Conflict management

Conflict management

Conflict management involves implementing strategies to limit the negative aspects of conflict and to increase the positive aspects of conflict at a level equal to or higher than where the conflict is taking place. Furthermore, the aim of conflict management is to enhance learning and group outcomes (effectiveness or performance in organizational setting) (Rahim, 2002, p. 208). It is not concerned with eliminating all conflict or avoiding conflict. Conflict can be valuable to groups and organizations. It has been shown to increase group outcomes when managed properly (e.g. Alper, Tjosvold, & Law, 2000; Bodtker & Jameson, 2001; Rahim & Bonoma, 1979; Khun & Poole, 2000; DeChurch & Marks, 2001).

Rahim, M. A. (2002) Toward a theory of managing organizational conflict. The International Journal of Conflict Management, 13, 206-235.




While no single definition of conflict exists, most definitions seem to involve the following factors: that there are at least two independent groups, the groups perceive some incompatibility between themselves, and the groups interact with each other in some way (Putnam and Poole, 1987). Two example definitions are, “process in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another party" (Wall & Callister, 1995, p. 517), and “the interactive process manifested in incompatibility, disagreement, or dissonance within or between social entities” (Rahim, 1992, p. 16).

There are several causes of conflict. Conflict may occur when:

  • A party is required to engage in an activity that is incongruent with his or her needs or interests.
  • A party holds behavioral preferences, the satisfaction of which is incompatible with another person's implementation of his or her preferences.
  • A party wants some mutually desirable resource that is in short supply, such that the wants of all parties involved may not be satisfied fully.
  • A party possesses attitudes, values, skills, and goals that are salient in directing his or her behavior but are perceived to be exclusive of the attitudes, values, skills, and goals held by the other(s).
  • Two parties have partially exclusive behavioral preferences regarding their joint actions.
  • Two parties are interdependent in the performance of functions or activities.

(Rahim, 2002, p. 207)

Substantive Vs. Affective

The overarching hierarchy of conflict starts with a distinction between substantive (also called performance, task, issue, or active) conflict and affective (also called relationship or [the opposite of] agreeable) conflict. If one could make a distinction between good and bad conflict, substantive would be good and affective conflict would be bad. However, in a meta-analysis of the current research, De Drue and Weingart (2003) showed that these two concepts are related to each other (corrected correlation, ρ = .54).

Substantive conflict deals with disagreements among group members about the content of the tasks being performed or the performance itself (DeChurch & Marks, 2001; Jehn, 1995). This type of conflict occurs when two or more social entities disagree on the recognition and solution to a task problem, including differences in viewpoints, ideas, and opinions (Jehn, 1995; Rahim, 2002).

Affective conflict deals with interpersonal relationships or incompatibilities (Behfar, Peterson, Mannix, & Trochim, 2008). It is generated from emotions and frustration (Bodtker & Jameson, 2001), and has a detrimental impact on group or organizational outcomes (i.e. information processing ability, cognitive functioning of group members, attributions of group members' behavior, group loyalty, work group commitment, intent to stay in the present organization, and job satisfaction) (Amason, 1996; Baron, 1997; Jehn, 1995; Jehn et al., 1999; Wall & Nolan, 1986). Summarily stated, "relationship conflict interferes with task-related effort because members focus on reducing threats, increasing power, and attempting to build cohesion rather than working on tasks...The conflict causes members to be negative, irritable, suspicious, and resentful" (Jehn, 1997, pp. 531-532; c.f. Rahim, 2002, p. 210).

Thus, “[substantive] conflicts occur when group members argue over alternatives related to the group's task, whereas [affective] conflicts result over interpersonal clashes not directly related to achieving the group's function (Amason, 1996; Guetzhow & Gyr, 1954; Jehn, 1992; Pinkley, 1990; Priem & Price, 1991)” (c.f. DeChurch & Marks, 2001, p. 5).

In De Dreu and Weingart's 2003 meta-analysis, both substantive and affective conflict are negatively related to team member satisfaction (ρ = -.32; -.56, respectively). Additionally, substantive and affective conflict are negatively related to team performance (ρ = -.20; -.25, respectively). It is important to note that 20% (5 of 25) of the studies used showed a positive correlation between substantive conflict and task performance. These relationships show the severe negative impact that conflict can have on groups, and illustrate the importance of conflict management.

