Conflict (process)

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For other kinds of conflict see conflict (disambiguation).

Conflict refers to some form of friction, disagreement, or discord arising within a group when the beliefs or actions of one or more members of the group are either resisted by or unacceptable to one or more members of another group. Conflict can arise between members of the same group, known as intragroup conflict, or it can occur between members of two or more groups, and involve violence, interpersonal discord, and psychological tension, known as intergroup conflict. Conflict in groups often follows a specific course. Routine group interaction is first disrupted by an initial conflict, often caused by differences of opinion, disagreements between members, or scarcity of resources. At this point, the group is no longer united, and may split into coalitions. This period of conflict escalation in some cases gives way to a conflict resolution stage, after which the group can eventually return to routine group interaction once again.


M. Afzalur Rakhim notes there is no single universally accepted definition of conflict.[1] He notes that one issue of contention is whether the conflict is a situation or a type of behavior.[2]

Citing a review of definitions of organizational conflicts in 1990 by Robert A. Baron,[3] Rakhim notes the following common elements in the definitions of conflict:[2]

  • there are recognized opposing interests between parties in a zero-sum situation;
  • there must be a belief by each side that the other one is acting or will act against them;
  • this belief is likely to be justified by actions taken;
  • conflict is a process, having developed from their past interactions;

Building on that, the proposed definition of conflict by Rakhim is "an interactive process manifested in incompatibility, disagreement or dissonance within or between social entities."[2] Rakhim also notes that a conflict may be limited to one individual, who is conflicted within himself (the intrapersonal conflict).[2]

To take another definition of conflict, Michael Nicholson defines it as an activity which takes place when conscious beings (individuals or groups) wish to carry out mutually inconsistent acts concerning their wants, needs or obligations.[4] Conflict is an escalation of a disagreement, which is its common prerequisite, and is characterized by the existence of conflict behavior, in which the beings are actively trying to damage one another.[5] Rakhim lists some manifestations of conflict behavior, starting with disagreement, and followed by verbal abuse and interference.[6]

Conflicts can occur between individuals, groups and organizations; examples include quarrels between individuals, labor strikes, competitive sports, or armed conflicts.[7]

Role of emotion in inter-group relations[edit]

A key player in inter-group relations and conflict is the collective sentiment a person’s own group (in-group) feels toward another group (out-group). These intergroup emotions are usually negative, and range in intensity from feelings of discomfort when interacting with a member of a certain other group to full on hatred for another group and its members. For example, in Fischer's organisational research at the University of Oxford, inter-group conflict was so 'heated' that it became mutually destructive and intractable, resulting in organizational collapse.[8][9]

Out-group-directed emotions can be expressed both verbally and non-verbally, and according to the stereotype content model, are dictated by two dimensions: the perceived warmth (How friendly and sincere is the other group?) and competence of the other group (How skillful is the other group?). Depending on the perceived degree of warmth and competence, the stereotype content model predicts four basic emotions that could be directed toward the out-group (Forsyth, 2006).

  1. Envy- Results when the out-group is perceived to have high competence, but low warmth (Cuddy, Fiske & Glick, 2007). Envious groups are usually jealous of another group’s symbolic and tangible achievements and view that group as competition (Forsyth, 2006).
  2. Contempt- The out-group is taken to be low in both competence and warmth (Cuddy, Fiske & Glick, 2007). According to Forsyth, contempt is one of the most frequent intergroup emotions. In this situation, the out-group is held responsible for its own failures. In-group members also believe that their conflict with the out-group can never be resolved (Forsyth, 2006).
  3. Pity- Out-groups that are believed by the in-group to be high in warmth but low in competence are pitied (Cuddy, Fiske & Glick, 2007). Usually pitied groups are lower in status than the in-group, and are not believed to be responsible for their failures (Forsyth, 2006).
  4. Admiration- Admiration occurs when an out-group is taken to be high in both warmth and competence, however admiration is very rare because these two conditions are seldom met (Cuddy, Fiske & Glick, 2007). An admired out-group is thought to be completely deserving of its accomplishments. Admiration is thought to be most likely to arise when a member of the in-group can take pride in the accomplishments of the out-group, and when the out-group achieving does not interfere with the in-group (Forsyth, 2006).


Conflict is rarely seen as constructive; however, in certain contexts (such as competition in sports), moderate levels of conflict can be seen as being mutually beneficial, facilitating understanding, tolerance, learning, and effectiveness.[10] Sophia Jowett differentiates between content conflict, where individuals disagree about how to deal with a certain issue, and relational conflict, where individuals disagree about one another, noting that the content conflict can be beneficial, increasing motivation and stimulating discussion, whereas the relational conflicts decreases performance, loyalty, satisfaction, and commitment, and causes individuals to be irritable, negative and suspicious.[10] Irving Janis proposed that conflict is beneficial in groups and committees to avoid the error of "group think".[11]

Jehn and Mannix have proposed a division of conflicts into three types: relationship, task, and process.[12] Relationship conflict stems from interpersonal incompatibilities; task conflict is related to disagreements in viewpoints and opinion about a particular task, and process conflict refers to disagreement over the group’s approach to the task, its methods, and its group process.[12] They note that although relationship conflict and process conflict are harmful, task conflict is found to be beneficial since it encourages diversity of opinions, although care should be taken so it does not develop into process or relationship conflict.[12]

Task conflict has been associated with two interrelated and beneficial effects. The first is group decision quality. Task conflict encourages greater cognitive understanding of the issue being discussed. This leads to better decision making for the groups that use task conflict. The goal is to train your team to better solve problems.

