Intra-Group Conflict and Team Quality: The Moderating Role of Leadership Styles

Review this detailed article on conflict in organizations. Note the focus on causes of conflict between the individual and the organization. As you read, also think about the effects of conflict on the individual and the organization. Is conflict is always bad? What are some of the positive results of conflict?

There is an old Chinese curse which states, "I curse you--may I you live in an important age". Indeed, we do live in an important age, saturated with many forms and intensities of conflict. While conflicts of value are slow to erupt between individuals and institutions in a stable society, they are prevalent in times of rapid change. In our age of dynamic change it is imperative that the manager understand the source of; and various strategies for dealing with, conflict which inevitably occurs in organizations. Typical of this conflict is the breakdown of communication between management and labor; between a commander and his troops; or between a secretary and her supervisor. Even more common, perhaps, is the overt and often hostile dysfunctional competition that erupts between work centers, peers, or social groups vying for scarce resources or attention.

In our discovery of conflict, it is possible to become obsessed and preoccupied with its prevalence in society. This concern may veil the much more important acts of cooperation and harmony that characterize normal organizational and society life; like that which we expect and usually find, for example, between maintenance and operations in an Air Force wing. However, as a basis for our discussion, we must agree that conflict is a major organizational reality. As managers it is essential that we become capable of managing conflict in an environment of individual and group differences.

So, what do we mean by "conflict"? The term is widely used to describe important differences between individual humans or groups of humans. In its major sense it applies to warfare between nations. If existing differences are not somehow adequately handled, the involved individuals or groups are unable to come together in understanding and cooperation. However, not all conflict is bad. Differences which result in initiative and creativity are stimulating for those involved, and such conflict is essential for progress.

Conflict Causes

Nations, organizations, and groups are made up of individual human beings. Each human has through life experiences developed a set of values and evolved a set of behavioral rules. These values and rules are sufficiently alike in a given society (more so in a given segment of a society) to allow justice, morals, and ethics to exist and create general agreement about what is right and what is wrong. But, the value-rule set for each individual is a unique set not fully shared by other humans. These differences in value-rule sets are most likely the basic causes of conflict. An airman, for instance, might be incensed over what he considers a wrong since the base commander has denied him and his family BX check-cashing privileges because a bad check resulted from a pay record error. However, the base commander, bothered by numerous bad check experiences through the BX, may feel it wrong not to punish such occurrences.

Another major conflict cause is the motivation of the separate individuals. Each is motivated by a peculiarly unique degree of satisfactions in a set of needs. It is quite likely that in a given group situation the individuals concerned will be aiming their personal efforts at slightly different objectives; such objectives may be similar enough to permit cooperative effort but sufficiently different to create some conflict. A common example might be the "hot line," employed by many commanders as a means of staying in touch with the troops. This opportunity to short-circuit supervisory channels often antagonizes intermediate managers, who may learn of a problem only when the commander confronts them with it. Then, too, it is possible for all to be motivated to behave toward the same goal accomplishment but to feel that that goal, when attained, will not be great enough for all to share adequately in the reward. Conflict may then exist as each strives to attain his place in the sun.

A third major cause of conflict - and one more obvious to us--the differing idealogic and philosophic bases we possess. These relate to a great extent to the value-rule set but are sufficiently different to warrant recognition as possible conflict causes. What we use as a base for our ideals and our concepts becomes a great importance to us, and we do not want that base challenged or questioned by others. An example is the old-timer's reluctance to change from a thus-far successful technique even though evidence indicates that a change would be beneficial. When we perceive attack on our ideals from another, we respond with energy and, often, heat. Note the actions of some militant minority groups and you observe idealogic/philosophic conflict reactions at work.

Effects Of Conflict

Conflict has both positive and negative effects. It can be positive when it encourages creativity, new looks at o1d conditions, the clarification of points of view, and the development of human capabilities to handle interpersonal differences. All of us have experienced a surge of creativity when we permit the ideas of others to trigger our imagination, as for example in a brainstorming session. Conflict can be negative when it creates resistance to change, establishes turmoil in organization or interpersonal relations, fosters distrust, builds a feeling of defeat, or widens the chasm of misunderstanding. Such might be the situation today in American society relative to school busing.

