Definition and types of conflicts

Conflicts can be defined as disagreements between two or more parties who perceive that they have incompatible goals. conflict occur whenever an action by one party is perceived as preventing or interfering with the goals, needs or actions of another party. Conflicts can arise over a variety of organizational experiences such as incompatible goals, differences in interpretation of facts, negative feelings, differences in values and philosophies or disputes over shared resources.


Sources of Conflicts.

In order for conflicts to occur, certain conditions must exist. These conditions may be outwardly visible or they may be latent and waiting to surface. They include’


Goal Incompatibility

An ideal situation exists when two parties perceive their goals as mutually enhancing and view each others behavior as contributing to the achievement of both sets of goals. In such a case, a high degree of cooperation is likely to result. When ones persons goal achievement is perceived as threatening to another persons, the resulting conflict is likely to bring into play a win lose competition.


Insufficient Shared Resources

When parties compete for  their share of organizational resources, conflicts often arise. If one party receives more power, higher status, and more material resources than other parties, dysfunctional conflicts often result from win- lose competition that the limited resources foster.


Different Time Orientations

Another potential source of conflicts is the different time spans needed by parties to achieve their goals. Some parties have relatively short time orientations.

Philosophies of Conflicts

1.The Unitarist  perspective.

This is the traditional view which sees conflicts as undesirable, destructive and as something to be avoided at all costs. In organizations, it is assumed that everyone is on the same side working towards the same goals. Any differences are assumed to be the result of poor leadership, poor communication or other problems.. This simplistic view fails to see that differences of opinions and interest s can be perfectly normal.


  1. The pluralist perspective.

Pluralists propose that conflicts are normal and natural. Organizations need to put in place procedures to handle the conflicts and ensure that they do not disrupt the organization as a whole. This is a widely accepted view of conflict but it ignores the wider cultural issues of conflict.


  1. The Radical Perspective.

This is derived from Marxists perspective and suggests that organizational conflicts reflect the conflicts in the wider society between the capital owners and the workers. This perspective takes into account the wider social view but views conflicts as vertical and managers as instruments of owners.. it fails to acknowledge that managers may also have different views. It also fails to recognize that conflicts occur between people at the same level in the organization.

  1. The Interactional Perspective

This view sees conflicts as neither good nor bad but simply inevitable. It recognizes that when there are conflicts, much of the organizations energy will be channeled towards it resolution, to the detriment of pursuing other goals. However, it also recognizes that when there are no conflicts, there is unlikely to be creativity and this will lead to complacency. This means that there should be an optimum level of conflicts to enable the organization to grow and develop. The problem is usually finding this optimum level and managing conflicts effectively.


Stages of Conflicts development.

Development of conditions that fuel conflicts usually marks the start of the process of conflicts. Afterwards, conflicts usually proceed through five stages.



  1. Latent Conflict.

When two or more parties need each other to achieve desired objectives, there is potential for conflicts. Other conditions that lead to development of conflicts include; different goals, role ambiguity, interdependence etc. latent conflicts usually arise when change occurs. Eg, a budget cut, added workload, restructuring.


  1. Perceived conflicts

This is the point at which members of the organization become aware of a problem. E.g Incompatibility of goals is perceived and tension begins as the parties begin to worry about what will happen. At this point however, no one feels that anything they care about is actually being overtly threatened.


  1. Felt Conflicts.

At this point, parties become emotionally involved and begin to focus on differences in opinion, and opposing interests. Internal tensions and frustrations begin to crystallize around specific defined issues and people begin to build an emotional commitment to their particular positions.


  1. Manifest Conflicts.

The obvious display of conflicts and  occurs when opposing parties plan and follow through with acts to achieve their own objectives and frustrate the other. Actions can range from minor disagreements, questions and challenges  to verbal attacks, threats ultimatums, physical attacks and even efforts to destroy the other party.


  1. Conflict Outcome

The interaction of the conflicting parties in the manifest stage results in outcomes that can be functional or dysfunctional for one or both parties. As conflicts proceed through the stages, functional resolutions become more difficult. The parties become more locked into their positions and more convinced that the conflict is a win or lose situation.



Dimensions  of Conflicts

  1. Intrapersonal conflicts

This arises within an individual mainly resulting from dilemma over ethical issues. Individuals sometimes find it difficult to decide on the course of action in certain situations. They may be caused by; financial problems, spill over effects, relationship problems.


