Conflict Management in the Workplace
- LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0293
- LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0293
Conflict is a component of interpersonal interactions, and therefore natural in the workplace. While neither inevitable nor intrinsically bad, conflict is commonplace. Conflicts may arise in different forms, exist between and among different levels of the organizational hierarchy, and involve supervisors, peers, or subordinates, as well as customers, clients, suppliers, and other stakeholders. The central idea of conflict management is that organizations can improve in the way conflict is managed by accepting conflict as part of organizational dynamics and by learning to deal with it effectively and efficiently. Given the ubiquity of conflict, it is perhaps unsurprising that the study of its management and resolution has become a popular topic in the last decades, particularly in the fields of management, human resources, and psychology. The aim of this article is to cover current topics in the area of conflict management in the workplace. To do so, the article is divided into different sections. In the different sections of the article, the reader will find academic sources on conflict and conflict behavior, types of conflict in the workplace at different levels, such as interpersonal, team, and intergroup, and a variety of resolution strategies, particularly negotiation and mediation, covering interventions by supervisors, colleagues, and (internal and external) third parties. Further, studies on the link between diversity, culture, and conflict, mistreatment in the workplace, and conflict in specific contexts, such as family business or start-ups, are presented. This article concludes with a collection of works on conflict management systems and tools to measure and evaluate conflict behavior in organizations. The sections included were chosen given the relevance from an academic point of view as well as from a practitioner perspective, where these aspects all are inevitable parts of the understanding of organizational conflict at different levels of complexity, and from understanding these conflicts and the conflict behavior to third parties. Complexity also adds in specific types, as harassment and bullying, often related to diversity and inclusion in organizations, and in specific contexts, as start-ups or family businesses, both rapidly growing fields of academic interest and of high importance to the global economy. Conflict management should also be understood as a system, as the alignment of different possible actors and interventions is essential for effective prevention and intervention. The article ends giving a closer look at validated instruments of use in research and practice to assess conflict behaviors. Regarding the methodology, a systematic approach was followed to select the works appearing in this bibliography. The following keywords were included in the search: “conflict resolution,” “conflict management,” “workplace conflict,” “conflict resolution,” “relationship conflict,” “leader conflict,” “conflict process,” “interpersonal conflict,” “conflict dynamic,” “negotiation,” and “mediation.” Articles were gathered from the academic databases Scopus and Web of Science, and their titles and abstracts were reviewed against the authors’ selection criteria.
Definition of Conflict and Conflict Management
This section presents studies addressing the general topic of conflict and conflict management and introduces readers to these concepts in the context of organizations. Among the first and most well-known works on the topic were Lewin 1948, which identifies three types of conflict types; Follett 1973, which already in the 1920s defined conflict as not being inherently bad; and Rapoport, et al. 1965, which developed approaches to the well-known Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game that models real-world situations of cooperation and conflict which continues to enjoy widespread use in conflict management education and research. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, mutual cooperation leads to greater collective rewards, but acting in self-interest can drive non-cooperative behavior. Pondy 1967 later studied conflict not merely as a state of being, but also as a process. More recently, work psychology research such as De Dreu and Gelfand 2008 defines conflict as a “process that begins when an individual or group perceives differences and opposition between him or herself and another individual or group about interests, beliefs, or values that matter to him or her” (p. 6). Conflict management, on the other hand, is described as deliberate action to deal with conflictive situations. This can include the purposes of preventing, managing, or escalating the conflict event, as Elgoibar, et al. 2017 suggests. Korsgaard, et al. 2008 (cited under Team Conflict) agrees that conflict management encompasses the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses in conflict situations. Thomas 1992 created a taxonomy of conflict handling modes. Here, conflict handling modes are classified by the dimensions of assertiveness and cooperativeness, where actors in conflict can choose between different behaviors to approach conflict.
Carnevale, P. J., and T. M. Probst. 1998. Social values and social conflict in creative problem solving and categorization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74.5: 1300–1309.
This paper describes four experiments that support the idea that how we view conflict and cooperation affects our cognition. Expecting conflict, rather than cooperation, reduced participants’ ability to solve problems and to think creatively. Importantly, the results suggest that a generally competitive orientation affects cognitive flexibility, with a cooperative approach linked with greater flexibility. The authors suggest several mechanisms that may explain their outcomes.