Unfortunately, the term "conflict" has only the connotation of "bad" for many people; so much so that they think principally in terms of suppression, giving little or no attention to its more positive side. One author emphasizes this by stating: "It seems entirely likely that many, if not most, organizations need more conflict, not less".1 Another states: "The absence of conflict may indicate autocracy, uniformity, stagnation, and mental fixity; the presence of conflict may be indicative of democracy, diversity, growth, and self- actualization".2 Some social critics relate the military to the former by their references to the military mind in which they equate absolute and unquestioning obedience with normal military functioning.

Conflict should be considered, conceptually, as neither bad nor good, wrong nor right. The meaning of conflict is established by its participants since it is people who attach value definition to it. The ultimate results of a conflict situation are determined by the feelings, beliefs, and values of those persons involved. People are the real determinants of the meaning of conflict. If we forget this and treat conflict as though it had some natural quality (good/bad, right/wrong), we overlook the roles of the participants and probably lose the ultimate capability of stimulating conflict.

We are human, though, and it is almost impossible for us to divorce ourselves of feelings, beliefs, and values. We create, or get involved in, conflict, and we possess predispositions as to how it ought to be addressed or handled. We tend to have a strong behavioral leaning, a set pattern, for our participation, and this emerges as a major factor in setting the nature of conflict. We can note this predisposition for a set pattern of behavior in our tendency to want to apply equal penalties or identical punishment regardless of the cause of an infraction of rules.

We can say, then, that conflict is a state of unresolved difference between two individuals, an individual and a group, or two groups. The difference can be real or imaginary. Regardless, it is a difference and will cause some form of conflict if the involved parties are in contact with each other. The conflict exists until the difference is resolved. The important aspect is how the individual accepts and responds to it; how he seeks to control or stimulate the dynamic conflict situation. In this age of specialization and sophisticated technology, we can readily find power imbalances in organizations. This often results in conflict. In technically oriented organizations (e.g., military aviation, major communicative networks, and science-based units), the managers rarely are able to be experts in all the disciplines or specialties they control. These managers find themselves greatly dependent on technical experts who work for them. Differences arise because of differing knowledge bases and perceptions. Note the hard feelings and accompanying resentment we often experience when a boss, removed from the situation, nitpicks a piece of correspondence we have prepared. Unmanaged, these differences can have negative results. But this need not be if we carefully select mature and adaptable managers who can understand the high degree of informal (expert) authority held by subordinates who have technical competence.

The Need to Manage Conflict

We must expect conflict to occur in our organizations. We should be disappointed if it does not because conflict exists only within the context of interdependence. There can be no conflict when there is no awareness of another meaning, role, or value than our own. Thus, conflict is a relationship between segments of an interrelated system: persons, a group, an organization, a community, a nation. There can be no conflict if those involved sense no differences. However, in the environment of interpersonal relationship there will always be difference, and conflict will be the norm not the exception.

We need to manage conflict in order to obtain profitable return from it. Managing conflict requires that we consider not only the required guidance and control to keep conflict at an acceptable--yet not too high--level but also the activity to encourage proper conflict when the level is too low. Who would want to lead an organization without the energy and force accompanying the conflict of creativity and initiative?

Stephen Robbins makes a strong case for the need for a more realistic approach to conflict with his "interactionist approach". He states that there are three basic managerial attitudes toward conflict which he identifies as traditional behavioral, and interactionist. The traditionalist, following our social teaching believes that all conflicts are destructive and management's role is to get their out of the organization. The traditionalist, therefore, believes conflict should be eliminated. The bahavioralist seeks to rationalize the existence of conflict and at accurately perceives conflict as inevitable in complex organizations or relationships. Thus, the behavioralist "accepts" it. The interactionist views conflict as absolutely necessary, encourages opposition, defines management of conflict to include stimulation as well as resolution and considers the management of conflict as a major responsibility of all administrators. The interactionist view is accept and encourage conflict. This article uses the interactionist approach.

