Levels of Conflict
In addition to different views of conflict, there exist several different levels of conflict. By level of conflict, we are referring to the number of individuals involved in the conflict. That is, is the conflict within just one person, between two people, between two or more groups, or between two or more organizations? Both the causes of a conflict and the most effective means to resolve it can be affected by level. Four levels can be identified: within an individual (intrapersonal conflict), between two parties (interpersonal conflict), between groups (intergroup conflict), and between organizations (interorganizational conflict).
Intrapersonal conflict arises within a person. In the workplace, this is often the result of competing motivations or roles. We often hear about someone who has an approach-avoidance conflict; that is, they are both attracted to and repelled by the same object. Similarly, a person can be attracted to two equally appealing alternatives, such as two good job offers (approach-approach conflict) or repelled by two equally unpleasant alternatives, such as the threat of being fired if one fails to identify a coworker guilty of breaking company rules (avoidance-avoidance conflict). Intrapersonal conflict can arise because of differences in roles.
A role conflict occurs when there are competing demands on our time, energy, and other resources. For example, a conflict may arise if you’re the head of one team but also a member of another team. We can also have conflict between our roles at work and those roles that we hold in our personal lives.
Another type of intrapersonal conflict involves role ambiguity. Perhaps you’ve been given the task of finding a trainer for a company’s business writing training program. You may feel unsure about what kind of person to hire—a well-known but expensive trainer or a local, unknown but low-priced trainer. If you haven’t been given guidelines about what’s expected, you may be wrestling with several options.
Interpersonal conflict is among individuals such as coworkers, a manager and an employee, or CEOs and their staff. Many companies suffer because of interpersonal conflicts as it results in loss of productivity and employee turnover. According to one estimate, 31.9 percent of CEOs resigned from their jobs because they had conflict with the board of directors (Whitehouse, 2008). Such conflicts often tend to get highly personal because only two parties are involved and each person embodies the opposing position in the conflict. Hence, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the opponent’s position and the person. Keeping conflicts centered around ideas rather than individual differences is important in avoiding a conflict escalation. Throughout the book, we will learn more about strategies for dealing with interpersonal conflicts.
Intergroup conflict is conflict that takes place among different groups and often involves disagreement over goals, values, or resources. Types of groups may include different departments, employee unions, or management in a company or competing companies that supply the same customers. Departments may conflict over budget allocations, unions and management may disagree over work rules, and suppliers may conflict with each other on the quality of parts.
Merging two groups together can lead to friction between the groups—especially if there are scarce resources to be divided among the group. For example, in what has been called “the most difficult and hard-fought labor issue in an airline merger,” Canadian Air and Air Canada pilots were locked into years of personal and legal conflict when the two airlines’ seniority lists were combined following the merger (Stoykewch, 2003). Seniority is a valuable and scarce resource for pilots, because it helps to determine who flies the newest and biggest planes, who receives the best flight routes, and who is paid the most. In response to the loss of seniority, former Canadian Air pilots picketed at shareholder meetings, threatened to call in sick, and had ongoing conflicts with pilots from Air Canada. The history of past conflicts among organizations and employees makes new deals challenging. Intergroup conflict can be the most complicated form of conflict because of the number of individuals involved. Coalitions can form and result in an “us-against-them” mentality. Here, too, is an opportunity for groups to form insulated ways of thinking and problems solving, thus allowing groupthink to develop and thrive.
Finally, we can see interorganizational conflict in disputes between two companies in the same industry (for example, a disagreement between computer manufactures over computer standards), between two companies in different industries or economic sectors (for example, a conflict between real estate interests and environmentalists over land use planning), and even between two or more countries (for example, a trade dispute between the United States and Russia). In each case, both parties inevitably feel the pursuit of their goals is being frustrated by the other party.
Power Differentials in Conflict
The traditional levels of conflict (intrapersonal, interpersonal, intergroup, and intraorganizational) all represent potentially and/or relatively equal entities in terms of power and status. This model can be useful in naming and understanding some common levels of conflict. However, it does not fully capture the complexity, nuance, and power dynamics of some workplace conflict situations. For instance, what happens where there is a conflict between individuals and/or other entities (e.g. organizations) who differ in power, status, and/or authority?
Gladwell (2013) discusses the classic example of conflict despite unequal power differentials in David and Goliath. Nonetheless, conflict—including bullying, harassment, and violence—can be present within the typical hierarchical structures present in most workplaces. For example, conflict can occur between supervisor and subordinate (see section 9.3 on Problem Bosses). This poses unique challenges given the varying degrees of authority and power. Indeed, as Ahmed (2021) puts it, “hierarchies can make handling harassment hard, which is how hierarchies enable harassment” (p. 120).
Types of Conflict
If we are to try to understand conflict, we need to know what type of conflict is present. At least four types of conflict can be identified:
- Goal conflict can occur when one person or group desires a different outcome than others do. This is simply a clash over whose goals are going to be pursued.
- Cognitive conflict can result when one person or group holds ideas or opinions that are inconsistent with those of others. Often cognitive conflicts are rooted in differences in attitudes, beliefs, values, and worldviews, and ideas maybe tied to deeply held culture, politics, and religion. This type of conflict emerges when one person’s or group’s feelings or emotions (attitudes) are incompatible with those of others.
- Affective conflict is seen in situations where two individuals simply don’t get along with each other.
- Behavioral conflict exists when one person or group does something (i.e., behaves in a certain way) that is unacceptable to others. Dressing for work in a way that “offends” others and using profane language are examples of behavioral conflict.
Each of these types of conflict is usually triggered by different factors, and each can lead to very different responses by the individual or group. It is important to note that there are many types of conflict and that not all researchers use this same four-type classification. For example, Dr. Amy Gallo (2015) has characterized conflict as being rooted in relationships, tasks (what to do), process (how to do things), or status. Regardless, when we find ourselves in a conflict situation, it can be helpful to try and take a step back and identify what type of conflict it is. It can also be helpful to acknowledge that what may look like a goal conflict may actually also have components of affective or cognitive conflict.
“Conflict and Negotiations” in Organizational Behaviour by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
“Handle Conflict and Negotiation” in Human Relations by Saylor Academy is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensor.
Ahmed, S. (2021). Complaint!. Duke University Press.
Gallo, A. (2015, November 4). 4 types of conflict and how to manage them [Podcast]. In Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/podcast/2015/11/4-types-of-conflict-and-how-to-manage-them
Gladwell, M. (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. Little, Brown and Company.
Stoykewych, R. E. (2003, March 7). A note on the seniority resolutions arising out of the merger of Air Canada and Canadian Airlines [Paper presentation]. American Bar Association Midwinter Meeting, Laguna Beach, CA.
Whitehouse, K. (2008, January 14). Why CEOs need to be honest with their boards. Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), R1–R3.