Role conflict occurs when employees experience incompatible work demands. It is a widely studied variable in the occupational stress literature, where it is considered to be a stressor. A stressor is any part of the work environment that requires an adaptive response from employees and has the capacity to produce poor health. In addition to role conflict, other stressors include role ambiguity (i.e., the extent to which one’s role requirements are unclear), mistreatment at work, and unreasonable workload. The negative health outcomes produced by stressors, such as anxiety, depression, and physical symptoms, are called strains. Role conflict is associated with a number of strains.
Role theory provides the theoretical basis for the study of role conflict. According to role theory, each employee has a unique set of work roles. Each role has its own unique rights and responsibilities. Employees simultaneously occupy multiple roles, both within and outside the organization. A midlevel manager who is married, for example, would have the roles of supervisor, subordinate, and spouse. Role conflict is especially likely to exist among individuals who occupy several different roles.
Types of Role Conflict
Researchers have distinguished several forms of role conflict. One form of conflict occurs when employees experience incompatibility between their values and their job responsibilities. For example, a convenience store employee who personally objects to gambling but sells lottery tickets as part of his or her job experiences this form of conflict. A second type of role conflict involves incompatibility between employees’ job responsibilities and their abilities, time, and resources. Examples of this form of conflict include not having enough time to complete one’s work tasks or not having the training or equipment necessary to complete one’s work. Similar situations are sometimes referred to as role overload (i.e., having too much work or work that is too difficult) and organizational constraints (i.e., any aspect of the work environment that interferes with job performance).
These two types of conflict are examples of intra-role conflict, which occurs when incompatibility exists within a single role. On the other hand, interrole conflict occurs when two or more roles are incompatible with each other. One form of interrole conflict occurs when individuals must behave in a particular way in one role that is inconsistent with the way they must behave in another role. For example, a business executive might be required to act authoritatively toward subordinates, but would be expected to act differently when socializing with friends. Conflict between work and family life is another form of interrole conflict.
Work-family conflict is a form of interrole conflict that occurs when the role requirements of work and family are incompatible with each other. Researchers further distinguish between work-to-family conflict and family-to-work conflict. Work-to-family conflict occurs when one’s work roles interfere with the successful execution of one’s family roles. If a mother misses her son’s school play because she has to attend a work meeting, for example, she experiences family-to-work conflict. Family-to-work conflict, on the other hand, occurs when one’s family role interferes with the successful performance of one’s work role. This occurs, for example, when a father consistently misses work to care for an ill child. Of these two forms of conflict, work-to-family conflict is likely to produce greater health consequences.
Work-family conflict researchers also distinguish between time-based, strain-based, and behavior-based conflict. Time-based conflict occurs when the amount of time needed to satisfy the role requirements of one domain do not allow enough time to meet the role requirements of another domain. For example, working excessive hours can prevent employees from spending sufficient time with their families. Strain-based conflict occurs when the demands of one role produce illness that interferes with performance in another role. Caring for a sick spouse, for example, might produce high levels of stress, making it difficult to perform effectively at work. Finally, behavior-based conflict occurs when work roles and family roles require behaviors that are inconsistent with each other. For example, a bill collector is expected to act aggressively at work when interacting with debtors but must act nurturing when caring for his or her children.
Individuals who attend school while working often experience an additional form of role conflict: work-school conflict. Work-school conflict occurs when one’s work and school responsibilities conflict with each other. An employed student, for example, might spend time working instead of studying for an exam. A further distinction is made between work-to-school conflict and school-to-work conflict. Work-to-school conflict occurs when work responsibilities interfere with school responsibilities, whereas school-to-work conflict occurs when school responsibilities interfere with work responsibilities. Workload and number of hours worked are likely to be positively associated with work-school conflict. In addition to producing the negative consequences discussed later, work-school conflict is also likely to have a negative impact on school performance.