The Person and the Organization

Conflicts occur when the needs and goals of the individual are not in harmony with the needs and goals of the organization. Chris Argyris, in his discussion of man versus the organization, indicates it highly conceivable that the traditional goals and structure of organizations may be in conflict with the needs and goal a developing personality.4 This may be readily seen in the efficient and omnipotent bureaucracy that places emphasis on hierarchy, specialization of work, established norms of conduct, and explicit rules, often forgetting or overlooking the individual and his unique qualities. Traditionally, personal values tend to be hostile toward organizations, big government, big business, bureaucracy, and, in spite of its purely defensive posture in our country, the military. Again, conflict can arise when interdependency exists. Employees become dependent on organizations to give their lives direction and meaning. Such dependency allows them to escape the burdens of personal responsibility. Whereas we praise individualism in workers, the organization often requires that the individual be treated impersonally. We see this in "distant" management, in which the people sense an absence of concern for their individuality and personal needs. Efficiency requirements of the organization also act as sources of conflict because they regularly demand that the goals and needs of the organization be given higher priority than the rights of the individual. We, therefore, yield to the proposition that conflict between the organization and personal values is normal and a fact of life. We strongly recommend that Argyris's book be high on the manager's list of developmental study because managers seem always to be torn between the two competing desires of doing what is best for the organization or what is best for the individual. It is a rough decision spot to be in.

Managing this inherent conflict between individual needs and organizational needs demands a high degree of self-awareness on the part of the manager. What am I willing to do in the balancing of these needs? How much can I accommodate comfortably to the need satisfaction of other humans in my organization? How much faith do I really have in the motivational drives of my subordinates? What really is my role in this unit? What can I do, or what will I allow myself to do, to integrate the needs of the individual with the needs of the organization? In this circumstance that now faces me, which is more important: the individual or the group? No one can preanswer these questions, nor can anyone answer them effectively for another person. Yet the active manager has to answer them as he strives to control conflict.

A major influence on the manager's actions or decisions will be his basic concept or philosophy about the nature of man. Douglas McGregor presents a famous dissertation on this subject in his consideration of Theory "X" and Theory "Y". Argyris develops, too, a number of managerial considerations.6 Abraham Maslow also offers a number of assumptions for the manager to adopt for an enlightened approach to the individual- organization situation. Our evaluation of the research and literature leads us to reflect that potential individual-organization conflict is heightened as management acts to reduce or constrain the individual's opportunity to decide. This has been the trend in the USAF's strong centralized control of so many details of the base maintenance and supply operations. The goal to make mistakes unlikely is commendable but perhaps in solving one problem a number of others were created. The person needs a growing control over his work environment, more opportunity to make decisions, more autonomy in order to become self-responsible. Yet, in our sophisticated society, the organizational trend is quite the opposite, and many people feel management has decided, without notable exception, that the organization in all instances has precedence and priority.

Never is the functioning organization free of problems. The unresolved problem is a source of conflict because individuals are expected to solve the problem, but the organization (management?) often does not permit mistake, or error, or the organization often gives the individual a problem so huge it overwhelms him. Frustration and conflict naturally result. Unless the organization is supportive to the individual's problem-solving efforts, such conflict continues and likely worsens. What is needed, as Harry Levinson indicates, is a supportive environment that gives the individual room to maneuver, freedom to make mistakes, set limits, and define expectations, plus respectful treatment of his ideas. In many of today's organizations such a supportive environment is contrary to developed functional relationship patterns. In far too many organizations, for example, mistakes are anathema, and more effort is expended in protective posterior armor than in productive and progressive activity. Fear is prevalent, and the feeling of individual versus the organization is magnified. Many people in military organizations experience this as they find they must guard against inspection visits, staff visits, and the like, at the expense of a ready solution to an immediate problem. In some instances they follow the book, even knowing it to be in error in a given situation, because they cannot anticipate support for an innovative action.

Argyris mentions that this disturbance created by the incongruency of the man and organization needs tends to increase as the individual and the organization mature and/or as dependence, subordination, and passivity increase. This increase occurs as management controls are increased, as directive leadership increases, as one goes down the chain of command, as human relations programs are undertaken but improperly implemented, as jobs become more specialized, or as the exactness with which the traditional formal principles are used increases. "The Air Force way," while it cannot be totally removed, stands as a ready reference response (which may be too often used) to the magnified man and organization need difference. Each of these items has significance for the manager's action choices as he strives to control conflict. How far can he go? How far will he permit himself to go? Can he restrain himself from the imposition of more controls, for example, as he observes his organization at work and notes its results? The challenge exists. The manager must choose to face it or retreat.