The second is affective acceptance of group decisions. Task conflict can lead to increased satisfaction with the group decision and a desire to stay in the group. Encourage the group members to respect each other's opinions and to listen carefully. The goal is to train your team to better work together.[13]

Amason and Sapienza in turn differentiate between affective and cognitive conflict, where cognitive conflict is task-oriented and arises from differences in perspective or judgment, and affective conflict is emotional and arises from personal differences and disputes.[14]

Five beliefs that propel groups toward conflict[edit]

Roy Eidelson and Judy Eidelson (2003) investigated some of the important roles that beliefs may play in triggering or constraining conflict between groups. On the basis of a review of relevant literature, five belief domains stand out as especially noteworthy: Superiority, injustice, vulnerability, distrust and helplessness.[15]

1. Superiority

Individual-level core belief: This core belief revolves around a person's enduring conviction that he or she is better than other people in important ways. The cluster of attitudes commonly associated with this belief includes a sense of specialness, deserving ness, and entitlement.
Group-level worldview: Many of these elements are also present in the superiority worldview at the group level. This worldview encompasses shared convictions of moral superiority, chosenness, entitlement and special destiny. Several joint working committees of the American Psychological Association have identified "belief in the superiority of one group's cultural heritage (history, values, language, traditions, arts and crafts, etc.) over another's as a defining characteristic of the phenomenon they termed ethnocentric monoculturalism.[16]

2. Injustice

Individual-level core belief: The perceived mistreatment by specific others or by the world at large. This mindset can lead the individual to identify something as unfair which is merely unfortunate, and thereby to inappropriately engage in retaliatory acts.
Group-level worldview: The injustice worldview reflects the in-groups conviction that it has significant and legitimate grievances against another group. This mindset can mobilize powerful and violent collective insurgencies, especially because shared perceptions of injustice typically heighten the identification and allegiance that individuals feel towards their group. Further, these assessments of mistreatment are particularly common across cultural divides because different cultures tend to have different definitions for what constitutes justice, and different norms for how it should be achieved.

3. Vulnerability

Individual-level core belief: The vulnerability core belief revolves around a person's conviction that he or she s perpetually living in harm's way. Vulnerability involves a person's perception of him or herself as subject to internal or external dangers over which control is lacking, or is insufficient to afford him or her a sense of safety.
Group-level worldview: Important parallels to this individual-level core belief are present in a collective vulnerability worldview that again appears to be widespread among ethnic groups. Fears about the future are the most common cause of ethnic conflicts and often produce spiralling violence. The vulnerability worldview is catastrophic thinking in which a group's imagined worst case scenarios take on the inexorable logic of inevitability.

4. Distrust

Individual-level core belief: This core belief focuses on the presumed hostility and malign intent of others. The critical role played by issues of trust in individual psychological development has long been recognized. The expectation that others will hurt, abuse, humiliate, cheat, lie, or take advantage usually involves the perception that harm is intentional or the result of unjustified and extreme negligence. People who consistently assume the worst about the intentions of others prevent truly collaborative relationships from developing.
Group-level worldview: As an extension of this individual-level core belief to larger groups. the distrust worldview focuses specifically on perceptions of outgroups and revolves around beliefs that the other is untrustworthy and harbors malign intentions toward the in-group.

5. Helplessness

Individual-level core belief: The conviction that even carefully planned and executed actions will fail to produce desired outcomes. In some cases, the individual may perceive him or herself as lacking the ability necessary to attain a goal. Regardless of the extent to which helplessness is a matter of distorted perception or objective reality, this core belief tends to be self-perpetuating because it diminishes motivation.
Group-level worldview: The helplessness worldview describes a collective mindset of powerlessness and dependency. The extent to which a group perceives itself as helpless reflects assessments not only of its capabilities, but also of whether the environment is rich or poor in opportunities for group advancement.

Conflict resolution[edit]

Main article: Conflict resolution

Nicholson notes that a conflict is resolved when the inconsistency between wishes and actions of parties is resolved.[7] Negotiation is an important part of conflict resolution, and any design of a process which tries to incorporate positive conflict from the start needs to be cautious not to let it degenerate into the negative types of conflict.[10]

Conflict Mediation

Conflict is a social process that is exacerbated when individual members of a group take sides in the debate. Among the methods to resolve conflict is mediation of the dispute by a group member not currently involved in the dispute. More specifically, a mediator is defined as a person who attempts to resolve a conflict between two group members by intervening in this conflict. Put simply, the mediator can be thought of as a disinterested guide directs the disputants through the process of developing a solution to a disagreement (Forsyth, 2006).