Causes of Role Conflict
Role conflict is largely the result of ineffective managerial behaviors. Research has found, for example, that leader consideration (i.e., the extent to which supervisors care about the well-being of their subordinates) and leader initiating structure (i.e., the extent to which supervisors clarify employees’ roles) are both negatively associated with role conflict. Role conflict is also likely to be high when supervisors fail to provide employees with opportunities for participation.
Ineffective organizational policies are a direct cause of some forms of role conflict. Indeed, some survey questions measuring role conflict specifically refer to incompatible organizational guidelines.
Conflict can arise, for example, from incompatible requests from supervisors or from differing and incompatible performance standards across supervisors. Such forms of conflict are most likely to occur when organizational policies allow employees to report to multiple supervisors.
Role conflict is also likely to occur in simple, unenriched jobs. Specifically, the following job characteristics are negatively associated with role conflict:
- Task identity (i.e., the extent to which a job requires one to complete an entire piece of work, such as assembling a product from start to finish)
- Skill variety (i.e., the extent to which a job requires one to use a variety of different skills)
Finally, role conflict is likely to result from any situation that causes one to simultaneously occupy several roles, both within and outside the workplace. Being employed with multiple jobs, having a family, and being a student can all result in one having many roles.
Consequences of Role Conflict
Most workplace stressors include a component of uncertainty. Role conflict likely leads employees to feel uncertain about their ability to effectively satisfy their role requirements. This uncertainty leads to a number of negative consequences. Indeed, research has found that role conflict is associated with several indicators of mental and physical health. Some of the negative health consequences potentially produced by role conflict include depression, anxiety, burnout, and physical symptoms. In addition, role conflict is linked with a number of negative job attitudes and ineffective work behaviors:
- Overall job dissatisfaction
- Dissatisfaction with work tasks
- Dissatisfaction with supervision
- Dissatisfaction with coworkers
- Dissatisfaction with pay
- Dissatisfaction with promotional opportunities
- Low organizational commitment
- Low job involvement
- Turnover intention
- Poor job performance
However, most of the research examining the causes and consequences of role conflict has used cross-sectional designs. Thus, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions concerning causal relationships in this research.
Treatments for Role Conflict
Because role conflict is largely the result of ineffective leadership behaviors, many of the treatments for role conflict require the involvement of supervisors. Supervisors, for example, could be trained to identify behaviors that encourage role conflict and could be trained to modify those behaviors. Likewise, one form of role conflict occurs when employees receive incompatible demands from two or more supervisors. This type of conflict could be eliminated by requiring employees to report to only one supervisor.
Some forms of role conflict are the direct result of organizational policies. Not having the required training or equipment to effectively satisfy one’s role requirements, for example, might be the result of organizational policies. Changing such policies could eliminate these forms of role conflict. Some role conflict occurs because employees’ personal values are incompatible with the role requirements of their jobs. This type of conflict speaks to the importance of hiring only job applicants who have a good fit with the job requirements.
Given that role conflict is associated with a number of negative outcomes, one might suspect that organizational leaders would adopt many of these suggestions in an effort to reduce role conflict. This has not been the case, however, as organizations have given more attention to treating the symptoms than to the causes of role conflict.
- Greenhaus, J. H., & Beutell, N. J. (1985). Sources of conflict between work and family roles. Academy of Management Review, 10, 76-88.
- Jackson, S. E., & Schuler, R. S. (1985). A meta-analysis and conceptual critique of research on role ambiguity and role conflict in work settings. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 36, 16-78.
- Kahn, R. L., & Byosiere, P. (1992). Stress in organizations. In M. D. Dunnette & L. M. Hough (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (2nd ed., Vol. 3, pp. 571-650). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
- Karkel, K. S., & Frone, M. R. (1998). Job characteristics, work-school conflict, and school outcomes among adolescents: Testing a structural model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 277-287.
- Kossek, E. C., & Ozeki, C. (1998). Work-family conflict, policies, and the job-life satisfaction relationship: A review and directions for organizational behavior-human resources research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 139-149.