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Diagnosing the Type and Nature of Conflict in Organizations

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Some degree of conflict or tension is inevitable in partnership work, and it is the responsibility of the leaders of the partnership as a whole or of individual working groups to address the conflict in a proactive and progressive manner. In this section we review some of the more productive methods for dealing with organizational conflict, including building a foundation of trust and viewing conflict as opportunity. 



The posting below looks at strategies for managing various types of conflict.  It is from Chapter 10, The key roles of trust and Managing conflict in the book, A GUIDE TO BUILDING EDUCATION PARTNERSHIPS, Navigating Diverse Cultural Contexts to Turn Challenge Into Promise, by Matthew T. Hora and Susan B. Millar. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883, Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 21066-2102. COPYRIGHT © 2011 BY STYLUS PUBLISHING, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. [].


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Diagnosing the Type and Nature of Conflict in Organizations



Conflicts can be diagnosed by who they effect and whether or not they are malevolent or benevolent. Owens (2001) provides a framework for diagnosing the types of conflict, each of which was evident in the UDEP partnership, and each of which we briefly describe here.

Types of Conflict

Intrapersonal conflict happens within an individual and often is characterized by a desire to pursue two incompatible goals, which can lead to indecisiveness and stress. Such stress can compound the normal stresses associated with educational work, and intrapersonal conflict is especially likely to occur in partnerships. Boundary crossers, who are necessary for partnership operations, often experience this problem in what is known as "role conflict." As boundary crossers interact with people from different groups and backgrounds, each of whom has expectations about the boundary crosser's behavior and activities, the boundary crosser is likely to experience conflicting expectations about how to fulfill his or her role. Role conflict not only is harmful to the individuals who experience it, but also to the partnership, which is affected by the stress these leaders experience.

More obvious and visible is interpersonal conflict, which takes place between two or more individuals. This type of conflict may stem from a desire to pursue divergent, incompatible goals or from incompatible personalities or communication styles. Whatever the cause, these conflicts can be debilitating, because it is often hard for participants to depersonalize a situation. In our study of the UDEP project, we discovered that two of the three top leaders had conflicts with each other, thereby inhibiting the efficacy of the entire project.

Intragroup conflict often erupts within a group or an organization. In partnerships, this commonly takes one of two forms. First, different units such as departments or subcultures within schools or universities may be in conflict. Second, conflict may emerge among representatives from different units who participate in a newly formed partnership working group. When this type of conflict emerges within a working group, do not ignore it and hope it will go away. It probably will only get worse, so give it immediate attention. Given the different and often divergent cultural environments from which most groups come, a partnership is also ripe territory for inter-group conflict. In fact, the stereotypes that some educators ascribe to their counterparts in the K-12 or higher education sector or in different disciplines make such conflict likely and, thus, important to anticipate and defuse. In other cases, different organizations may simply have divergent, incompatible goals and theories of action. This type of conflict can also occur within organizations, as different departments or administrative units develop enmity and disagreements.

Nature of Conflict

Once you've identified what type of conflict you're dealing with, you should determine whether the conflict is benevolent or malevolent. Kenneth Boulding (1962) distinguishes between malevolent hostility, which seeks to hurt the position of another individual or group with no regard for the well-being of the victim or consequences for the attacker, and benevolent hostility, which seeks to improve the position of the attacker. Owens (2001) makes a distinction between hostility and conflict: hostility is characterized by "nefarious attacks" (p. 307). Attributes of nefarious attacks include (1) a focus on people, not issues; (2) use of hateful language; (3) use of dogmatic statements rather than questions; (4) maintenance of fixed views regardless of new information or argument; and (5) use of emotional terms. When this kind of behavior is present, red flags should go up, as the trust you have attempted to build is at great risk. You should try to avoid or minimize malevolent or hostile types of conflict, as these can wreak havoc on a partnership.

Identifying the type and nature of conflict will help you develop and implement conflict-management strategies.

Strategies for Managing Conflict

Some degree of conflict or tension is inevitable in partnership work, and it is the responsibility of the leaders of the partnership as a whole or of individual working groups to address the conflict in a proactive and progressive manner. In this section we review some of the more productive methods for dealing with organizational conflict, including building a foundation of trust and viewing conflict as opportunity.

Attempt to Restore a Modicum of Trust

If serious conflict arises, you must try to respond quickly, respectfully, and fairly. If you don't, the trust you are trying to foster might be damaged permanently. Make clear that behavior that disparages, thoughtlessly or arrogantly overrides, or marginalizes group members is not acceptable. If you are identified, through partner membership or disciplinary affiliation, with one of the people involved in the conflict, be sure to put aside your own ego and agenda. Everyone in the group will pay attention to whether you can do this and whether you can guide the group proactively through the conflict. In short, act to create an environment in which all participants feel that their expertise is respected and their contributions are needed.