An additional source of individual versus organization conflict is generated by the "new man" versus the "old man". The innovator is always in a less supportive environment than the entrenched old hand. Interpersonal conflicts of the old and new vary in intensity in relation to the ability of the manager to deal with such conflict and his personal desire benefit from innovative ideas. But the new is not always right, and we must rationally evaluate these old versus new arguments. Frederick Herzberg speaks this point in his recommendation for management's referral use of "the wise old Turk," a valuable source of information already on the payroll. Sources of Conflict If a manager is to manage conflict, he must understand its source. We can establish three basic sources as semantic, role, and values.

Semantic sources are those stemming from some failure in communication. Traditionally, semantics has to do with the meaning of words, but here that is just one phase of its role. We use semantics to point out a major source of conflict as the failure of two individuals to share fully the meaning of a communicative attempt. The causes for the failure may be technical problems in the communication process (static, filters, barriers, and the like), or they may be actual differences in perception and understanding. The result is an absence of agreement: conflict.

Role sources are those that rise out of the varying perceptions of people about the expected behaviors of themselves and others. Many of these come from the status and position levels in organizations. Others come from the structures and processes devised by management to organize work, channel effort, and coordinate activity. Role conflicts are probably no more frequent or more rare than semantic or value conflicts. They might, indeed, be so closely related as to be absorbed in those two sources. Role sources may be evidenced in those situations in which boss and subordinate seem to be butting heads because each perceives the role of the other in a reference frame different from observable behavior.

Value sources have their foundations in the individualistic value sets of people. These value sets readily contribute to differences between people because they are different. They cause each of us at times to respond or behave in an unexpected manner because we are behaving as dictated by a value set not fully shared by our associates; hence, a sense on their part of a difference between us. An example may be the conflicting values held by Air Force people as to what constitutes acceptable hair length. One side demands compliance with a published standard while the other demands to know why longer hair must mean degraded performance Managing value conflicts requires a psychological awareness and a capacity for adaptivity which permits situationally based activity of the manager. What is effective in one value conflict situation may not be in the next.

Three basic sources of conflict have been mentioned, but we must admit that such separation is probably valid only for the meticulous person in research or academe or for the person attempting a serious study of the phenomena. In the reality of the manager's world, source separation is of little immediate value although it should be of significant help to control conflict. Most conflict is really a combination of elements from more than one of the sources. Many people cite their belief that the prime cause of conflict is communicative inadequacy. How, though, can we establish that a communicative failure does not truly evolve from the differing value sets involved or from the varying vantage points of those performing in different roles? The much- discussed generation gap, in the military as well as in general society, most likely is a reflection of both communicative failure and differing value sets. We cannot, with comfort, say that the three sources are independent. Each affects the others to some degree.

Individual Reactions to Conflict

Since conflict may be positively or negatively evaluated, there may be a range of reactions to it. These reactions might go from high expectation and pleasure to absolute rejection. In a very broad sense, the individual in a conflict situation has only two options open: sign up or ship out. But the choice is too dramatic, and it is rare when the situational factors permit only this form of response. Usually, there is a pad of acceptance which insulates the individual from absolute or harsh decisions. Massie and Douglas identify this as the zone of indifference. As a normal event, the individual constantly checks to see whether his personal goals are consistent with the goals of social groups to which he belongs. He continues to function in groups which generally support his goals even though there might be day-to-day conflicts between them. This, then, is the zone of indifference, and the means of accommodation which we all use in our normal functioning in society. The incongruity of the individual's and the group's goals is not sufficient to cause his voluntary severing of the relationship. A high zone of indifference permits loyalty to a group in spite of many differences between personal and group goals. This is our norm because it is rare when we agree fully with our group; even in the family group, perhaps our closest association, we have frequent even though minor disagreements as to goals. A narrow or low zone of indifference offers little such tolerance. In conflict events, the person with a low zone of indifference may opt to ship out.

Rejection of the conflict situation may result in shipping out, resignation which may be temporary or permanent. The response might be as mild as taking a few days of respite, thus the therapeutic value of leave, vacation, and recreation. Perhaps, in certain organizations, it would be a sabbatical or volunteering for special duty in a new environment. Then, too, it can be total severance with the goal of a fresh start in a different organization. Or, it might be using the personnel system to find a clean start through internal transfer to another subelement of the organization.

