In our last blog, we explored how conflict can be a positive force in organizations and personal relationships. Today, we’ll talk about why conflict happens, and how to leverage it for positive change.
Why Does Conflict Occur in Organizations?
Conflict arises in organizations, between individuals and even between states when a person or group perceives another person or group as interfering with their needs. It involves a subjective perception and belief that one’s needs are being threatened by the other person or group. Those needs may be basic such as food, water, shelter, or more complex such as the need to feel valued by co-workers.
What Can We Do?
When it comes to conflict, what’s the best thing we can do for our organizations? – Let Conflict Surface!
This may feel scary or counterintuitive, but conflict cannot be dealt with in any substantive way without bringing it out. Latent conflict, which bubbles under the surface can impact relationships and productivity in just as destructive of a way (if not more) than manifest conflict which is when conflict becomes observable to those involved and bystanders. We want to work to create spaces and pathways within the organization for conflict to surface and be resolved.
Although we want to surface conflict so that it can be addressed, not all types of conflict are always good. We want to work to encourage the constructive types of conflict, such as substantive conflict and minimize less constructive types such as affective or process conflict.
Substantive conflicts are those which relate to disagreements about tasks, policies and other business issues. Groups which experience this type of conflict make better decisions, tend to have higher performance and engage in more critical and innovative thinking. However, when not resolved, it can diminish group loyalty, work group commitment as well as employee satisfaction.
Affective conflict is caused by negative reactions of organizational members. Examples include personal attacks of group members, racial disharmony and sexual harassment. These types of conflicts result in higher levels of stress and anxiety, as well as conflict escalation. It tends to interfere with task-related effort, limit information processing ability and cognitive functioning, leading to team members who are negative, irritable and suspicious.
Process conflict is related to how different tasks should be performed, task assignment, responsibility to complete specific tasks, delegation of responsibilities and deadlines. These conflicts are negatively associated with team performance, member satisfaction and group commitment.
To help organizational members deal with conflict, we want to help them to learn how to handle different types of conflict and conflict management interventions should aim at developing cultural norms to support disagreement without generating affective conflict.
Finally – Conflict (Can) = Learning!
In organizations, our objective in managing conflict should be to enhance organizational learning, which will influence long-term effectiveness. Conflict provides many opportunities for learning about ourselves, our work and each other. Building mechanisms for transferring what is learned individually to the collective is crucial for enhancing organizational effectiveness. Conflict management strategies should be designed to enhance critical and innovative thinking, while supporting the process of diagnosis and intervention in the right problems.
When it comes to conflict in our organizations, we want to support substantive conflict, minimize affective and process conflicts, while supporting our team members to build their conflict and communication skills. Want to know how to do this? Contact us today!
Bishop, P., Picard, C., Ramkay, R., Sargent, N. (2015). The art and practice of mediation. Emond Montgomery Publications.
Rahim, M.A. (2011). Managing conflict in organizations. Transaction Publishers.