Organizational and Interpersonal Conflict

Organizational conflict, whether it be substantive or affective, can be divided into intraorganizational and interorganizational. Interorganizational conflict occurs between two or more organizations (Rahim, 2002). When different businesses are competing against one another, this is an example of interorganizational conflict Intraorganizational conflict is conflict within an organization, and can be examined based upon level (e.g. department, work team, individual), and can be classified as interpersonal, intragroup and intergroup. Interpersonal conflict--once again--whether it is substantive or affective, refers to conflict between two or more individuals (not representing the group they are a part of) of the same or different group at the same or different level, if in an organization. Interpersonal conflict can be divided into intragroup and intergroup conflict. While the former--intragroup--occurs between members of a group (or between subgroups within a group), the latter--intergroup--occurs between groups or units in an organization (Rahim, 2002).

Conflict Resolution Vs. Conflict Management

As the name would suggest, conflict resolution involves the reduction, elimination, or termination of all forms and types of conflict. In practice, when people talk about conflict resolution they tend to use terms like negotiation, bargaining, mediation, or arbitration.

In line with the recommendations in the "how to" section, businesses can benefit from appropriate types and levels of conflict. That is the aim of conflict management, and not the aim of conflict resolution. Conflict management does not necessarily imply conflict resolution. “Conflict management involves designing effective macro-level strategies to minimize the dysfunctions of conflict and enhancing the constructive functions of conflict in order to enhance learning and effectiveness in an organization”(Rahim, 2002, p. 208). Learning is essential for the longevity of any group. This is especially true for organizations; Organizational learning is essential for any company to remain in the market. Properly managed conflict increases learning through increasing the degree to which groups ask questions and challenge the status quo (Luthans, Rubach, & Marsnik, 1995).

Models of Conflict Management

There have been many styles of conflict management behavior that have been researched in the past century. One of the earliest, Mary Parker Follett (1926/1940) found that conflict was managed by individuals in three main ways: domination, compromise, and integration. She also found other ways of handling conflict that were employed by organizations, such as avoidance and suppression.

Early Conflict Management Models

Blake and Mouton (1964) were among the first to present a conceptual scheme for classifying the modes (styles) for handling interpersonal conflicts into five types: forcing, withdrawing, smoothing, compromising, and problem solving.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, researchers began using the intentions of the parties involved to classify the styles of conflict management that they would include in their models. Both Thomas (1976) and Pruitt (1983) put forth a model based on the concerns of the parties involved in the conflict. The combination of the parties concern for their own interests (i.e. assertiveness) and their concern for the interests of those across the table (i.e. cooperativeness) would yield a particular conflict management style. Pruitt called these styles yielding (low assertiveness/high cooperativeness), problem solving (high assertiveness/high cooperativeness), inaction (low assertiveness/low cooperativeness), and contending (high assertiveness/low cooperativeness). Pruitt argues that problem-solving is the preferred method when seeking mutually beneficial options.

Khun and Poole’s Model

Khun and Poole (2000) established a similar system of group conflict management. In their system, they split Kozan’s confrontational model into two sub models: distributive and integrative.

  • Distributive - Here conflict is approached as a distribution of a fixed amount of positive outcomes or resources, where one side will end up winning and the other losing, even if they do win some concessions.
  • Integrative - Groups utilizing the integrative model see conflict as a chance to integrate the needs and concerns of both groups and make the best outcome possible. This model has a heavier emphasis on compromise than the distributive model. Khun and Poole found that the integrative model resulted in consistently better task related outcomes than those using the distributive model.

DeChurch and Marks’s Meta-Taxonomy

DeChurch and Marks (2001) examined the literature available on conflict management at the time and established what they claimed was a "meta-taxonomy" that encompasses all other models. They argued that all other styles have inherent in them into two dimensions - activeness ("the extent to which conflict behaviors make a responsive and direct rather than inert and indirect impression") and agreeableness ("the extent to which conflict behaviors make a pleasant and relaxed rather than unpleasant and strainful impression"). High activeness is characterized by openly discussing differences of opinion while fully going after their own interest. High agreeableness is characterized by attempting to satisfy all parties involved

In the study they conducted to validate this division, activeness did not have a significant effect on the effectiveness of conflict resolution, but the agreeableness of the conflict management style, whatever it was, did in fact have a positive impact on how groups felt about the way the conflict was managed, regardless of the outcome.

“Current” Conflict Management

Rahim (2002) noted that there is agreement among management scholars that there is no one best approach to how to make decisions, lead or manage conflict. In a similar vein, rather than creating a very specific model of conflict management, Rahim created a meta-model (in much the same way that DeChurch and Marks, 2001, created a meta-taxonomy) for conflict styles based on two dimensions, concern for self and concern for others (as shown in Figure 2).

Rahim, M. A. (2002) Toward a theory of managing organizational conflict. The International Journal of Conflict Management, 13, 206-235.