Acceptance of the conflict situation might be manifested in a surge of initiative, a flow of creativity, or a push for productivity. These efforts might result from stimulation of perceived differences, or they might be the observable behavior representing a strong desire for promotion and, thus, escape from the conflict. The net effect may well be good for both the organization and the person.

There is also the individual who reacts to conflict by avoidance. He may choose to be a lamb who hides his needs and saves them for an opportune time when he has a definite advantage over his opponent. He may choose the silent treatment with the idea that it takes two to fight. The opposite is the individual who chooses to meet conflict head on. The lamb-like approach is thought to be the more dangerous. All too often, in the final analysis, the lamb becomes the lion. As soon as the opponent falls or is in critical need of help, he gets pounced on and destroyed by the tension and aggression building up so long within the lamb. Thus, the lamb-like approach may in reality be the dangerous hidden bomb for the group.

A host of other forms of reaction might be described. One is resignation on the job in which the individual comes to work but with apathy, reduced loyalty, and decreased involvement. We probably all know such a person. We refer to them as retired on active duty (ROAD) and find them in the civilian as well as the government worlds. Another might be rationalization or the creation of a wall of reasons for his situation, none of which assigns any responsibility to him. Scapegoating, projection of his feeling on others, is also common. This is seen in the blaming of others as justification for his own failures or inadequacies. This is experienced in the base level activities, for instance, when we sometimes hear the work group say, "We could have . . . if only . . . had done its job!" Yet another might be fantasizing with escape through daydreaming or mind wandering. Other forms might be aggressiveness, regression to less mature forms of behavior, or on-the-job indifference in which he literally says, "To hell with this outfit!" How many people are there, we wonder, who feel that work is just something you get paid for, not something in which you find pleasure and fulfillment? Could this be a result of conflict management?

Means to Resolve or Reduce Conflict

Basic to other considerations in dealing with conflict, it is well to note that conflict resolution requires that the parties in conflict trust each other and that the parties in conflict are capable of and willing to locate the source of the conflict. Second, a man convinced against his will is not convinced; thus, we can generally eliminate the archaic, although often-used, hammer on the head method. Putting the lid on conflict does nothing about eliminating its source.

We might, in a conflict situation, do nothing about it. What would be the results if we decided to take no action to deal with conflict that has been discovered to be bad for the organization (with deference to the proposition that not all conflict is bad)? If an individual or group remains in conflict, there will be increased tension that sooner or later will result in one striving to win and drive the loser out of the situation. Or, even worse, the losing element will become increasingly more aggressive or hostile and counterattack the element frustrating it.

At any rate, the result is likely to be dysfunctional. So, as a normal thing, the decision to do nothing is probably not the best. However, the manager on the scene must make this determination. He must understand that there are times when the decision to do nothing may be best. This can only be a decision function of the contingencies of the situation, a decision which can only be made by someone in the situation evaluating the forces and strengths involved.

An often-used method for resolving conflict is the use of superordinate goals. For example, the entire work force, taken as a whole, is something of a superordinate goal uniting conflicting groups beneath that umbrella. The manager gets the groups to see how the conflict serves to reduce productivity, thus reducing the smaller group's stake in the benefits of the major organization's success. Even though the source of conflict is not thus treated, it is an important first step because it sets the stage for compromise. This approach is similar to the common enemy approach, wherein groups in competition find unity viewing an outside group as a common enemy. This unity can hide, or make less important, conflicts within the group.

A unique method to resolve conflict is to increase interaction between conflicting groups by physically exchanging persons between conflicting groups. For example, if the gizmo unit is having difficulty dealing with the gadget unit, a temporary shifting of people between these groups could help the conflicting elements learn the other's problems and frames of reference. The result should be better communications, greater understanding, and less future conflict.

