Organizational Conflict: A Literature Review Critical Thinking Examples
Organizational conflict is one major area of organizational communication. To better understand conflict in organizations, organizational conflict is explored from five perspectives namely, scope, management style, cross-cultural, masculine-feminine perspectives and resources. The scope perspective approaches conflict based on interpersonal, intra- and intergroup relations. The management style perspective approaches conflict from conflict management strategies: integrative, dominating, obliging, avoiding and compromising. The cross-cultural perspective approaches conflict based on cultural differences which inform conflict relations. The masculine-feminine perspective approaches conflict based on gender role contribution to organizational conflict. The resource perspective approaches conflict based on a sharing resources for collaborative, as opposed to, competing purposes. Given existing literature, all five perspectives are critiqued. A set of recommendation are made to help fill in gaps in existing literature.
Organizations are structured differently in order to perform functions stated publicly in mission statements. As organizations mature and establish a corporate identity adopted by staff and handled by affiliates, differences emerge. Accordingly, organizational reviews are performed to correct path or change course altogether. Predictably enough, organizations respond differently as per specific corporate structure. Given organizations difference in structural make-up, difference management becomes an issue which, if approached effectively, would, according to current understanding of difference management, lead to more satisfactory interpersonal and inter-group relations and, ultimately, to enhanced organizational performance. These differences are commonly referred to in literature as "conflicts" and styles to resolve conflicts as "conflict management strategies". Thus, organizational conflict emerges, in literature, as a concept of organizational significance, not least because of presumed consequences which result from effective organizational conflict management. If anything, a growing body of organizational research discusses organizational conflicts as dilemmas managers and subordinates alike strive to resolve to arrive at a state of organizational equilibrium, so to speak, in which work relationships are not strained and might, if not managed properly, impact negatively on overall organizational performance and not least efficacy (Gross, & Guerrero, 2000; Meyer, 2004). Further, organizational conflict is discussed, in literature, from multiple perspectives, each approaching conflict in organizations from a focused interest in organizational work relations and/or consequences. This paper aims, hence, to explore a number of perspectives investigated in organizational conflict literature.
The paper, first, explores perspectives from which organizational conflict is investigated in literature, namely scope, management style, cross-cultural, masculine-feminine perspectives and resources. Next, an overall critique is provided for explored perspectives. Finally, a set of recommendations and possible research questions for future consideration as a means to help close gaps in literature and instigate further research.
One perspective on organizational conflict is of scope analysis. That is, organizational conflict is approached based on interpersonal, intra-group, or intergroup relationship (Rahim, 2002). This approach adopts a broad and common understanding of organizational conflict as an "issue" in business functioning which requires adequate diagnosis for effective management. As such, conflict management is approached as a problem which, if anything, requires at least containment, if not effective management and, ultimately, eradication. At an interpersonal scope of analysis, organizational conflict is approached as a communication problem between individuals at different organizational levels. One most common interpretation, in literature, of interpersonal organizational conflict is conflict of interest. That is, in performing business functions organizational resources are, often, shared and hence prioritization. Predictably, organizational resources become, not a knowledge pool and a valuable asset for common good, but a liability which, when exposed to conflicting interests, become a source of and a reason for business risk and loss as competing individuals, each in a group representing a rival jurisdiction, and groups, each aligned based on shared interests, negotiate – in a strained way – resource use and appropriation. Notably, interpersonal conflicts usually evolve into intra-group as well as intergroup conflicts or vice versa. That is, conflicting groups which compete, collectively, for resources and hence corporate power, often, intentionally or not, result in interpersonal conflicts which, again, further ignite intra- and intergroup conflicts. Consequently, overall organizational ecosystem becomes one not of collaboration and integration but of negative competition, resource waste and, ultimately, if continued to escalate, business disintegration, fragmentation and collapse. Yet, for all resource significance, an organizations' staff does not compete only over resources, material or non-material, but also over communication patterns and organizational behaviors. That is, by adopting a communication pattern as a universal one for all, controlling group becomes able to guide organizational behavior and hence dominate organizational power discourse. After all, organizational conflict from a scope analysis perspective is one of power spheres in organizational structures in small and big enterprises.
A second approach discusses organizational conflict as per styles – or strategies – adopted by individuals or groups to manage conflict. In a conflict management view, conflicts in organizations could be managed by integrative, dominating, obliging, avoiding and compromising strategies (Gross, & Guerrero). In a simulation-based model, dominating style has come to be perceived as inappropriate for conflict resolution, obliging style perceived as neutral, avoiding style as ineffective and inappropriate and compromising style as relatively neutral. Different styles are used differentially by conflicting individuals and/or groups to manage or resolve conflict situations. The organizational conflict management style approach is, in fact, a very common one in literature. If viewed as a source for organizational instability, organizational conflict becomes a business risk which needs, again, to be contained. Thus, adequate strategies are explored for effective management and more adequate organizational control. By weighing an approach's effectiveness in conflict management, collaboration – i.e. integrative approach – becomes one most adequate strategy – as opposed to competition – e.g. dominating strategy – which should be adopted not only to resolve conflict but also to lead to effective performance (Alper, Tjosvold & Law, 2006). Consequently, conflict management is, after all, an organizational dilemma which could be managed by different approaches whose share in success might vary from one enterprise to another depending, among different factors, on overall organizational makeup, interpersonal, intra- and intergroup relations as well as dynamics of individual and group relations.