Within this framework are five management approaches: integrating, obliging, dominating, avoiding, and compromising. Integration involves openness, exchanging information, looking for alternatives, and examining differences so solve the problem in a manner that is acceptable to both parties. Obliging is associated with attempting to minimize the differences and highlight the commonalities to satisfy the concern of the other party. When using the dominating style one party goes all out to win his or her objective and, as a result, often ignores the needs and expectations of the other party. When avoiding a party fails to satisfy his or her own concern as well as the concern of the other party. Lastly, compromising involves give-and-take whereby both parties give up something to make a mutually acceptable decision. (Rahim, 2002).

See the table on the right, as a quick reference for when a particular conflict management style is appropriate / inappropriate.

How to manage conflict

Overall conflict management should aim to minimize affective conflicts at all levels, attain and maintain a moderate amount of substantive conflict, and use the appropriate conflict management strategy--to effectively bring about the first two goals, and also to match the status and concerns of the two parties in conflict (Rahim, 2002).

In order for conflict management strategies to be effective, they should satisfy certain criteria. The below criteria are particularly useful for not only conflict management, but also decision making in management.

General Suggestions from Rahim's Criteria for Conflict Management (2002)

  • Organization Learning and Effectiveness- In order to attain this objective, conflict management strategies should be designed to enhance critical and innovative thinking to learn the process of diagnosis and intervention in the right problems.
  • Needs of Stakeholders- Sometimes multiple parties are involved in a conflict in an organization and the challenge of conflict management would be to involve these parties in a problem solving process that will lead to collective learning and organizational effectiveness. organizations should institutionalize the positions of employee advocate, customer and supplier advocate, as well as environmental and stockholder advocates.
  • Ethics - A wise leader must behave ethically, and to do so the leader should be open to new information and be willing to change his or her mind. By the same token subordinates and other stakeholders have an ethical duty to speak out against the decisions of supervisors when consequences of these decisions are likely to be serious. “Without an understanding of ethics, conflict cannot be handled” (Batcheldor, 2000).

Other suggestions

Do not avoid the conflict, hoping it will go away. Ask the participants to describe specific actions they would like the other party to take. It would also be beneficial to have a third party (meaning a non-direct superior with access to the situation) involved. This could be an individual member or a board dedicated to resolving and preventing issues. Lastly, do not meet separately with people in conflict. If you allow each individual to tell their story to you, you risk polarizing their positions.

International Conflict Management

Special consideration should be paid to conflict management between two parties from distinct cultures. In addition to the everyday sources of conflict, "misunderstandings, and from this counterproductive, pseudo conflicts, arise when members of one culture are unable to understand culturally determined differences in communication practices, traditions, and thought processing" (Borisoff & Victor, 1989).

Indeed, this has already been observed in the business research literature. Renner (2007) recounted several episodes where managers from developed countries moved to less developed countries to resolve conflicts within the company and met with little success due to their failure to adapt to the conflict management styles of the local culture.

As an example, in Kozan’s study noted above, he noted that Asian cultures are far more likely to use a harmony model of conflict management. If a party operating from a harmony model comes in conflict with a party using a more confrontational model, misunderstandings above and beyond those generated by the conflict itself will arise.

International conflict management, and the cultural issues associated with it, is one of the primary areas of research in the field at the time, as existing research is insufficient to deal with the ever increasing contact occurring between international entities.


When personal conflict leads to frustration and loss of efficiency, counseling may prove to be a helpful antidote. Although few organizations can afford the luxury of having professional counselors on the staff, given some training, managers may be able to perform this function. Nondirective counseling, or "listening with understanding," is little more than being a good listener—something every manager should be.[1]

Sometimes the simple process of being able to vent one's feelings—that is, to express them to a concerned and understanding listener, is enough to relieve frustration and make it possible for the frustrated individual to advance to a problem-solving frame of mind, better able to cope with a personal difficulty that is affecting his work adversely. The nondirective approach is one effective way for managers to deal with frustrated subordinates and co-workers.[2]

There are other more direct and more diagnostic ways that might be used in appropriate circumstances. The great strength of the nondirective approach (nondirective counseling is based on the client-centered therapy of Carl Rogers), however, lies in its simplicity, its effectiveness, and the fact that it deliberately avoids the manager-counselor's diagnosing and interpreting emotional problems, which would call for special psychological training. No one has ever been harmed by being listened to sympathetically and understandingly. On the contrary, this approach has helped many people to cope with problems that were interfering with their effectiveness on the job.[2]

See also


Alper, S., Tjosvold, D., & Law, K. S. (2000) Conflict management, efficacy, and performance in organizational teams. Personnel Psychology, 53, 625-642.

Alper, S., Tjosvold, D., & Law, K. S. (2000) Conflict management, efficacy, and performance in organizational teams. Personnel Psychology, 53, 625-642.

