Conflict in organizations has received considerable attention in the business, psychology, and communication literatures. Nevertheless, a concise definition of conflict is lacking across studies and disciplines. In fact, researchers often provide definitions that differ from one study to another or fail to define conflict as it is measured in their studies. There is some agreement, however, that conflict takes place between two or more parties and constitutes a disagreement, an interference, and a negative emotional reaction. Two widely accepted sources of conflict are task conflict and relationship conflict. Furthermore, conflict can occur at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup levels.
Research on interpersonal conflict, also known as dyadic conflict, can be classified into one of two streams focusing on the occurrence of the conflict or its management. Conflict emergence studies explore the frequency or amount of conflict that respondents experience and its associated consequences. The second stream concentrates on the styles that employees use to manage interpersonal conflict at work, and this is the focus of this entry.
What is conflict management?
Conflict management differs from conflict resolution in that the latter is primarily focused on the termination or reduction of conflict. Resolution strategies such as mediation and arbitration often do not require interventions that result in changes to organizational processes or structures. Conflict management, on the other hand, emphasizes organizational learning to maximize the constructive aspects of conflict while minimizing its detrimental consequences. In fact, recent research in the business field suggests that a moderate amount of task conflict is functional and desirable. These studies also posit that relationship conflict is deleterious to the work environment. For example, task conflict is associated with enhanced decision quality among top management, whereas relationship conflict is detrimental to decision quality. Therefore, an effective conflict management system is one in which employees adopt a conflict style that is appropriate for the situation while balancing the amount and type of conflict encountered.
Conflict management may be depicted as a process of conflict measurement and intervention development. In other words, a critical first step in conflict management is to assess the amount, source, level, and style of handling conflict. Although limited psychometrically sound measures exist to measure the amount of conflict perceived by employees, more options are available to measure styles of handling conflict situations. A comprehensive diagnosis is needed to formulate an organizational intervention. Such an intervention may require that employees be trained on when and how to use different styles of handling interpersonal conflict. Like any other training program, however, this type of process intervention is dependent on organizational support so that employees are able to apply newly learned skills when managing conflict on the job.
A second type of intervention emphasizes changing characteristics of the organization to help manage conflict. For example, the cause of conflict may be a poorly designed reward system, which results in personal rivalries among colleagues and a high number of relationship conflicts. In this case, a structural intervention would focus on designing a reward system that is perceived to be fair. Other structural interventions may focus on changing organizational procedures that cause conflict or structuring the organizational hierarchy in such a way that parties can appeal to a higher authority when they are unable to reach a decision.
Conflict Management Styles
Individuals differ in their styles of handling conflicts. In fact, employees may resort to different styles of conflict management depending on the situation. The choice of style is influenced by a variety of factors, such as what has worked for the individual in the past, the style of their adversary, and norms surrounding the conflict situation. Several models of conflict styles have been proposed over time. For example, Morton Deutsch proposed a two-style model in which individuals engage in a competitive or cooperative style. Others have posited a three-style model of conflict management that includes nonconfrontation, solution orientation, and control. Four-style models have also received attention. For example, the model of Dean G. Pruitt proposes four styles of conflict management: yielding, problem solving, inaction, and contending. However, a five-style model has received the most attention and empirical support; therefore, emphasis will be placed on M. Afzalur Rahim’s five styles of conflict management.
Five Styles of Conflict Management
The five styles of conflict can be mapped onto a two-dimensional conceptualization that includes concern for self and concern for others. Other researchers, such as Kenneth W. Thomas, Robert R. Blake, and Jane S. Mouton, have also introduced similar conceptualizations. In essence, individuals range in their desire to satisfy their own concerns and those of other people. Based on where a person falls (high or low) on these two dimensions, he or she will use a different style of conflict management. The five styles are as follows:
- Avoiding: An individual using an avoidant style displays low concern for self and others. Such an individual may deny the existence of conflict or be noncommittal in a conflict situation.
- Obliging: An individual using an obliging style displays low concern for self and high concern for others. In essence, the individual chooses to sacrifice his or her concerns to accommodate the interests of others. This style is also known as yielding in other five-style models.
- Dominating: A dominating style is one in which the individual shows a high degree of concern for self and low concern for others. This style may be characterized by assertive, competitive, and forcing behaviors.
- Integrating: An individual who displays high concern for self and others engages in an integrating conflict management style. This style focuses on achieving a solution that maximizes the satisfaction of both parties and emphasizes problem solving. This style is also known as collaborative.
