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Conflict in Organizations

Conflict Theory


Modern conflict theory was introduced in 1924 by Mary Parker Follett, although the theory had origins from theorists including Karl Marx. Follett believed that conflict could actually be positive in some senses as it emphasized differences which she argued could create democracy (Bess & Dee, 2012). Three main perspectives of conflict theory exist, which include traditional, behavioral and interactionist. The first perspective, traditional, was the common mindset from the 1800's to the 1940's and suggested that all conflict must be eliminated because it is negative. During the 1940's, a second perspective on conflict theory, the behavioral aspect, was established. This philosophy suggests that conflict can be resolved within organizations, although conflict is still considered negative overall for the institution is not always be negative. Lastly, the interactionist view, developed more recently, suggests that conflict is necessary, useful and bound to happen. Furthermore, in some cases conflict should be encouraged in order to incite change within the institution (Bess & Dee, 2012).

Ultimately, theorists suggest that conflict is a process and can occur in various episodes. Additionally, conflict can vary in its intensity, duration and pervasiveness (Bess & Dee, 2012).

The goal of conflict theory is not necessarily to eliminate conflict, but instead to manage exisiting conflict (Bess & Dee, 2012).

References for further study:

Ackroyd, S. (n.d.). The approach to organizational conflict. Retrieved from www.workandsociety.com/downloads/work1.pdf

De Dreu, C.K. & Beersma, B. (2005). Conflict in organizations: Beyond effectiveness and performance. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 14(2), 105-117.

Conflict Episode Stages

Developed by Pondy, Walton, Dutton, Deutsch and Thomas, five primary stages can be used to describe the conflict process. They include:

  • Frustration-three types of frustration can occur within organizations, which include goal-oriented frustration, means-oriented frustration and ambiguity-oriented frustration.
  • Conceptualization-the issue behind the conflict is defined and alternatives are suggested.
  • Behavior-an organization or unit can plan how to address responses and behaviors from both the individual level as well as the organizational level as a whole.
  • Interaction-addresses an organization's reaction to conflict whether it be through addressing or suppressing conflict.
  • Outcomes-the long-term effect of results of the conflict are considered during this stage (Bess & Dee, 2012).


Social Constructionists Perspectives on Conflict

Social Constructionists often consider conflict as beneficial and a force that drives change in organizations. Introduced by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, social constructionists believe that conflict within organizations can be from multiple sources, since different departments within an organization have different ways of constructing reality. Social constructionists consider these different realities the cause of the majority of organizational conflict. Furthermore, social constructionists believe that conflict is resolved differently from positivists, in that conflicts may actually be more difficult to resolve in organizations due to factors such as non-discussion of conflicts and faulty conflict management where leaders assume that the conflict has been resolved, when in fact the conflict still exists (Bess & Dee, 2012).

Reference for further study:

Ferdig, M.A. (n.d.). Complexity Theories: Perspectives for the social construction of organizational transformation. Retrieved from www.sba.muohio.edu/management/mwacademy/2000/21d.pdf


Postmodern Perspective on Conflict

The postmodern perspective on conflict considers both conflict and contradiction as issues presented as part of postmodern theory. Original authors of postmodern theory include Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and Baudrillard. Postmodern theorists believe that typical or rational approaches are not feasible because language is constantly changing. Theorists consider binary oppositions as a way of addressing contradictions. Although binary contradictions can actually solve issues within higher education institutions, they can also exclude different ideas or thoughts. Additionally, postmodern theorists believe that only those who are at the top of the organizational hierarchy will benefit from conflict resolution. The postmodern theory offers solutions to this prejudicial hierarchy by suggesting that people in organizations develop more personal relationships which include more trust and openness.

References for further study:

Bloland, H.G. (2005). Whatever happened to postmodernism in higher education? No requiem in the new millennium. The Journal of Higher Education, 76(2),121-150.

Bloland, H.G. (1995). Postmodernism and higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 66(5), 521-559.


Open and Closed Systems of Conflict

Bess and Dee (2012) wrote that conflict can occur within either the closed or open systems of conflict.


  Closed System-Within the dysfunctional closed system, the success of an organization is stifled by conflict because coordination amongst internal departments is stagnant, thus resulting in the reduced efficiency of the organization. This type of conflict is an issue because there is a lack of interdependence within various parts of the organization.

Open System-An open system looks at the way issues in the external environment can cause conflict for the organization. When there is a lack of external conflict, within an open system the conflict can become competitive internally (ex. a fight over internal institutional resources or an open job position).

Reference for further study:

McLean, G.N. (n.d.). Organization development: Principles processes performance. Retrieved from http://www.bkconnection.com/static/Organization_Development_EXCERPT.pdf

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