What is Conflict? Source, Functional, Dysfunctional, Conflict Management

What is Conflict?

To understand the concept of conflict, let us first define the term. Following are some of the definitions of conflict as provided by different authors:

According to Chung and Meggison, “Conflict is the struggle between incompatible or opposing needs, wishes, ideas, interests, or people.” According to the conflict arises when individuals or groups encounter goals that both parties cannot attain satisfactorily.

According to Pondy, conflict has been defined as “the condition of objective incompatibility between values and goals; as the behavior of deliberately interfering with another’s goal achievement; and as emotionally in terms of hostility.”

Descriptive theorists have explained conflict behavior in terms of objective conflict of interest, personal styles, reactions to threats, and cognitive distortions. Therefore, conflict can be defined as friction, which results from perceived or actual differences that exist among individuals or groups.

Conflict is perceived in many different and unique ways, three of them being the most significant. They are as follows:

Traditional View

According to this view, all types of conflicts are harmful to an organization. Therefore, conflicts should be avoided at any cost. According to this view, managers should try to suppress all types of conflicts within the organization.

Human Relations View of Conflict

In this view, conflict is a natural phenomenon. This view states that conflict is essential for success and progress in an organisation. This is because conflicts help individuals in overcoming obstacles and perform duties more effectively.

Interactionist View of Conflict

According to this view, conflict is necessary for a group to perform efficiently. This is because conflicts lead to positive results.

According to Stephen P. Robbins, “the harmonious, passive groups are prone to become stagnant and non-responsive towards the needs for change and innovation, which can be a major hindrance in the progress of the organization.”

Following are some of the main characteristics of conflict:

  • It occurs when two or more individuals pursue incompatible goals.

  • In a conflict, individuals try to prevent others from attaining their goals.

  • It arises due to a dilemma within an individual to select the right course of action.

  • It occurs when there is a mismatch between the actual and expected role.

  • It arises when the goals of one individual or department clash with the goals of another individual or department.

Sources of Conflict

In an organizational setting, individuals from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and personalities integrate to form teams. These diversities give rise to numerous situations or factors that in turn give rise to conflicts.

Following are some of the major sources of conflicts in organisations:


Conflict arises because of ineffective communication or lack of communication. If the employees of an organization do not have the correct information, there may be conflict.

For example, a manager forgets to inform a team member of a meeting taking place. The team member may feel that he/she is being omitted on purpose.

Personal Variables

The personality and value systems of different employees are diverse. This diversity in individuals leads to conflicts. For example, an outspoken individual may appear rude to his/her colleagues.

Unrealistic Expectations

It refers to the impractical expectations that management bears from employees. Employees may feel demotivated due to unrealistic expectations. This may lead to conflict between managers and employees. For example, a manager asks a team member to complete an entire day`s task within a couple of hours.


It is a common tendency of employees to resist organizational change. Resistance to change leads to conflict. For example, the introduction of new machines in a manufacturing company leads to feelings of insecurity among the workforce regarding their jobs.


The goals of two or more individuals or departments may collide and lead to conflicts. For instance, the aim of a production department is on-time delivery, while the quality department aims at the flawlessness of the product.

Difference in Values

These indicate that people have different value systems, to which they are emotionally attached and uncompromising. In such a scenario, the values of one individual may collide with another which may lead to conflict.

For example, two salespersons are selling a product. One salesperson believes that it is acceptable to lie while persuading a customer to buy a product. However, the other only believes in using honest means.


This indicates that an extreme action of an individual, whether defensive or offensive, can be a reason for conflict. For example, on receiving negative feedback from a superior, an employee aggressively accuses his superior of bias.

Positive and Negative Aspects of Conflict

Organisational conflict arises due to differences in opinions among individuals or groups. However, the consequences of conflicts can be negative as well as positive.

Following are some of the negative consequences of conflicts:

Performance Degradation

Organizational conflict arises due to differences in opinions among individuals or groups. However, the consequences of conflicts can be negative as well as positive. Following are some of the negative consequences of conflicts:

Performance Degradation

Conflicts consume significant energy for the individuals involved as well as the organization. These lead to degradation in performance. For example, an employee who spends time arguing with a colleague is not able to deliver tasks within time.

Low Employee Retention

Conflicts create demotivation among employees. This increases employee turnover and leads to low retention. For example, employees who think they are the victims of conflicts may bear negative perceptions about the organization and try to find opportunities in other organizations.

Some of the positive consequences of conflict are as follows:

Change in Organizational Culture

Conflicts help in identifying the potential problem areas in an organization. Dealing with the problems leads to a change in organizational culture.

For example, after an employee raises an issue of bias in an HR policy, the policy is changed, benefitting all other employees.


Conflict may induce healthy competition in an organization. This helps in increasing productivity and quality. For example, competition to deliver better between two departments leads to both departments performing well.


Increasing competition due to conflicts may spur creativity among employees. For example, an employee tries to show that he/she is better than a colleague and thus forms profitable ideas for the entire team.

Functional Conflict

Gayatri and Neeraj work in an advertising company. In a brainstorming session for a client’s product, Gayatri and Neeraj both come up with good ideas. Their supervisor is unable to decide which idea is better.

He gives them a week’s time to improve further and declares that the idea that is better will be presented to the client. Gayatri and Neeraj start competing with each other aggressively, causing several conflicts between them.

A week later, however, their supervisor is still unable to decide on a better idea. Both Gayatri and Neeraj are asked to present their ideas to the client. The client is very pleased and decides to accept both ideas for separate products. This leads to double profits for the company.

