Causes of Conflict in an Organization

The causes of conflict fall into three distinct categories. Accordingly, these causes can be restructured and placed into one of these categories. These categories deal with communicational, behavioral and structural aspects. Managers must understand the type of conflict situations so that they spend less time while dealing with them.

Communicational Aspects of Conflict

Poor communication, though not reflecting substantive differences, can have powerful effect in causing conflict. Misunderstood or partial information during the process of communication can make a difference between the success and the failure of a task and such failure for which the responsibility becomes difficult to trace can cause conflict between the sender of the communication and the receiver of the communication.

Thus the problems in the communication process – whether these problems relate to too much or too little communication, filtering of communication, semantic problems or noise-act to retard collaboration and stimulate misunderstanding. The filtering process occurs when information is passed through many levels or when it passes through many members.

The amount of information is functional up to a point, beyond which it become a source of conflict. Semantic difficulties arise due to differences in backgrounds, differences in training, selective perception and inadequate information about others.

As an example, if a manager is going on an extended vacation fails to communicate properly with his subordinates as to who would be doing what, he will find these jobs only partially done with subordinates blaming each other for not completing the tasks. Accordingly, adequate, complete, and correctly understood communication is very important in orderly completion of tasks, thus reducing the chances of of conflict.

Behavioral Aspects of Conflict

These conflicts arise out of human thoughts and feelings, emotions and attitudes, values and perceptions and reflect some basic traits of a personality. Thus some people’s values or perceptions of situations are particularly likely to generate conflict with others.

For example, highly authoritarian and dogmatic persons are more prone to antagonize co-workers by highlighting minor differences that might exist and may overreact causing a conflict. This conflict may also be based on personal biases regarding such factors as religion, race or sex. Some men feel poorly about women workers. These conflicts ore not about issues but about persons. Some families carry on enmity for generations.

The conflict can also arise due to differing viewpoints about various issues. For example, two vice-presidents may differ in their viewpoints regarding which strategic plan to implement. The value based conflicts arise due to different values that may be culturally based. For instance, one vice-president may want to retire some workers to save costs while another vice-president may have human sensitivity and support other methods of cutting costs. As another example, a professor may value freedom of teaching methods and a close supervision of his teaching technique is likely to induce conflict.

From an organizational behavior point of view, there is conflict between the goals of the formal organization and the psychological growth of the individual. While the formal organization demands dependency, passivity and to some degree obedience from its members, the psychologically developed individuals exhibit independence, creativity and a desire to participate in decision-making and decision implementing process. The needs of individuals and the formal organization being inconsistent with each other, result in behavioral conflict.

Structural Aspects of Conflict

These conflicts arise due to issues related to the structural design of the organization as a whole as well as its sub-units. Some of the structurally related factors are:

Size of the organization: The larger the size of the organization, the more the basis for existence of conflict. It is likely that as the organization becomes larger, there is greater impersonal formality, less goals clarity, more supervisory levels and supervision and greater chance of information being diluted or distorted as it is passed along. All these factors are breeding grounds for conflict.

Line-staff distinction:  One of the frequently mentioned and continuous source of conflict is the distinction between the line and staff units within the organization. Line units are involved in operations that are directly related to the core activities of the organization.

For example, production department would be a line unit in a manufacturing organization and sales department would be considered line unit in a customer oriented service organization. Staff units are generally in an advisory capacity and support the line function. Examples of staff departments are legal department, public relations, personnel and research and development.

Some of the sources of conflict between line and staff are:

  • Since the staff generally advises and the line decides end acts, the staff often feels powerless.
  • Staff employees may simply be resented because of their specialized knowledge and expertise.
  • Occasionally, staff employees are impatient with the conservative and slow manner in which the line managers put the staff ideas to work. Also line managers may resist an idea because they did not think of it in the first place, which hurts their ego.
  • Staff has generally easier access to top management which is resented by the line management.
  • Staff is generally younger and more educated and did not go through the run of the mill and hence their ideas may be considered more theoretical and academic rather than practical.
  • There is conflict about the degree of importance between the line and staff as far as the contribution towards the growth of the company is concerned.
  • The line usually complains that if things go right then the staff takes the credit and if things go wrong, then the line gets the blame for it.
  • Generally the staff people typically think in terms of long-range issues while line people are more involved with short-term or day-to day concerns. These differing time horizons can become a source of conflict.

Participation: It is assumed that if the subordinates are not allowed to participate in he decision-making process then they will show resentment that will induce conflict. On the other hand ironically, if subordinates are provided with greater participation opportunities, the levels of conflict also tend to be higher.

This may be due to the fact that increased participation leads to greater awareness of individual differences. This conflict is further enhanced when individuals tend to enforce their points of view on others.

Role ambiguity: A role reflects a set of activities associated with a certain position in the organization. If these work activities are ill defined, then the person who is carrying out these activities will not perform as others expect him to, because his role is not clearly defined.

This will create conflict, specially between this individual and those people who depend upon his activities. A hospital or a medical clinic employing a number of physicians with overlapping specialties might cause conflict due to role ambiguity. Such conflict can be reduced by redefining and clarifying roles and their inter-dependencies.

Design of work-flow: These are primarily inter-group problems and conflicts that are outcomes of poorly designed work-flow structure and poorly planned coordination requirements, specially where asks are interdependent. According to Sashkin and Morris ‘organizations are made up of many different groups that must work together towards the accomplishment of common objectives.’

For example, in a hospital, the doctors and nurses must work together and their tasks are highly interdependent. If they do not coordinate their activities well, then there will be confusion and conflict. Similarly, in a restaurant, the cook and the waiter depend upon each other for critical information and uncoordinated activities between the cook and the waiter would create conflicts and problems.

Scarcity of resources: When individuals and units must share such resources as capital, facilities, staff assistance, and so on, and these resources are scarce and there is high competition for them then conflict can become quite tense.

This is especially true in declining organizations, where resources become even more scarce due to cutback in personnel and services so that the concerned units become highly competitive for the shrinking pool thus creating hostility among groups who may have put up a peaceful front at the time of abundance. For example, two research scientists who do not get along very well, may not show their hostility until a reduction in laboratory space provokes each to protect his area.

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