22 Conflict and Negotiation
- Define conflict
- Differentiate between functional and dysfunctional conflict
- Recognize various types of conflict in groups
- Describe the conflict process
- Identify and apply strategies for preventing or reducing conflict in groups
Definitions of Conflict
Hocker and Wilmot (2001) defined as an expressed struggle between interdependent parties over goals which they perceive as incompatible or resources which they perceive to be insufficient. Let’s examine the ingredients in their definition.
First of all, conflict must be expressed. If two members of a group dislike each other or disagree with each other’s viewpoints but never show those sentiments, there’s no conflict.
Second, conflict takes place between or among parties who are interdependent—that is, who need each other to accomplish something. If they can get what they want without each other, they may differ in how they do so, but they won’t come into conflict.
Finally, conflict involves clashes over what people want or over the means for them to achieve it. Party A wants X, whereas party B wants Y. If they either can’t both have what they want at all, or they can’t each have what they want to the degree that they would prefer to, conflict will arise.
The Positive and Negative Sides of Conflict
There are some circumstances in which a moderate amount of conflict can be helpful. For example, conflict can stimulate innovation and change. Conflict can help individuals and group members grow and develop self-identities. As noted by Coser (1956):
Conflict, which aims at a resolution of tension between antagonists, is likely to have stabilizing and integrative functions for the relationship. By permitting immediate and direct expression of rival claims, such social systems are able to readjust their structures by eliminating their sources of dissatisfaction. The multiple conflicts which they experience may serve to eliminate the causes for dissociation and to reestablish unity. These systems avail themselves, through the toleration and institutionalization of conflict, of an important stabilizing mechanism.
Conflict can have negative consequences when people divert energies away from performance and goal attainment and direct them toward resolving the conflict. Continued conflict can take a heavy toll in terms of psychological well-being. Conflict has a major influence on stress and the psychophysical consequences of stress. Finally, continued conflict can also affect the social climate of the group and inhibit group cohesiveness.
Thus, conflict can be either functional or dysfunctional depending upon the nature of the conflict, its intensity, and its duration. Indeed, both too much and too little conflict can lead to a variety of negative outcomes, as discussed above. This is shown in Figure 1. In such circumstances, a moderate amount of conflict may be the best course of action. The issue for groups, therefore, is not how to eliminate conflict but rather how to manage and resolve it when it occurs.
Types of Conflict
Group conflicts may deal with many topics, needs, and elements. Kelly (2006) identified the following five types of conflict:
First, there are conflicts of substance. These conflicts, which relate to questions about what choices to make in a given situation, rest on differing views of the facts. If Terry thinks the biology assignment requires an annotated bibliography but Robin believes a simple list of readings will suffice, they’re in a conflict of substance. Another term for this kind of conflict is “intrinsic conflict.”
Conflicts of value are those in which various parties either hold totally different values or rank the same values in a significantly different order. The famous sociologist Milton Rokeach (1979), for instance, found that freedom and equality constitute values in the four major political systems of the past 100 years—communism, fascism, socialism, and capitalism. What differentiated the systems, however, was the degree to which proponents of each system ranked those two key values. According to Rokeach’s analysis, socialism holds both values highly; fascism holds them in low regard; communism values equality over freedom, and capitalism values freedom over equality. As we all know, conflict among proponents of these four political systems preoccupied people and governments for the better part of the twentieth century.
Conflicts of process arise when people differ over how to reach goals or pursue values which they share. How closely should they stick to rules and timelines, for instance, and when should they let their hair down and simply brainstorm new ideas? What about when multiple topics and challenges are intertwined; how and when should the group deal with each one? Another term for these disputes is “task conflicts.”
Conflicts of misperceived differences come up when people interpret each other’s actions or emotions erroneously. You can probably think of several times in your life when you first thought you disagreed with other people but later found out that you’d just misunderstood something they said and that you actually shared a perspective with them. Or perhaps you attributed a different motive to them than what really underlay their actions. One misconception about conflict, however, is that it always arises from misunderstandings. This isn’t the case, however. Robert Doolittle (1976) noted that “some of the most serious conflicts occur among individuals and groups who understand each other very well but who strongly disagree.”
The first four kinds of conflict may interact with each other over time, either reinforcing or weakening each other’s impact. They may also ebb and flow according to the topics and conditions a group confronts. Even if they’re dealt with well, however, further emotional and personal kinds of conflict can occur in a group. Relationship conflicts, also known as personality clashes, often involve people’s egos and sense of self-worth. Relationship conflicts tend to be particularly difficult to cope with, since they frequently aren’t admitted for what they are. Many times, they arise in a struggle for superiority or status.
A Model of the Conflict Process
The most commonly accepted model of the conflict process was developed by Kenneth Thomas (1976). This model consists of four stages: (1) frustration, (2) conceptualization, (3) behavior, and (4) outcome.
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After reading this chapter, you should be able to answer these questions:
- How do you recognize and resolve short- and long-term conflicts among group members and among groups?
- How does conflict arise in organizations?
- When and how do you negotiate, and how do you achieve a mutually advantageous agreement?
- How do you recognize and respond to cultural differences in negotiation and bargaining strategies?