The conflict between Gayatri and Neeraj is called a functional conflict. Here, two employees have different opinions regarding new ideas and they strive to generate better ideas for fulfilling organizational goals.

Functional conflicts refer to constructive conflicts that support the goals of the organization and improve its performance. Functional conflicts involve people genuinely interested in solving problems and listening to one another.

A great way to improve a team’s performance is by stimulating functional conflicts and hence generating innovative ideas. Stimulating functional conflicts involves leading team members to defend or criticize ideas on the basis of relevant facts rather than personal preferences.

The following are the two methods of stimulating functional conflicts:

Devil’s Advocacy

It involves assigning a team member the role of a critic. This person will always criticize an idea that the team may have. This helps in creating an environment of critical thinking.

However, the role of the critic should be revolved around the team, so that no particular individual develops a reputation for being negative.

Dialectic Method

It involves conducting a debate of opposite views before taking any decision. After hearing the pros and cons of different ideas, the team has greater success in making sound decisions.

Dysfunctional Conflict

In a software company, the development team, headed by Mayank, and the testing team, headed by Rohit, are always in conflict. The delivery head, Sheetal, has been encouraging this functional conflict.

However, after some time, some members of the development team start picking fights with members of the testing team. The fights disrupt work, spread rumors, and lead to a few resignations.

In the scenario, a functional conflict has turned into a dysfunctional conflict. A dysfunctional conflict consists of various disputes and disagreements that hinder the performance of the company.

It involves people unwilling to work for a common goal and solve a particular problem. In the workplace, there are various methods of dealing with dysfunctional conflicts.

Some of these methods are as follows:


This method is also known as the problem-solving method. It involves encouraging opposing parties to face the issue collectively, generate a solution, and select the most appropriate action. Various misunderstandings can be resolved with the help of this method.

For example, in the scenario, Sheetal calls a meeting of both teams in which both teams realize that they were fighting over a non-issue or a misunderstanding.


In this approach, a party neglects its own concern to satisfy the concern of the opposing party. It emphasizes commonalities and plays down differences.

For example, in the scenario, Mayank’s team realizes that the conflict has gone too far, and they agree to apologize to Rohit’s team.


People with an I-win-you-lose mentality follow this approach. It involves relying upon formal authority to force compliance. It is also used when unpopular but necessary solutions need to be implemented.

For example, suppose conflict between the joint project managers of a project is hampering the project. In such cases, General Manager needs to get involved and make one of the project managers accept the position of the other.

Conflict Resolution and Management

Conflict plays both functional and dysfunctional roles, depending upon the impact it has on the performance of employees. In case a conflict improves performance, it needs to be stimulated.

However, if a conflict hampers performance, it needs to be controlled and resolved. A conflict has to be resolved especially when it reaches the optimal level. Figure 10.3 shows some of the conflict resolution techniques:

The following points explain the techniques of conflict resolution:


This is a direct approach to resolving conflict in which the source of the conflict is removed. In this approach, the main cause of the conflict is identified and removed to resolve the conflict.

For instance, a conflict may arise between the employees and the management regarding compensation. The management resolves the conflict by increasing the compensation.

Super-ordinate Goals

When various parties work for the fulfillment of the same goals, there is less chance of conflict. Therefore, management should set super-ordinate goals to eliminate conflicts.

For example, the super-ordinate goals in a project can be delivering a specific set of project deliverables within a given time. This may help in reducing conflict in a team regarding personal goals.

Increasing Resources

At times, a lack of resources can be a cause for conflict. In such cases, increasing the availability of resources can help in removing conflicts.

For example, conflict may arise in a project because of the allocation of fewer resources than required. In such cases, conflict can be avoided by deploying more resources.


It is an indirect approach to resolving conflicts. In this approach, the cause of conflict is avoided. For example, two mutually incompatible individuals may be asked to work in separate groups to avoid any circumstance of face-off.


This refers to a technique in which both the conflicting parties are required to give up their personal motives and think collectively to resolve a conflict.

Authoritative Command

Indicates that by the use of formal authority, managers can resolve the conflict. For example, a manager warns two conflicting team members that if they do not resolve their interpersonal problems, action will be taken against them.

Altering the Human Variable

It involves various techniques, such as training to change human behavior or attitude to deal with conflict in a better manner. On the other hand, the individual involved in the conflict can be transferred to another place to help resolve the conflict.

For example, a team member who does not approve of a manager is transferred to another manager’s team.

Encouraging Functional Conflict for Organisational Effectiveness

Earlier we discussed that functional conflicts are beneficial for an organization. These types of conflicts can bring positive outcomes by improving the performance of employees. Therefore, an organization needs to stimulate these types of conflicts to promote healthy competition and increased creativity.

There are a number of techniques for stimulating functional conflicts as depicted in Figure :

The following points explain the conflict resolution techniques:

Bringing in Outsiders

This means that a manager can stimulate conflict by including an employee whose working style, personality, and way of thinking are different from existing employees.

Restructuring the Group

It refers to reshuffling between two or more groups to exchange their members. In such a case, all the concerned groups would have a combination of some old and some new members. The new members will bring new, creative, and useful ideas along with them. Their ideas may be different from the ideas of older members, which may create conflict in the group.

Appointing the Devil’s Advocate

This refers to an act of appointing a manager, who can initiate arguments and oppose the already set ideas to induce conflict in the organization. Such a person helps in bringing the attention of other members to certain conflicting points that can later be resolved.


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