What is workplace conflict?

Organisations are described as possessing a “multi-level nature”, this explains how organizations are composed of interconnected layers; where individuals are based within groups; groups within organisations. These layers interconnect and result in interdependence top-down and bottom-up influences. Top-down – organisations and groups influencing individual behaviours, and bottom-up – behaviours of individuals influencing groups and organizations (Lopes Costa et al., 2013). Conflict occurs at the group level in the multi-level structure of an organization. Conflict is defined as “a process that begins when one party perceives another party has or is about to negatively affect something the first party cares about” (Robbins & Judge, 2013, p.g 480). The definition is vague to cover all forms of conflict such as differences in goals and perspective.

There are two main views on conflict which are the traditional view of conflict and the interactionist view on conflict. The first view was in line with attitudes of society at the time (the 1930s), where conflict was viewed as a negative outcome that caused communication problems and hostility in teams. This view implies all conflict is negative by focusing on the traits of those causing conflict. This view is not widely accepted by many researchers because conflict cannot be avoided. The latter view suggests conflict is vital for successful teamwork, this view has contributed to explaining the benefits of conflict (Robbins & Judge, 2013).

The interactionist view does not believe all conflict is positive. But can be better explained by considering functional conflict and dysfunctional conflict. Functional conflict is constructive, this type of conflict is related to the objectives of the group and increases performance. However, dysfunctional conflict reduces team performance. Functional conflict and dysfunctional conflict can be distinguished by identifying the type of conflict occurring. For instance, task conflict (objectives of work), relationship conflict (relationships between colleagues) and process conflict (how the work is completed) (Robbins & Judge, 2013).

The conflict process is comprised of 5 main stages. Stage 1- potential opposition (sources of conflict identified e.g. communication, structure, and personal variables. Stage 2 – cognition and personalization- assumptions on whether conflict exists are clarified. Stage 3- Intentions (responses based on intentions i.e competing, collaboration, avoiding, accommodating, and comprising). Stage 4- behaviour (words and actions made by the parties in the conflict displaying their intentions, conflicts are evident). Stage 5- outcomes (conflict outcomes can be both positive and negative) (Robbins & Judge, 2013).

Furthermore, there are functional outcomes (improved group performance) with conflicts such as better decision making and breeding innovative ideas. Research suggests conflict results in better decision making because ideas are scrutinized more (Jehn, 1994). Also, conflict breeds innovative ideas, for instance, heterogenous groups where members have a variety of interests bring a different perspective to the team. This results in more unique solutions to multiple problems (Hoffman (1959). Similarly, IBM hires diverse employees because of the breadth of skills, experience, and knowledge they have, and this has resulted in IBM’s increased performance (Robbins & Judge, 2013). As well as, a study was conducted and investigated decision making within two groups – one group with all Caucasian members and the second group Asian, Hispanic, and Black Ethnic groups. The results of the study showed the ethnic diverse group developed more innovative ideas (Robbins & Judge, 2013). This implies conflict has a positive outcome because through challenging each members’ ideas, this results in increased levels of creativity and decision making.  But not all conflict is positive.

Negative outcomes of workplace conflict include job loss, decreased in team performance, stress and time wasted. Workplace conflict can reduce group effectiveness and result in a loss of jobs. For example, a well-known law firm, Shea & Gould closed their offices because 80 partners were unable to work together (Robbins & Judge, 2013). This shows the detrimental impact that conflict can have, to the extent where a company must shut down, this results in employees losing their jobs. Similarly, Farh et al (2010) carried out a study in China, the results showed moderate levels of task conflict resulted in more creativity within groups, however when task conflict levels were high team performance decreased. Also, Conflicts result in stress, consequently making people narrow-minded and competitive (Penny & Spector, 2005).  Other outcomes include high rates of relationship conflict and task conflict relating to low team performance and team member satisfaction. Managers waste time resolving personality conflict amongst colleagues, research has shown 18% of the time is wasted on this matter (Robbins & Judge, 2013).

In summary, conflict has both a positive and negative impact on workplace outcomes. Positive impacts such as effective decision making and innovative ideas, and negative impacts such as short-lived teams and reduced team effectiveness. Groups that resolve conflict often have positive workplace outcomes, whereas groups where conflict is not vocalized and not dealt with often result in such negative outcomes.

An alternative perspective is there are cultural differences in how conflict is approached, perhaps effecting whether conflict results in negative or positive outcomes. For instance, collectivistic cultures associate individuals with teams and social settings, whereas individualistic cultures see individuals as a separate entity. Consequently, collectivistic cultures aim to maintain relationships and group unity, they prefer indirect ways of dealing with conflict. However, individualistic cultures tend to confront. This is consistent with literature, where U.S managers use confrontational methods to deal with conflict, whereas Chinese managers would display avoidant behaviours (Gelfand et al., 2002). This suggests whether the outcome of conflict is positive or negative stems from culture.


Costa, P. L., Graça, A. M., Marques-Quinteiro, P., Santos, C. M., Caetano, A., & Passos, A.     M. (2013). Multilevel research in the field of organizational behavior: An empirical look at 10 years of theory and research. Sage Open3(3), 2158244013498244.

Farh, J.-L., Lee, C., & Farh, C. I. C. (2010). Task conflict and team creativity: A question of how much and when. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 1173–1180. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0020015

Gelfand, M. J., Higgins, M., Nishii, L. H., Raver, J. L., Dominguez, A., Murakami, F., Yamaguchi, S., & Toyama, M. (2002). Culture and egocentric perceptions of fairness in conflict and negotiation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(5), 833–845. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.87.5.833

Hoffman, L. R. (1959). Homogeneity of member personality and its effect on group problem-solving. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(1), 27–32. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0043499

Jehn, K.A. (1994), Enhancing Effectiveness: An Investigation of Advantages and Disadvantages of Value-based Intra-group Conflict International Journal of Conflict Management, Vol. 5 No. 3, pp. 223-238. https://doi.org/10.1108/eb022744

Penney, L. M., & Spector, P. E. (2005). Job stress, incivility, and counterproductive work behaviour (CWB): The moderating role of negative affectivity. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(7), 777–796. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.336

Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2013). Organizational Behaviour. (Chapter on conflict and negotiation).

Shaw, J. D., Zhu, J., Duffy, M. K., Scott, K. L., Shih, H.-A., & Susanto, E. (2011). A contingency model of conflict and team effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(2), 391–400. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021340

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