Conflict could be defined as a process that begins when one of the parties in the interaction process perceives that another individual or group has frustrated or about to frustrate the attainment of their needs and goals. Given the potential for real or perceived frustration of some needs and goals, conflict is a basic fact of life in groups and organizations. It is a universal phenomenon and is an inevitable feature of organizational life. The very nature of organizations guarantees the emergence of conflict. First, organizations contain people with divergent personalities, perceptions, and values. Second, these people are assigned to jobs that have contrasting characteristics, impart unequal degrees of status, and frequently foster competition. Finally, organizations contain groups that often have conflicting views and they often compete for scarce resources in order to achieve their goals. Thus, conflict is an inescapable aspect of social interactions, an inevitable consequence of the interactions and interdependence between people and groups. A conflict-free organization has never existed and will never exist. Antagonism, tensions, aggressions, stereotyping, negative attitudes, frustration, and perceived conflicting needs will always be present, whenever people have to live and work together. An effective manager must understand the nature of conflict that is prevalent and its beneficial effect, and also the type of conflict that is not beneficial. He must, then, deal with conflict in ways that will promote the individual, group, and organizational goals. It is to be understood that management of conflict is an essential pre-requisite to sound human relations.
Interpersonal conflict involves two or more individuals. Such conflict situations are made up of atleast two individuals who hold polarized points of view, who are somewhat intolerant of ambiguities, who ignore delicate shades of grey, and who are quick to jump to conclusions. Individuals, who join an organization, bring along with them certain needs and beliefs. When they work for the organizational goal the needs, beliefs, values, and customs of individuals do clash and this results in conflict.
Reasons for inter-personal conflict
The most commonly cited reasons for interpersonal conflict are personality differences, perceptions, clashes of values and interests, competitive environment, power and status differences, scarce resources, stereotype behaviour, and exploitative nature of human beings. These are briefly discussed below.
a) Personality differences: Some people have difficulty in getting along with each other. This is purely a psychological problem and it has nothing to do with their job requirements or formal interactions.
Perceptions: Varied background, experiences, education, and training result
in individuals developing different perceptions of similar realities; the result
being an increase in the likelihood of interpersonal conflict. Vertical conflicts
develop in organizations, usually because superiors try to control subordinates
and subordinates tend to resist. The subordinate resists because he believes
that the control infringes on his personal autonomy, makes his behaviour more
predictable to others, and thus weakens his position in the organization.
c) Clashes of values and interests: Conflict that so commonly develops between scientists and administrative and accounts personnel shows how differences in values and interests might underlie conflict.
d) Competitive environment: Organizations do reward good work and competence. Whenever an individual in an organization is rewarded for his good work and useful results, it triggers of a feeling of frustration and hostility among some other people, who feel that their self-respect is at stake. This leads to interpersonal conflict among the individuals in the organization, and also between the affected individuals and the authority.
e) Power and status differences: Organizations are political structures. They operate by distribution of authority and setting a stage for the exercise of power. Unequal distribution of power and status would definitely lead to conflict. A lower-grade scientist when gives an order to a higher-grade scientist, conflict does arise. The lower-grade scientist may be doing it because of the power vested on him by the manager/director of the organization.
f) Scarce resources: Interpersonal conflicts usually result when each person in an organization jockeys to possess a scarce resource. The belief that somebody else is out to eat away one’s share of resources may create ill feelings between individuals. When the scarcity is absolute, i.e. when the resource level cannot be enhanced, it becomes very difficult to manage interpersonal conflicts. For example, if four qualified individuals vie for one superior position in the organization, and if there is only one such position, interpersonal conflict would develop to an unmanageable level.
g) Stereotype behaviour: Stereotyping makes people to form opinions about others, which are more often through hurried judgements. As a result of this, people tend to behave in a more biased manner with others, and this leads to interpersonal conflicts. In India, people belonging to a particular religion, region, caste, and group exhibit a skewed attitude and behaviour towards others belonging to another religion, region, and caste. This leads to a lot of interpersonal problems in organizations.
h) Exploitative nature of human beings: In organizations, we always encounter a group of people who tend to exploit others by virtue of their position, authority, etc. As a result, they try to take an undue share in the outcome, in spite of the fact that their contribution is not proportionate to that level. This naturally would lead to interpersonal conflicts in the long run. Heads of the organizations and departments claiming an authorship in the publications of the scientists working under them, in spite of the fact that they had not contributed anything in the work is a typical example for this type of interpersonal conflict. Infact, in certain organizations, it has become a rule that the names of the Heads should be included in every publication.
Intergroup conflicts are one of the most important types of conflict in an organization, as an organization is structured in the form of several interdependent task groups. These groups could be formal or informal, and the members of these groups interact with each other for different purposes. These groups differ in goals, work activities, power, and prestige. The seeds of intergroup conflict are sown in these differences. The various reasons for intergroup conflict in an organization include goal segmentation/diversity of goals/incompatible goals; task interdependence; resource allocation; differential reward systems; ambiguities and task uncertainty; differences in values and perceptions; overload on some groups; and introduction of change.
Conflict and Organizational Performance
The assumption that conflict is always unhealthy or dysfunctional is frequently fallacious. Conflicts have functional aspects too. They have also therapeutic value. For organizations to be productive, certain amount of conflict is always necessary. An optimum level of conflict prevents stagnation, stimulates creativity, allows tension and stress to be released, and initiates the seeds for change. It also facilitates critical thinking among group members, makes a group more responsive to the needs for change, and provides similar other benefits that can enhance group and organizational performance. Such a level of conflict resulting in productive stress is, thus, definitely good for the organization.
It is to be realized that the demarcation between functional and dysfunctional conflict is neither clear nor precise. The functionality of a conflict can be measured by the impact it has on the group/unit performance rather than on a single individual. It is known that in organization’s, there is an optimal, highly functional level of conflict at which the unit’s / organization’s performance is at the maximum. This can happen because at that level of conflict, the group or unit’s internal environment is characterized by self-criticism and innovativeness. When the conflict level is low, it is dysfunctional as the unit’s / organization’s performance is low due to apathy, stagnation, lack of new ideas, and non-responsiveness of the organization members to the demands of change. On the other hand, when the conflict level is too high it is again dysfunctional as the survival of the group is threatened due to diversion of energy away from performance and goal attainment. The most important task for managers would be to stimulate conflict during those times when it is low, and contain conflict during those times when it is high, so that conflict can be effectively brought to the optimum level, which leads to productive stress, and thus proving good for the organization.