attention away from other important activities in an organisation, like getting on with work. It’s also destructive when it undermines morale, when it polarises people and groups, when it reduces cooperation, when it increases or sharpens existing differences and when it leads to irresponsible or harmful behaviour such as name-calling, bullying and worse. On the other hand, constructive conflicts are also known as functional, because they support the group goals and help in improving performance.
Conflict then is constructive when it results in the clarification of important problems or issues. Constructive conflict causes authentic and continued communication. This kind of conflict helps release emotion, anxiety and stress; it builds co-operation among people through learning more about each other and deconstructing the problem.
Just to add more definitions (but all are important if you’re ever going to be involved in understanding and resolving conflict issues), conflicts may be distributive and integrative. Distributive conflict is approached as a distribution of a fixed number of positive outcomes or resources, where one side will end up winning and the other definitely losing, even if the losing side wins some small concessions. Basically, a this is negotiation process aimed at reaching an agreement over how resources may be allocated between the parties where the resources are absolutely fixed.
On the other hand, integrative conflict might apply to groups which view conflict as a chance to integrate the needs and concerns of both sides and make the best outcome possible even if that means considerable compromise. Compromise is the driver here. And of course, compromise in its own right is extremely hard for people to agree and accept.
Conflicts may be competitive and co-operative. Competitive conflict is accumulative. The original issue that began the conflict becomes irrelevant. Other matters and factors overtake the original problem and participants lose sight of the start-point. Or the original issue is more of a pretext than a cause. That’s common. Competitive conflict is marked by the desire to win the fight or argument come what may on the point of principle and honour, even if winning costs more (in all senses) and causes more pain.
Competitive conflict is mostly irrational and is characterised by fear, which is one of the important ingredients in any conflict becoming irrational. Fear here relates to a terror of losing - or terror of exposure or what might happen to oneself or the group if the issue is lost. Competitive conflict can either begin by, or be rationalised by, conflicts of ideology or principle. When the desire to win overtakes any specific reason for the conflict, irrationality develops. This kind of conflict is grounded in a win/lose perspective, i.e. for one party to win the other one must lose. In sport, this kind of irrational competition is commonplace.
In a co-operative situation the goals are so linked that everybody ‘sinks or swims’ together, while in the competitive situation if one swims, the other must sink. With a competitive conflict scenario, when a partner business fails, it drags down the whole enterprise. A co-operative approach aligns with the process of interest-based or integrative bargaining, which leads parties to seek rare win-win solutions. Those in dispute who work co-operatively to negotiate a solution are much more likely to develop a relationship of trust and come up with mutually beneficial options for settlement.
Then there is conflict of rights which are where people are granted certain permissions by law, by contract, by previous agreement or by established practice as set by, say, a trades union. If such a right is denied, it will lead to conflict. Such a conflict is settled by legal decision or arbitration, not negotiation. On the other hand (there’s always ‘the other hand’ in disputes), conflict of interests relates to a scenario where a person or group demands certain privileges, but there is no law or right in existence to grant those. A dispute like this can be settled only through negotiation or collective bargaining.
Most of us are of the opinion that conflicts are inevitable; key to them is proper diagnosis and their resolution. It could be said that conflict is often needed because it helps to raise and address problems. There’s some truth in this of course. Better that an issue is aired rather than allowing it to fester.
Key to any conflict where there’s a willingness to create a solution is honesty (not easy) and a motivation to conclude well (also not that easy). This willingness should help people learn how to recognise and benefit from their differences. Conversely, as indicated, conflict becomes a problem when it hampers productivity, allows for physical damage to people and property, lowers morale or causes further and deeper conflicts.
It can be safely said that a big cause of organisational conflict is poor communication i.e. employees not informed of new decisions or plans, non-involvement in decision-making, rumour allowed to percolate and similar, a paucity of communication in the first place. Insufficient resources or poor financial support are causes of conflict as is disagreement on work allocation. Absence of personal chemistry between manager and employee is a cause - where both sides are rigid in their dislikes of one for the other. Lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities is a major cause. Seeming or real unfairness in an employee’s performance appraisal is a cause. As is weak, inconsistent, overbearing, uninformed leadership.
But let’s finish on a positive note. While conflict has a reputation for negativity, violence, discontent and fear, the thing to remember is that conflict isn't always bad. It can increase awareness of problems that already exist or have existed for a long time - and provides a reason for finding a better way forward. It encourages an environment where change is seen as positive – a way of making things better. It may seem like an oxymoron to have the words benefit and conflict in the same sentence but some organisational conflict stands as ventilation, enabling employees to drain their feeling and emotions. Our workplaces today often involve varying levels of interpersonal and institutional conflict and so much energy is devoted to involvement, prevention and management, it’s understandably difficult to understand how conflict could possibly have a positive side.
It helps to remember that conflict (including disagreement, difference of opinion, concern, complaint, friction) is an inevitable result of human beings associating with each other in the world, in our families and in our workplaces. Remember then that it’s not the conflict that directly creates benefits, but it’s dealing with the conflict well. It’s an often forgotten point, no matter how obvious it is.
We can’t deny, avoid or prevent all conflict. None of us can. The challenge is to create the space for conflict to occur in a constructive way for people to raise difficult and contentious issues and for managers to be exposed to often uncomfortable disagreements well before they become toxic.
Workplace conflict can shine a light on deeper problems that need to be addressed. Even the most seemingly trivial disagreements might stem from underlying unaddressed issues that, if not addressed, are likely to fester and then explode. Thoughtful managers can watch for patterns in the workplace and engage early with the involved staff before the workplace is disrupted. Similarly, emerging conflict can identify practices and processes that need to be improved or replaced.
Conflict situations can help us to learn more about ourselves and others. There is nothing like a difficult disagreement to reveal not only what we care about, but also our default approaches and reactions. They may not be correct of course, but we can learn so that next time, for there will be a next time, we will do better. We may not always show up as our best selves when in the midst of a heated discussion or when confronted by criticism. However, in each of these situations, there may be an important insight about ourselves. Self-awareness is the first step to managing ourselves better in any context and certainly when considering being part of or managing conflict.
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