Amason, A. C. (1996). Distinguishing the effects of functional and dysfunctional conflict on strategic decision making: Resolving a paradox for top management teams. Academy of Management Journal, 39, 123-1

Baron, R. A. (1997). Positive effects of conflict: Insights from social cognition. In C. K. W. DeDreu & E. Van de Vliert (Eds.), Using conflict in organizations (pp. 177-191). London: Sage.

Batcheldor, M. (2000) The Elusive Intangible Intelligence: Conflict Management and Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace. The Western Scholar, Fall, 7-9

Behfar, K. J., Peterson, R. S., Mannis, E. A., & Trochim, W. M. K. (2008). The critical role of conflict resolution in teams: A close look at the links between conflict type, conflict management strategies, and team outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 170-188.

Blake, R. R., & Mouton, J. S. (1964). The managerial grid. Houston, TX: Gulf.

Bodtker, A. M., & Jameson, J. K. (2001) Emotion in conflict formation and its transformation: Application to organizational conflict management. The International Journal of Conflict Management, 3, 259-275.

Borisoff, D., & Victor, D. A. (1989). Conflict management: A communication skills approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

De Dreu, C. K. W. & Weingart, L. R. (2003) Task versus relationship conflict, team performance, and team member satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 4, 741-749.

DeChurch, L. A, & Marks, M. A. (2001) Maximizing the benefits of task conflict: The role of conflict management. The International Journal of Conflict Management, 12, 4-22.

Follett, M. P. (1940). Constructive conflict. In H. C. Metcalf & L. Urwick (Eds.), Dynamic administration: The collected papers of Mary Parker Follett (pp. 30-49). New York: Harper & Row. (originally published 1926).

Guetzkow, H., & Gyr, J. (1954). An analysis of conflict in decision-making groups. Hitman Relations, 7, 367-381.

Jehn, K. A. (1995). A multimethod examination of the benefits and determinants of intragroup conflict. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 256-282.

Jehn, K. A. (1997). A qualitative analysis of conflict types and dimensions of organizational groups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 42, 530-557.

Jehn, K. A., Northcraft, G. B., & Neale, M. A. (1999). Why differences make a difference: A field study of diversity, conflict, and performance in workgroups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, 741-763.

Kozan, M. K. (1997) Culture and conflict management: A theoretical framework. The International Journal of Conflict Management, 8, 338-360.

Kuhn, T., & Poole, M. S. (2000). Do conflict management styles affect group decision making? Human Communication Research, 26, 558-590.

Luthans, F., Rubach, M. J., & Marsnik, P. (1995). Going beyond total quality: The characteristics, techniques, and measures of learning organizations. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 3, 24-44.

Pinkley, R. L. (1990). Dimensions of conflict frame: Disputant interpretations of conflict. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75, 117-126.

Pruitt, D. G. (1983). Strategic choice in negotiation. American Behavioral Scientist, 27, 167-194.

Rahim, M. A. (1992). Managing conflict in organizations (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Rahim, M. A. (2002) Toward a theory of managing organizational conflict. The International Journal of Conflict Management, 13, 206-235.

Rahim, M. A., & Bonoma, T. V. (1979). Managing organizational conflict: A model for diagnosis and intervention. Psychological Reports, 44, 1323-1344.

Renner, J. (2007). Coaching abroad: Insights about assets. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 59, 271–285.

Ruble, T. L., & Thomas, K. W. (1976). Support for a two-dimensional model for conflict behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16, 143-155.

Thomas, K. W. (1976). Conflict and conflict management. In M. D. Dunnette (Ed.), Handbook in industrial and organizational psychology (pp. 889-935). Chicago: Rand McNally.

Van de Vliert, E., & Kabanoff, B. (1990). Toward theory-based measures of conflict management. Academy of Management Journal, 33, 199-209.

Wall, J. A., Jr., & Callister, R. R. (1995). Conflict and its management. Journal of Management, 21, 515-558.

Wall, V. D., Jr., & Nolan, L. L. (1986). Perceptions of inequity, satisfaction, and conflict in task in task-oriented groups. Human Relations, 39, 1033-1052.

  1. ^ Henry P Knowles; Börje O Saxberg (1971). Personality and leadership behavior. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.. Chapter 8. OCLC 118832. 
  2. ^ a b Richard Arvid Johnson (1976). Management, systems, and society : an introduction. Pacific Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear Pub. Co.. pp. 148–142. ISBN 0876205406 9780876205402. OCLC 2299496. 

Further reading

  • Kellett, Peter M. (2007). Conflict Dialogue. London: Sage Publications. ISBN 1412909309. 

External links

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