14.1 Conflict in Organizations: Basic Considerations
There are many ways to determine conflict as it relates to the workplace. For our purposes here, we will define conflict as the process by which individuals or groups react to other entities that have frustrated, or are about to frustrate, their plans, goals, beliefs, or activities. In other words, conflict involves situations in which the expectations or actual goal-directed behaviors of one person or group are blocked—or about to be blocked—by another person or group. Hence, if a sales representative cannot secure enough funds to mount what she considers to be an effective sales campaign, conflict can ensue. Similarly, if A gets promoted and B doesn’t, conflict can emerge. Finally, if a company finds it necessary to lay off valued employees because of difficult financial conditions, conflict can occur.
Types of Conflict
If we are to try to understand the roots of conflict, we need to know what type of conflict is present. At least four types of conflictcan be identified:
- Goal conflict. Goal conflict can occur when one person or group desires a different outcome than others do. This is simply a clash over whose goals are going to be pursued.
- Cognitive conflict. Cognitive conflict can result when one person or group holds ideas that are inconsistent with others ideas. This type of conflict is evident in political debates.
- Affective conflict. Affective conflict emerges when one person’s or group’s feelings or emotions (attitudes) are incompatible with those of others. This type is seen in situations where two individuals simply don’t get along with each other.
- Behavioral conflict. Behavioral conflict exists when one person or group does something (i.e., behaves in a certain way) that is unacceptable to others. An example is using profanity in the workplace.
Each of these types of conflict is usually triggered by different factors, and each can lead to very different responses by the individual or group.
Levels of Conflict
In addition to different types of conflict, there exist several different levels of conflict. Level refers to the number of individuals involved in the conflict. That is, is the conflict within just one person, between two people, between two or more groups, or between two or more organizations? Both the causes of a conflict and the most effective means to resolve it can be affected by level. Four such levels can be identified:
- Intrapersonal conflict. Intrapersonal conflict is conflict within one person. A person can be attracted to two equally appealing ideas or alternative ideas, such as two good job offers (approach-approach conflict) or repelled by two equally unpleasant alternatives, such as the threat of being fired if one fails to identify a coworker guilty of breaking plant rules (avoidance-avoidance conflict). In any case, interpersonal conflict is within the individual.
- Interpersonal conflict. Interpersonal conflict occurs when two individuals disagree on some matter. For example, you can have an argument with a coworker over an issue of mutual concern. Such conflicts often tend to get highly personal because only two parties are involved and each person embodies the opposing position in the conflict. Hence, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the opponent’s position and her person.
- Intergroup conflict. Conflict can be found between groups. Intergroup conflict involves disagreements between two opposing social groups over goals or sharing resources. For example, conflict between the marketing and production units within a corporation as each vies for more resources to accomplish its subgoals. Intergroup conflict is typically the most complicated form of conflict because of the number of individuals involved. Coalitions form within and between groups, and an “us-against-them” mentality develops.
- Interorganizational conflict. Finally, we can see interorganizational conflict in disputes between two companies in the same industry (for example, a disagreement between computer manufactures over computer standards), between two companies in different industries or economic sectors (for example, a conflict between real estate interests and environmentalists over land use planning), and even between two or more countries (for example, a trade dispute between the United States and Japan or France). In each case, both parties inevitably feel the pursuit of their goals is being frustrated by the other party.
The Positive and Negative Sides of Conflict
There are some circumstances in which a moderate amount of conflict can be helpful. For example, conflict can stimulate innovation and change. Conflict can help individuals and group members grow and develop self-identities. As noted by Coser:
Conflict, which aims at a resolution of tension between antagonists, is likely to have stabilizing and integrative functions for the relationship. By permitting immediate and direct expression of rival claims, such social systems are able to readjust their structures by eliminating their sources of dissatisfaction. The multiple conflicts which they experience may serve to eliminate the causes for dissociation and to reestablish unity. These systems avail themselves, through the toleration and institutionalization of conflict, of an important stabilizing mechanism.4
Conflict can have negative consequences when people divert energies away from performance and goal attainment and direct them toward resolving the conflict. Continued conflict can take a heavy toll in terms of psychological well-being. As we will see in the next chapter, conflict has a major influence on stress and the psychophysical consequences of stress. Finally, continued conflict can also affect the social climate of the group and inhibit group cohesiveness.
Thus, conflict can be either functional or dysfunctional in work situations depending upon the nature of the conflict, its intensity, and its duration. Indeed, both too much and too little conflict can lead to a variety of negative outcomes, as discussed above. This is shown in Exhibit 14.2. In such circumstances, a moderate amount of conflict may be the best course of action. The issue for management, therefore, is not how to eliminate conflict but rather how to manage and resolve it when it occurs.
- Which of these reactions to conflict do you feel would lead to more productive results?
- How do you feel you respond to such conflict?
- Would your friends agree with your assessment?
Sources: R. X. Cringely, “2019 prediction #1 -- Apple under Tim Cook emulates GE under Jack Welch, BetaNews, February 27, 2019, https://betanews.com/2019/02/28/2019-prediction-1-apple-under-tim-cook-emulates-ge-under-jack-welch/; M. A. Harris, “Can Jack Welsh Reinvent GE?” Business Week, June 30, 1986; S. Flax, “The Ten Toughest Bosses in America,” Fortune, August 6, 1984, p. 21; J. A. Byrne, “Jack Welch successor destroyed GE he inherited,” USA Today, July 15, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/07/15/ge-ceo-welch-oppose-editorials-debates/36895027/.