- Compromising: This style represents a moderate degree of concern for self and others. In essence, this style is likely to produce a solution in which both parties are willing to give up some of their interests.
These five styles can be further mapped onto a distributive or integrative dimension. The distributive dimension refers to gratification experienced by one of the parties, whereas the integrative dimension refers to gratification experienced by both of the parties. The avoidant and integrative styles of conflict management fall into the integrative dimension because neither or both parties are able to satisfy their interests, respectively. The distributive dimension comprises the obliging and dominating styles, in which satisfaction of concern for self is either low or high, respectively, thus allowing only the interests of one of the parties to be fulfilled. Although the compromising style results in some gains and some losses for both parties, Rahim posits that it can be thought of as the intersection of the integrative and distributive dimensions.
The effective use of the five conflict management styles depends on the characteristics of the conflict situation. For example, the integrative style may be most effective in resolving a specific conflict situation at Time 1, but it may not be the best style in a different situation at Time 2. Researchers have suggested guidelines for when each conflict style is most appropriate.
Specifically, the avoidant style is most strategic when there is a risk of violence, when the conflict issue is not important, or when it is unlikely that the conflict can be solved in a way that is self-benefiting. An obliging style is most appropriate when it is unlikely that one’s interests will be satisfied. It is also effective when the opposing party has more power or believes that he or she is correct. This style is also appropriate in situations in which the outcome is inconsequential.
A dominating style is best used in situations in which a decision must be made quickly and the opposing party is uncooperative or unable to make a decision. This style is also effective in cases in which the dominating party is not concerned with risking the relationship and when the issue is important enough to impose one party’s interests on the other party. However, when it is best to define a solution that is profitable for both parties, an integrating style is most appropriate. Such a style is suited to complex conflict situations in which problem solving requires that both parties engage in finding a solution and time is available to do so. This style is also the best choice in situations in which one party cannot resolve the conflict alone. Finally, a compromising style is most effective when fulfilling all of a party’s interests is not essential. It is also suitable in situations in which neither party is more powerful than the other and when the parties are willing to accept some losses in exchange for some gains. Compromise may be attempted when parties are not willing to engage in an integrating or problem-solving approach and a quick solution is necessary.
Studies have compared the five styles of handling conflict and attempted to make general conclusions about which styles work best. Overall, studies suggest that an integrating style is associated with outcomes of organizational importance such as commitment, performance, and satisfaction. The obliging and com-promising styles correlate with positive outcomes, whereas the avoidant and dominating styles are associated with negative organizational outcomes. However, these findings should be interpreted with caution because the specific characteristics of the situation should not be overlooked in choosing a style.
Dispositional Influences on Conflict Management Style
Not only are situational characteristics influential in the selection of a conflict management style; dispositional factors also play an important role in style choice. Different personality dimensions, such as need for affiliation, self-monitoring, and the Big Five, have been investigated in relation to the five styles. These studies report that individuals low on need for affiliation prefer a dominating style, whereas those high on need for affiliation tend to use an obliging style. Compromising and integrating styles are more likely to be used by high self-monitors. Furthermore, an integrating style is correlated with conscientiousness, openness to experience, agreeableness, and extraversion such that participants who are higher in these traits are more likely to use this particular style. Individuals who are high on agreeableness and neuroticism are more likely to use an avoidant style, whereas those who are high on extraversion preferred a dominating style. The evidence thus suggests that individuals may have tendencies to use one style over another. However, whether the style is congruent with situational characteristics determines the success of the conflict management efforts.
Conflict is inevitable in organizational life. However, through effective conflict management, organizations can minimize the negative sources of conflict while promoting functional amounts of task conflict. The conflict management process begins with a thorough assessment of the amount of conflict and the styles of handling conflict used by organizational members. This information is necessary in the design of an intervention that targets either the structural characteristics of the organization, the processes that are in place, or both. A critical component of such interventions is teaching employees about the different styles of conflict management that are available to them and the situations in which each is most appropriately used. Although research suggests that some styles of conflict management are more effective than others, it is important to keep in mind that both situational and dispositional factors play a role in their effective use and selection.
- Blake, R. R., & Mouton, J. S. (1964). The managerial grid. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.
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- Pruitt, D. G. (1983). Strategic choice in negotiation. American Behavioral Scientist, 27, 167-194.
- Rahim, M. A. (2001). Managing conflict in organizations (3rd ed.). Westport, CT: Quorum Books.
- Thomas, K. W. (1976). Conflict and conflict management. In M. D. Dunnette (Ed.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (pp. 889-935). Chicago: Rand McNally.