The iceberg of conflict

According to Cloke and Goldsmith (2011), conflict is like an iceberg. What we see or understand is only a portion of what is really happening:

The iceberg of conflict

The portion that we see on the surface is just the issues. In fact, conflict may have different layers and each of the layers may adds weight and immobility to our arguments when we are in conflict:
  • The difference in personalities between the two parties
  • The emotions of the two parties
  • The difference in interests, needs and desires of the two parties
  • The difference in self-perceptions and self-esteem of the two parties
  • The hidden expectations of the two parties
  • Unresolved issues from the past between the two parties

By exploring the unsurfaced layers of the iceberg, this conflict iceberg model can be used to uncover the root cause of the conflict in order to resolve it properly.

Cloke, K. and Goldsmith, J., 2011. Resolving Conflicts at Work: Ten Strategies for Everyone on the Job. 3rd ed. Jossey-Bass

Understanding conflict at workplace

1. Introduction
By definition, conflict is a process that involves people disagreeing when they are different in interests, perceptions and preferences. Within organizations, conflict can be categorized into three types:
  • Relationship conflict (or Personal conflict): Involves disagreements based on personalities and issues that are not directly related to work.
  • Task conflict: Involves disagreements about the work that is being done in a group.
  • Process conflict: Involves disagreements about task strategy and delegation of duties and resources.

It should be noted that conflict is not always bad. Research shows that moderate amount of conflict can actually be healthy and necessary for organizations. The following chart shows the relationship between performance and conflict:

relationship between performance and conflict

In general, “bad” conflict is relationship or personal conflict because it can cause stress and may reduce the performance of individuals. On the other hand, task conflict can be good in certain situation, such as in the early stages of decision making because it stimulates creativity and innovation. Organizational culture actually has a dimension called “Conflict Tolerance” and high level of this dimension is actually good in type of organization, such as a startup software company.

2. Causes of conflict
According to Bauer and Erdogan (2009), there are six potential root causes of conflict at work:
  • Organizational structure: Conflict can happen in organizational structure where one employee reporting to two managers (usually in matrix structure) or where employees have overlapped roles and responsibilities.
  • Limited resources: Conflict can happen when two parties compete for limited resources such as money, time and equipment.
  • Task interdependence: Conflict can happen when one party’s goal requires reliance on others to perform their tasks.
  • Incompatible goals: Conflict can happen when the goals of the two parties are mutually exclusive. Comparing to other causes of conflict, this is rarer but it sometimes happen.
  • Personality differences: Conflict can happen when people have different ways of thinking and acting. This is a quite popular cause of conflict.
  • Communication problems: Conflict can happen due to miscommunication or lack of communication. This is also a common cause of conflict.

six causes of conflict at work

3. Outcomes of conflict
As mentioned before, conflict can have both positive and negative consequences:

Positive consequences:
  • Lead to new ideas
  • Stimulate creativity
  • Motivate change
  • Surface of assumptions that may be inaccurate
  • Result in greater understanding of issues and individuals
  • Help individuals and groups establish identities
  • Make values and belief system of the organization more visible and concrete
Negative consequences:
  • Increase stress and anxiety among individuals, which decreases productivity and satisfaction
  • Lack of trust between team members
  • Increase hostility and aggressive behaviors
  • Increase turnover
4. Conflict management
Bauer and Erdogan (2009) suggest five common ways to manage conflict:
  • Change the structure: If the structure causes dysfunctional conflict then changing it can solve the conflict.
  • Change the composition of the team: Sometimes it is best to separate team members who have severed personal conflict.
  • Create a common opposing force: Conflict can be mitigated by directing the two parties to a common enemy, such as the competitor.
  • Consider majority rule: Sometimes conflict can be resolved by voting.
  • Problem solve: In problem-solving mode, the individuals or groups in conflict are asked to focus on the problem, not on each other, and to uncover the root cause of the problem.
5. Conflict handling styles
Different people have different styles of handling conflict. Here are the five common styles:
  • Avoidance: People with this style seek to avoid conflict altogether by denying that it is there.
  • Accommodation: In this style, one party gives in to what the other wants, even if it means giving up his personal goals.
  • Compromise: One party has some desire to express his own concerns and get his way but still respect the other’s goals.
  • Competition: People with this style want to reach their goals regardless of what others say or how they feel.
  • Collaboration: This is a strategy to use for achieving the best outcome from conflict. Both sides argue for their position, supporting it with facts and rationale while listening attentively to the other side. In general, this style aims for a win-win solution.

The following graph shows the degree of cooperation and assertiveness of each conflict handling styles:

five conflict handling styles

Generally speaking, there is not absolute “right” style to handle conflict, usually it depends on the situation. However, the Collaboration style has been proven to be the most effective one in many different situations.

Bauer, T. and Erdogan, Berrin., 2009. Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Flat World Knowledge, Inc.
Bess, D., 2012. Conflict, BUS 626 Organizational Behavior. University of Hawaii at Manoa, unpublished.