Although the tendency will be for group members who are uninvolved in the dispute to remain uninvolved, in some cases, the sheer intensity of the conflict may escalate to the point where mediation is unavoidable. Third party mediation of the conflict opens avenues for communication between group members in conflict. It allows members to express their opinions and request clarification of other member’s standpoints while the mediator acts as a form of protection against any shame or “loss of face” that either disputant may experience. This can be done by shedding a positive light on the reconciliation that was made during the mediation process. For instance, if it was negotiated that two cashiers will rotate the weekends they work, the mediator might point out that now each worker gets a weekend off every two weeks (Forsyth, 2006).

The mediator can also offer assistance in refining solutions and making counter-offers between members, adjusting the time and location of meetings so that they are mutually satisfying for both parties (Forsyth, 2006).

According to Forsyth (2006), there are three major mediation approaches: Inquisitorial procedure- Using this procedure, the mediator asks each of the disputants a series of questions, considers the two sets of responses, and then selects and imposes a mandatory solution on the members. The inquisitorial procedure is the least popular approach to mediation.

Arbitration- Here, mediation involves the two disputants explaining their arguments to the mediator, who creates a solution based on the arguments presented. Arbitration is best for low intensity conflict, but is the most favored mediation style overall.

Moot- The moot approach involves an open discussion between disputants and the mediator about the problems and potential solutions. In the moot approach, the mediator cannot impose a mandatory solution. After arbitration, a moot is the most preferred mediation style.

In practice, conflict resolution is often interwoven with daily activities, as in organizations, workplaces and institutions. Staff and residents in a youth care setting, for instance, interweave everyday concerns (meals, lessons, breaks, meetings, or other mundane but concerted projects) with interpersonal disputes.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ M. Afzalur Rahim (31 October 2010). Managing Conflict in Organizations. Transaction Publishers. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-4128-1456-0. Retrieved 11 October 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d M. Afzalur Rahim (31 October 2010). Managing Conflict in Organizations. Transaction Publishers. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-4128-1456-0. Retrieved 11 October 2012. 
  3. ^ Robert A. Baron (1 July 1990). "Conflict in Organizations". In Kevin R. Murphy; Frank E. Saal. Psychology in Organizations: integrating Science and Practice. Psychology Press. pp. 197–216. ISBN 978-0-8058-0477-5. Retrieved 11 October 2012. 
  4. ^ Michael Nicholson (27 March 1992). Rationality and the Analysis of International Conflict. Cambridge University Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-521-39810-7. Retrieved 11 October 2012. 
  5. ^ Michael Nicholson (27 March 1992). Rationality and the Analysis of International Conflict. Cambridge University Press. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-0-521-39810-7. Retrieved 11 October 2012. 
  6. ^ M. Afzalur Rahim (31 October 2010). Managing Conflict in Organizations. Transaction Publishers. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-4128-1456-0. Retrieved 11 October 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Michael Nicholson (27 March 1992). Rationality and the Analysis of International Conflict. Cambridge University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-521-39810-7. Retrieved 11 October 2012. 
  8. ^ Fischer, Michael D (28 September 2012). "Organizational Turbulence, Trouble and Trauma: Theorizing the Collapse of a Mental Health Setting". Organization Studies. 33 (9): 1153–1173. doi:10.1177/0170840612448155. 
  9. ^ Fischer, Michael Daniel; Ferlie, Ewan (1 January 2013). "Resisting hybridisation between modes of clinical risk management: Contradiction, contest, and the production of intractable conflict". Accounting, Organizations and Society. 38 (1): 30–49. doi:10.1016/j.aos.2012.11.002. 
  10. ^ a b c Sophia Jowett (2007). Social Psychology in Sport. Human Kinetics. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-7360-5780-6. Retrieved 11 October 2012. 
  11. ^ Janis, I. L. (November 1971). "Groupthink". Psychology Today. 5 (6): 43–46, 74–76. 
  12. ^ a b c Jehn, K. A.; Mannix, E. A. (1 April 2001). "The dynamic nature of conflict: A longitudinal study.". Academy of Management Journal. 44 (2): 238–251. doi:10.2307/3069453. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Amason, A. C.; Sapienza, H. J. (1 August 1997). "The Effects of Top Management Team Size and interaction Norms on Cognitive and Affective Conflict". Journal of Management. 23 (4): 495–516. doi:10.1177/014920639702300401. 
  15. ^ Eidelson, Roy, J; Eidelson, Judy I (2003). "Dangerous ideas: Five beliefs that propel groups toward conflict". American Psychologist. 58 (3): 182–192. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.58.3.182. 
  16. ^ Sue, Derald Wing; Bingham, Rosie P.; Porché-Burke, Lisa; Vasquez, Melba (1999). "The diversification of psychology: A multicultural revolution". American Psychologist. 54 (12): 1061–1069. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.54.12.1061. 
  17. ^ Wästerfors, David (2011) "Disputes and Going Concerns" Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (40) 1: 39-70