Coleman, P. T., M. Deutsch, and E. C. Marcus, eds. 2014. The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice. New York: John Wiley.
Coleman and colleagues offer an expansive text including works covering a range of topics related to conflict and conflict resolution in eight parts and fifty-six chapters. Each chapter provides an overview of the conflict topic (e.g., trust, creativity, culture) and so is a helpful resource for those seeking to deepen their knowledge of a particular area.
De Dreu, C. K., and M. J. Gelfand, eds. 2008. The psychology of conflict and conflict management in organizations. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
A collection of recent works edited by two of the preeminent scholars on conflict management. A text of reference for those wishing to familiarize themselves with the state of the art of conflict management.
Elgoibar, P., M. Euwema, and L. Munduate. 2017. Conflict management. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
This article offers an introduction to the topic of conflict management, focusing on its definition, characteristics, and behaviors and emphasizing constructive conflict management strategies, including trust building and methods of constructive controversy.
Follett, M. P. 1973. Power. In Dynamic administration: The collected papers of Mary Parker Follett. Edited by E. M. Fox and L. Urwick, 72–95. London: Pitman.
The author proposes three main ways of dealing with conflict—domination, compromise, and integration—and identified other secondary ways such as avoidance and suppression. Originally published 1924.
Lewin, K. 1948. Resolving social conflicts: Selected papers on group dynamics. New York: Harper.
Despite its age, this classic collection of essays remains relevant to conflict resolution, offering highly readable explorations of topics such as power relations, systems, the role of the environment, and social science as a means of improving the human condition.
Pondy, L. R. 1967. Organizational conflict: Concepts and models. Administrative Science Quarterly 12.2: 296–320.
Apart from making important distinctions about conflict, an interesting aspect of this early article is that it highlights the interconnected nature of conflict: it is not the antecedents, the episode, the environment, the awareness, but rather all of these things. Like Lewin 1948, it draws attention to the role of would-be conflict resolvers in attending to the environment.
Rahim, M. A., J. E. Garrett, and G. F. Buntzman. 1992. Ethics of managing interpersonal conflict in organizations. Journal of Business Ethics 11.5–6: 423–432.
The authors focus on intervention practices in conflict management and determine which style is ethical in the different situations to serve the proper end of the organization. They take a practical approach and clarify the difference between conflict management and conflict resolution.
Rapoport, A., A. M. Chammah, and C. J. Orwant. 1965. Prisoner’s Dilemma: A study in conflict and cooperation. Vol. 165. Univ. of Michigan Press.
This book describes a series of experiments using the Prisoner’s Dilemma and explores the complex nature of conflict even as it relates to a seemingly simple game. Heavy use of technical language means that some grounding in economics would make this book more accessible.
Thomas, K. W. 1992. Conflict and conflict management: Reflections and update. Journal of Organizational Behavior 13.3: 265–274.
The author explains the updates in the literature on conflict and conflict management since his popular 1976 work (Conflict and conflict management. In Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology. Edited by M. D. Dunnette [Chicago: Rand McNally]). It describes conflict handling modes based on the classic two-dimensional taxonomy and expresses how the conceptualization of conflict can influence one’s choice of conflict handling mode. In addition, he describes the dynamic of conflict process as well as the environmental influence model and concludes that conflict intentions are determined by economic/rational thinking, normative thinking, as well as emotions.
Van de Vliert, E. 1997. Complex interpersonal conflict behaviour: Theoretical frontiers. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.
This book offers a new theoretical approach to conflict management as it explains complex conflict behavior as the simultaneous or sequential occurrence of different conflict behaviors.
Wall, J. A., Jr., and R. R. Callister. 1995. Conflict and its management. Journal of Management 21.3: 515–558.
This paper focuses on illustrating conflict as a social process, and thus explains in detail the causes, such as personal values, goals, and communication, as well as the effects of conflict on the individual, relationships, behavior, and structure. It also describes the process part understood as the interpersonal behavior in which the parties face conflict. Particularly of interest are the explanations of causes of conflict. The paper also reviews the work done on escalation and de-escalation of conflict processes.
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