View Conflict as Opportunity

The most effective overall conflict-management strategy is to view conflict as opportunity. Achieving success is less about whether disagreements occur than it is about how they are managed. An organization or a partnership that can deal effectively with conflict can learn from it. Conflict and disruption also serve a positive purpose by providing partnerships with opportunities for creative abrasion, collective problem solving, and the generation of renewed organizational and individual relations. As Tushnet (1993) says, "Successful partnerships acknowledge and confront problems, using them as the opportunity to build relationships among partners" (p. xi). If at all possible, try to view problems as stimulating challenges, as opportunities to reexamine policies and reconsider the direction of a partnership activity or the partnership's global goals. Successful partnerships are organizations that learn from mistakes, are open to change, and respond proactively to challenges and conflicts (Senge, 1994). You can learn from mistakes, and you need to be open to change. Consider each conflict to be an opportunity to reflect on your conflict-management processes.

Another way to implement the conflict-as-opportunity strategy is to design your partnership as a problem-finding organization that continually seeks to identify problems and address them head-on before they can wreak havoc. This task will be easier if a formative evaluation system has been established within the partnership, so that problems on the ground can be identified quickly and communicated to the leadership. Such a diagnostic assessment system should be established at the outset of a partnership.

Use Leadership Techniques

Leaders can address conflicts and disruptions by changing the composition of groups. This may entail reassigning staff whose presence is disruptive or who are not being team players. Jim Collins (2001) made this a key principle in his book Good to Great, in which he called for ensuring that leaders "get the right people on the bus" (p. 41).

In cases where there is known tension or outright hostility between groups, one technique is for one group member to establish a friendly one-on-one relationship with a member of the other group. In our study, an education faculty member recognized the depth of the hostility between her department and the math department and made a concerted effort to establish a working relationship with one of the pricklier faculty members. She invited him to observe her classes, asked for his opinion, and held private discussions with him, thereby developing the trust necessary to discuss what she viewed as his misconceptions. In fact, her commitment to building a relationship enabled them to trust each other enough to collaborate on teaching a course. Finally, given the strong points of view and emotions at play in partnerships, it can be easy to take differences of opinion personally and allow conversation to devolve into acrimony. Try to see all disagreements as professional, not personal.

Use Procedural Techniques

Various procedures and techniques are available for dealing with conflict in partnerships. Some of these may involve legal affairs offices or other official venues within partner organizations, but others can be used by partnership leaders on their own.

Keep Formal and Informal Lines of Communication Open

Conflicts cannot be identified or resolved without consistent, open communication. Shutting down in the face of disagreement or avoiding a problem completely will only allow the conflict to become harmful to the partnership. Put in place procedures that ensure that the right people arc communicating frequently enough and in effective ways-such as face-to-face-in both well-designed formal meetings and in less-formal settings. If people are talking behind other people's backs, your contact architecture needs improvement.

Establish Administrative Structures for Handling Conflict

The 3rd space of partnerships does not come with a human resources department to which you can direct your concerns or grievances. Because most partnerships lack a clear chain of command and have murkier roles and responsibilities, it is more difficult to find the "right" person to handle a given conflict than it is in established organizations. Distinguish your partnership from most others by establishing adequate structures and procedures for handling conflict. In UDEP, there was no such structure. The lack of structure, coupled with unclear leadership and roles, led to situations in which neutral individuals became bogged down in other participants' disagreements.

Enlist Mediators

As a last resort, you should consider enlisting third-party mediators, who may succeed in helping conflicting parties find a common ground and an acceptable resolution to a dispute. A mediator should not be a member of one of the groups involved in the conflict. Furthermore, all parties must be open to mediation and realize that it is necessary for the group to progress. Thus, some conflict is often necessary before mediation is viewed as an option.

Separate When Necessary

In some cases, it will be in the best interests of all partners to dissolve the partnership before it has run its intended course. The cause may be an egregious violation such as financial impropriety, or partners simply might decide that the costs outweigh the benefits. Collaboration makes sense only as long as the partners can satisfy one another's differing interests without hurting themselves. As Lee Teitel (1998) observed about professional-development partnerships, breakdowns and reconfigurations of partnerships are common, and in some cases partners may find it necessary to divorce themselves completely from the arrangement. The decision to separate is typically not sudden, and in the case we observed, the separation process was protracted and painful.

How do you avoid getting to the point in a partnership when separation is the only reasonable option? The first step is to use the pre-partnership planning process we describe in part one. In the case of the rift between two of the UDEP partners, the lack of an honest, in-depth, getting-to-know-you period meant that seeds of conflict probably were present from the start and were never weeded out. As one of UDEP's key leaders said, "We would never have partnered had we known how incompatible we were on all levels, how different our theories of action were." The second step, once in a partnership, is to use the good practices described in this chapter and elsewhere in this book.