Definitions and transition in conflict


There has been no shortage of definitions of conflict. Despite the divergent meanings the term has acquired, several common themes underline most definitions. Conflict must be perceived by the parties to it; whether or not conflict exists is a perception issue. If no one is aware of a conflict, then it is generally agreed that no- conflict exists. Additional commonalities in the definitions are opposition or incompatibility and some form of interaction. These factors set the conditions that determine the beginning point of the conflict process.

We can define conflict, then, as a process that begins when one party perceives that another party has negatively affected, or is about to negatively affects something that the first party cares about.

This definition is purposely broad. It describes that point in any ongoing activity when an interaction “crosses overâ€? to become an inter-party conflict. It encompasses the wide range of conflicts that people experience in organizations— incompatibility of goals, differences over interpretations of facts, disagreements based on behavioral expectations, and the like. Finally, our definition is flexible enough to cover the full range of conflict levels — from overt and violent acts to subtle forms of disagreements.

Transitions in Conflict thought

It is entirely appropriate to say that there has been “conflictâ€? over the role of conflict in groups and organizations. One school of thought has argued that conflict must be avoided — that it indicates malfunction within the group. We call this the traditional view. Another school of thought, the human relations view, argues that conflict is a natural and inevitable outcome in any group and that it need not be evil, but rather has the potential to be a positive force in determining group performance. The third, and most recent, perspective proposes not only that conflict can be a positive force in a group but explicitly argues that some conflict is absolutely necessary for a group to perform effectively. We label this third school the interaction approach. Let’s take a closer look at each of these views.

The traditional view

The early approach to conflict assumed that all conflict was bad. Conflict was viewed negatively, and it was used synonymously with such terms as violence, destruction and irrationality to reinforce its negative connotation. Conflict, by definition, was harmful and was to be avoided.

The traditional view was consistent with the attitudes that prevailed about group behavior in the 1930s and 1940s conflict was seen as a dysfunctional outcome resulting from poor communication, a lack of openness and trust between people, and the failure of managers to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of their employees.

The Human Relations View

The Human relations position argued that conflict was a natural occurrence in all groups and organizations. Since conflict was inevitable, the human relations school advocated acceptance of conflict. Proponents rationalized its existence: It cannot be eliminated, and there are even times when conflict may benefit a group’s performance. The human relations view dominated conflict theory from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s.

The Inter-actionist View

While the human relations approach accepted conflict, the inter-actionist approach encourages conflict on the grounds that a harmonious, peaceful, tranquil, and cooperative group is prone to becoming static, apathetic, and non-responsive to needs for change and innovation. The major contribution of the inter-actionist approach, therefore, is encouraging group leaders to maintain an ongoing minimum level of conflict — enough to keep the group viable, self-critical, and creative.