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1 Conflict in Organizations > A Note on Conflict Theory and Research - Pg. 3

C ONFLICT IN O RGANIZATIONS 3 J ACK : You can talk to Michael [the vice president of the sales division], but I don't think it would fly. He's going say that we can't afford another administrative assistant. And, really, to tell you the truth, we've always just had one, and the work has always gotten done. Are you going to be our "one"? Jack turns his back and walks briskly out of the office; he's so fed up with Phyllis, and he replays the thoughts he has been having a lot recently: "What kind of idiot is she?" "Why is she so slow?" "Is she really that stupid or is it that she just doesn't care?" Phyllis sits at her desk a few moments to gather her composure; she feels insulted and thinks to herself a thought that she's had a lot lately: "What a jerk." Later that day, she meets a friend from the business across the street for lunch. She tells her side of the story. The two agree that Jack is a fool and doesn't know how to act right. The conflict between these two individuals illustrates the two basic kinds of conflict common to every organization: structural and interper- sonal. Structural conflict is rooted in the very nature of organizations. Organi- zations divide the work they do across a set of positions--in many places the positions are mainly organized vertically in a classic pyramid, while in other places the positions are more horizontally arranged into task-oriented teams (and, indeed, almost all organizations have both of these structures). But whatever the organizational structure, there is a division of labor, and this division creates interdependence. When the work associated with one posi- tion is not done correctly or on time, other positions suffer. The division of labor also creates differing interests and priorities; each position has a set of interests and priorities, and these are often at odds with--or even compete with--those of other positions. In the preceding example, it is very likely that had Jean or Candace or Lisa been the administrative assistant, the same conflict would have arisen; the heart of the conflict is not Jack's or Phyllis's personality, but the structural relationship between administrative assistant and salesperson. Structural conflict is heightened by scarce resources. The structural conflict described in the preceding example, however, contains elements of interpersonal conflict. Interpersonal conflict is rooted in differences in personalities, communication styles, and values. And be- cause much of our personality and communication style--as well as many of our values--are shaped by the social groups to which we belong, inter- personal conflict is magnified by social differences. These would include, for example, differences in race, gender, national origin, age, income, mar- ital status, sexual orientation, religion, and physical disability. Had Jack approached Phyllis in a different manner--say in a softer or subtler or more humorous manner--the conflict would have been milder and proba- bly more readily resolved. A N OTE ON C ONFLICT T HEORY AND R ESEARCH The best practitioners are always guided by theory. Understanding theory frees one from always learning by trial and error. A theory abstracts the key © American Management Association. All rights reserved.