The quickest resolution is a confrontation meeting. The manager should be warned, however, that confrontation requires complete preparedness on his part. He must have the facts of the conflict situation and confidence in his self-control and his ability to use diplomacy, tact5 and problem solving. Even then, he must also accept the possibility that a confrontation may worsen, not better, the situation. Basic to his efforts to resolve or reduce the conflict is the idea of avoiding win-lose situations. Sports and other recreational activities often acquire their flavor by win-lose situations, but the same win- lose options are not always desirable in organizational functions. Far too often, in organizations, this results in suboptimization. A subelement may become so involved in winning that it loses sight of the overall mission of the larger unit it serves, and its efforts become counterproductive. Most complex organizations have reward systems based upon collaborative effort. The organization that depends upon coordinative, cooperative work may be mortally wounded if its subelements acquire win-lose attitudes which cause these suboptimizing activities. Once the stage is set by the manager, he may initiate negotiation by representatives of the conflicting groups. During this negotiation, the manager may wish to use an impartial judge or arbitrator to listen to arguments from both sides and seek to find points of possible agreement or compromise. Of course, we recognize this as the usual last resort in management-labor difficulties and severe conflict situations.

There are situations in which the manager must seek to repress conflict. This is especially true when the differences between the conflicting elements are not relevant to the organizational task. This occurs when two participating people have off-the job differences which they permit to enter the world of work. Normally, this type of conflict is bad for the organization. Often these differences are petty and self-serving, thereby causing activity in which the participants try to win to preserve the sanctity of their original stand. A significant aid to the manager in this form of conflict is a well-developed understanding of the human process of perception, the process by which we handle stimuli in accordance with our values, rules, wishes, and fears. With this understanding, the manager might be able to explain to the conflicting parties how they are misreading the situational data. He might then obtain agreement of a sort that causes the conflict to be repressed.

Means to Stimulate Conflict

All conflict is not bad. Therefore, there will be times when a manager would want conflict (of the right type), and it would be advantageous for him to know some means of stimulation. In a number of instances, he could strive to create the situations he earlier worked to eliminate. For example, he might create win-lose situations in which a form of competitiveness might be engendered. This often works in such areas as selling an idea recognizing the creation of new approaches to organizational success, etc. A means to do this is to de-emphasize the need for everyone to contribute to overall organizational success. That is, the manager begins to emphasize the accomplishments or performance of individual people, or separate units, in lieu of stressing the performance of the whole. He must be cautious, though, avoid creating a monster that becomes an even greater problem than the absence of productive conflict.

Individuals are the creative segments of society. True, the synergism of two more individuals often makes us think of organizational creativity, but it really is the individual who creates. Therefore, stimulation of creative conflict can be obtained by increasing the autonomy of individuals on their jobs. A less demanding imposed structure, granting more freedom for the individual to choose and decide for himself, usually creates an environment in which the creative nature is fanned to flame. Similarly, a decrease in supervisory overhead (a widening of the organization) can accomplish this result. Again, though, the manager must be cautious and remain in control of the situation lest it get out of hand. It is sometimes easy to forget the real goals of the organization as we get enmeshed in the thrill of innovation.

Another means of stimulation is to declarify goals. That is, redefined them in such a manner as to create questions and discussion. The cautions already stated apply, but this device can serve many useful purposes. A principal gain can be the encouragement of challenge and question for all operating segments, policies, and procedures of the organization. When people begin to question what they are doing, how they are doing it, or whythey are doing it, new ideas and approaches begin to surface. So encourage questioning and challenge the existing as a method of stimulating desired differences of thought. The "rebel," the individual who does not blindly accept what already exists, can be such a stimulant. He or she can be discomforting, but energizing, as each asks those questions that the old hands and the managers cannot readily answer with convincing logic. A planted rebel can be a stimulating device if the organizational element in which he is placed is strong enough to handle the turbulence likely to follow.

Conflict is a state of unresolved difference between two entities, human or organization. Sometimes the difference is functionally productive, as with creativity; but sometimes it is dysfunctional, as with war or sabotage or less drastic results. Conflict should not, therefore, be naturally considered either bad or good. It will be bad or good depending upon the value base of the interpreter. But conflict of some form is inevitable whenever two or more humans are in some interdependent relationship. The important aspect of conflict is how the human participants relate and respond to it. Managers must control conflict. That is, they must keep dysfunctional conflict at an acceptable level, but, also, they must learn to stimulate functionally productive conflict when it is at too low level.

Air Force Institute of Technology

Source: Russell Pierre Jr. and Jerome G. Peppers Jr.,
Public Domain Mark This work is in the Public Domain.

Last modified: Tuesday, December 7, 2021, 4:06 PM