A third perspective approaches organizational conflict from a cross-cultural point of view. In a study conducted on a group of Japanese employees, organizational conflict is explored for resolution and management strategies (Ohbuchi, Suzuki & Hayashi, 2004). The Japanese employees, study shows, feel justice when conflicts are resolved in group-oriented manner. Predictably, Japanese workers act in study as per a cultural characteristic, i.e. collectivism, which favors group action as opposed to individual action. Interestingly, cross-cultural communication is one significant feature of current enterprises, small and big, in which culturally diverse encounters are often not only a source of interpersonal miscommunication but also organizational conflict. Further, as enterprises, small and big, continue to hire staff of diverse cultural backgrounds, cross-cultural miscommunication becomes increasingly a major source of organizational conflict, particularly in enterprises in which diversity make-up is either incompatible or mismanaged. Thus, cross-cultural miscommunication emerges as an area of organizational conflict, in literature, and one in which diversity programs are created to help close cross-cultural communication gaps. Yet, if in just mentioned case, Japanese employees respond to organizational conflict on a cultural basis of collectivism and harmony – a concept deeply rooted in Japanese culture and by which harmonious relationships are favored and maintained over conflict and competition – interesting features may require further exploration. Notably, in a context of cross-cultural encounter, is organizational conflict attributed to cultural differences alone? Or, if controlled, is organizational conflict in a cross-cultural context justified – hence require a different approach – by a completely different set of organizational influences? Still, if cross-cultural communication is factored in, how would organizational conflict be justified and, accordingly, approached for management and resolution, if any? Existing body of literature seems, surprisingly, unable to offer deeper – or adequate – insights into conflict in organizations, when cross-cultural communication is factored in, from a decidedly organizational perspective.
A fourth perspective approaches organizational from a feminine-masculine point of view. As noted, different organizational conflict management styles are investigated in literature. Investigated primarily from an organizational and/or structural perspective, a different line of research body investigates organizational conflict from a masculine-feminine perspective. That is, in an interesting study organizational conflict is discussed based on gender role along a femininity-masculinity continuum (Brewer, Mitchell & Weber, 2002). Interestingly, masculine individuals are shown to exhibit inclinations for a dominating conflict management style as opposed to feminine individuals who are shown to exhibit an avoiding conflict management style. Predictably, masculine individuals confirm a typical masculine behavior which shows a similar dominating – i.e. completion-based – management behavior as opposed to an avoiding – i.e. reconciling – management behavior for females. This insight raises questions as to how far gender factors in as a decisive factor in organizational conflict or reconciliation. If anything, perceptions of gender roles in organizational management remain a controversial area of research. True, gender role is investigated for organizational conflict. However, deeper insights are required. Indeed, a series of legitimate research questions flow from gender role in organizational conflict: If gender difference is controlled for, is organizational conflict attributable only to gender differences? Or, if gender differences are factored in, is organizational conflict a result of both gender differences and a set of different organizational influences? To what extent are gender differences social constructs sustained at workplace and, if anything, are gender differences of any organizational value if "masculine ways" are adopted by feminine business leaders? Until existing body of research explores gender differences as a source of organizational conflict, adopted conflict management styles cannot, given current research body investigations alone, justify gender roles as a basic source for organizational conflict. Accordingly, gender role has to be further investigated, mainly, as a possible source of organizational conflict.
A fifth perspective approaches organizational conflict from a resource point view. By adopting an opposing view, a body of research shows conflict could be beneficial – rather than harmful – to organizational robustness and workgroup effective management (Bodtker & Jameson, 2001). Further, contrary to conventional perspective, resource allocation point can be a source of organizational enhanced performance rather than a source of conflict (Laslo & Goldberg, 2008). In a multi-project matrix organizational make-up, workgroups are inclined to collaborate rather than to compete. Thus, resources are shared and recycled in an organizational make-up which is decidedly flat and promotes collaboration patterns. Yet again, organizational make-up does not guarantee, alone, organizational harmony. After all, workgroup management remains a fundamental component of enterprises. In a conflict situation or not, organizational dynamics are influenced by a broad array of factors which, given current global practices, require careful approach in order to dissect adequately. As in above discussed perspectives, a series of legitimate research questions emerge and are worthy of consideration: how far is organizational set-up influential in individual or group conflict? If organizational set-up is controlled for, how far different organizational components and processes impact on interpersonal and group dynamics? If, however, organizational set-up is factored in, how does organizational make-up influence conflict, if any, in association with different organizational factors? Again, deeper insights could be derived from confirmation research conducted, mainly, for organizational make-up influence on conflict in organizations.