7.1.2. Interpersonal conflicts

They occur between individuals working in an organization. They arise as a result of

  1. Personal differences usually caused by personality clashes.
  2. Lack of unity of command: when employees are not very clear about who to report to
  3. When there is a mismatch between a person and the job he is doing or required to do.
  4. lack of necessary information: can happen when an individual with certain information which he is supposed to share with others keeps the information to himself to the extent that this information helps employees to accomplish their task, it can be a source of interpersonal conflicts.
  5. environmental stress; conflicts become more frequent in times of competitive pressure e.g. During economic down turns and down sizing, during such periods individuals find that their ability to maintain a job is continually under threat thus causing conflicts.


7.1.3. intra- group conflicts

Occur within groups. Group activities bring the characteristics, attitudes and opinions of individual members into focus. The interaction of these variables on group processes sometimes lead to conflicts.


  • inter group conflicts

Occurs between different groups. There are many different groups that exist within an organization and they inevitably experience differences and conflicts at some point in time e.g. Employees seek to earn as much money as possible, employers on the other hand want labor to be as cheap as possible, this becomes an inherent source of conflicts.


  • Intra organizational conflicts

They occur within an organization. The physical structures of an organization, the patterns of communication and the HR policies can bring about conflicts especially when linked with limitations of resources availability.


  • inter organizational conflicts

Markets provide a scenario in which organizations are inevitably in conflict with each other. All competitors in a particular industry attempt to meet the needs of the customer in such a way as to maximize profits and market share for them. This competition leads to a lot of inter organisational conflicts.


7.2. Manifestation of conflicts

How do conflicts find expression?

They are expressed at two different levels;

  1. individual level
  2. group level


7.2.1. Individual level

This level conflicts find expression in the following ways;

  • sabotage-: deliberate interruption of company operations. It can involve causing machines to break down deliberately or individuals simply refusing to work.
  • Misuse of resources-: they find expression in individuals sometimes through appropriating company resources for personal use.
  • Heightened politics/political activity-:conflicts in organisations find expression by people engaging in intense political activities that are usually aimed at undermining position and authority of others.


7.2.2 Group level

Conflicts are expressed in the following ways;

  1. strikes and lock outs

During a collective trade dispute the parties involved each try to restrict activities of the other. Employees can go on strike and thereby prevent management from running the business. Employers can lock out the employees and therefore prevent them from earning their salary.


  1. Go-slows

Groups are capable of determining the level of effort that they are prepared to invest on behalf of employers. A frustrated group of employees who have a lot of grievances are likely to cut down their work input.


  1. formation of factions

Group conflicts sometimes lead to the formation of different groups (factions) depending on the different opinions they hold about issues affecting them and causing conflicts.


7.3. Consequences of conflicts

  1. low productivity
  2. high labour turnover
  3. low quality staff
  4. increased levels of stress
  5. autocratic leadership
  6. high rates of absenteeism
  7. difficult interpersonal relationships
  8. Decreased employee morale.


7.4 Strategies for conflict Management

There are a number of ways in which conflicts can be managed within an organization. One if the most popular method/style is the five conflict handling strategies. The strategies include:

7.4 1. Smoothing/ accommodating

This approach reflects a style that allows the other party to achieve what they wish from the conflict situation. It is an attempt to maintain unity and harmony through subjugating ones own wishes. This style is normally a consequence of indifference towards the needs of self preferring to focus on the needs of the other party. It also reflects a degree of fear of the consequences of failing to allow the other party to have their way.


  • Avoidance

This style reflects minimalistic approach to the conflict situation. It constitutes a desire to ignore the problem and hope that it will go away.


  • problem solving/ collaboration

This style represents a head on approach to a conflict situation. It reflects a win-win approach to negotiation and problem solving.

The style gives recognition to the need to resolve conflicts through meeting the objectives and desires of both parties in order to achieve a lasting settlement to the problem.

  • authoritarian/competitive

This style reflects a win at all costs approach to the conflict situation. It does not take into consideration the other party’s interest in the conflict situation but simply concentrates on the desire of the self in the process.


  • Compromise – middle ground

This is the search for the acceptable middle ground. It represents a satisfying approach to the problem situation for both parties.

The parties in a conflict situation meet each other half way so that no one completely wins or loses.

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