Overall, existing literature body approaches conflict in organizations from five main perspectives namely, scope, management style, cross-cultural, masculine-feminine perspectives and resources. Each perspective investigates organizational conflict from a point of view which, given current investigations, implies gaps which require further development.
The scope-based approach considers for interpersonal, intra- and intergroup relationships. Conflict management is investigated as an organizational dilemma which besets enterprises. More specifically, conflict is dissected and investigated for possible management strategies. Yet, surprisingly, conflict has not been defined per se conceptually. That is, what is conflict, after all? In a situation or state of affairs, what might be counted as a conflict and what might not? Does conflict, as is apparently implied in literature, refer to competing interests in a specific organizational make-up? Or what might conflict refer, if anything, to in addition? This fundamental question of conceptual confusion is not uncommon in serious academic endeavors. Indeed, conflict might remain a fuzzy concept for which investigations and conclusions are made. Yet, a broad understanding of conflict should be established such as to accommodate as much as possible interpretations.
Similarly, in a second approach organizational conflict is investigated in literature for management style. In addition to a conceptual confusion in such a case – of managing a state of affairs not clearly defined – legitimate questions remain to be answered about management styles of organizational conflict: what decides, after all, best management style of conflict in a specific organizational make-up? Put differently, what combinations of organizational processes and make-ups which, upon adequate identification, call for a specific management style rather than another? Given current body of literature, management styles are exposed but are not, surprisingly, explored for specific organizational make-ups. Accordingly, deeper insights are required from a management style focused research in order to fill in gaps of organizational make-up.
For a cross-cultural point of view of organizational conflict, cultural differences are investigated. However, as in different perspectives, cross-cultural situations are not, investigated, solely, as main sources of organizational conflict. Indeed, quick references are made to cross-cultural difference, not as a possible organizational conflict source, but as a variable which is decisively factored in to account for organizational conflict. Therefore, cross-cultural encounters should be further investigated for possible, direct organizational conflict effects.
The feminine-masculine perspective is another approach to organizational conflict which requires further insights. By factoring in femininity – masculinity in organizational conflict investigation, existing body of literature explores which organizational conflict management styles are adopted based on gender roles. Yet again, gender role is not controlled for as a decisive organizational conflict source. Instead, existing research body only explicates gender role preferences for conflict management styles, dismissing, intentionally or not, femininity – masculinity is a major source of organizational conflict. In a fashion similar to above mentioned approaches, gender role needs to be investigated, mainly, for organizational conflict. By questioning gender role in specific organizational make-ups, deeper insights could be gained on how gender role impacts – positively or not – organizational conflict.
Paradoxically, a resource approach to organizational conflict could justify collaboration not completion. By sharing resources in multi-project matrix organizational make-ups, individuals and groups engage in collaborative relationships as opposed to competition. A major gap in a resource approach to organizational conflict is lack of reference to specific make-ups in which resources are shared. Put differently, no detailed discussion is offered about how a specific organizational structure contributes to organizational conflict or lack thereof. Again, further correlations should be established between organizational set-up and resources.
In conclusion, organizational conflict has been explored from five perspectives: scope, management style, cross-cultural, masculine-feminine perspectives and resources. In a scope perspective, interpersonal as well as intra- and intergroup relations are discussed in a context of organizational conflict. In a management style, five organizational management strategies are explored, namely, integrative, dominating, obliging, avoiding and compromising strategies. In a cross-cultural perspective, cultural influence is discussed for organizational conflict resolution. For a masculine-feminine approach, gender role is discussed as per adopted organizational conflict style. For a resource perspective, multi-project, matrix organizational make-up is discussed as a possible option for organizational conflict management and resolution. The five perspectives are, next, critiqued. Investigated in literature, all five perspectives are not explored, mainly, as potential sources of organizational conflict. Accordingly, further research is recommended for deeper insights into organizational make-up dynamics, gender role, resource allocation, management style as well as workgroup relations as potential sources of organizational conflict or not.
More broadly, organizational conflict is a rich area of research. Therefore, deeper correlative studies are required for better understanding of organizational processes and make-ups which contribute to specific organizational conflicts. Interestingly as well, conflict remains a largely undecided concept, which requires further exploration in order to establish a generally acceptable meaning of what constitutes conflict in an organizational make-up. Interestingly, given current literature, workgroup relations, in one context of organizational make-up, are perceived as conflicting. In a different, multi-project, matrix organizational make-up, relationships are viewed as collaborative – against a common understanding of shared resources as potential sources of conflict between conflicting workgroups. That is why significance of organizational make-up dynamics cannot be overemphasized. By understanding dynamics of organizational processes and make-ups in deeper detail, potentials of apparently organizational conflict could be better explored and dissected. Finally, until conflict is adequately placed within a broader, correlative framework of organizational discussion, contestation will continue to dominate how conflict is approached in organizational settings.
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Bodtker, M. A., & Jameson, K. J. (2001). Emotion in Conflict Formation and Its Transformation: Application to Organizational Conflict Management. International Journal of Conflict Management, 12(3), 259 – 275. Emerald Insight. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/eb022858
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