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Conflict management and resolution can lead to growth

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 June 2019

When there’s conflict at work, the manner in which it is handled and resolved affects both the individuals involved and the organization itself. Whether the tension is between co-workers, managerial staff and laborers, or owners and employees, improperly managed conflict can cause disagreements, disputes and even litigation.

The time and resources devoted to resolving conflicts within an organization can be substantial – and often go unrecognized. Those involved often don’t understand how to identify conflict, don’t recognize the various types of conflict or don’t understand conflict’s effects – both positive and negative. Managing conflict to harness its benefits and subdue its nastier side is a needed skill for organization leaders.



Conflict is present in all organizations. Conflict is natural and sometimes can be a tool for positive change. Conflict must be recognized and defined before what to do about it can be decided, said Ariel Avgar of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. He researches conflict management practices and systems at the organizational level. He presented a workshop at the 2019 Cornell PRO-DAIRY and Northeast Dairy Producers Association’s Operations Managers Conference.

Defining and identifying conflict

“How do we define conflict?” becomes the important question, Avgar said. Experts vary on their definition, as conflict is a very subjective phenomenon. Taking a mid-range approach to identifying conflict results in this definition: “A state in which the behaviors or goals of one actor or actors are to some extent incompatible with the behavior or goals of some other party.”

Combined with the highly subjective aspect of recognizing conflict, the appropriate manner in which to intervene or to resolve conflicts within an organization can be a daunting task.

“There are differences in ability to see and recognize conflict,” Avgar said. “It is not an objective thing. We all see conflict differently.”

Sometimes people identify a conflict when there isn’t one. And people who think conflict is a bad thing are less accurate at seeing it. When a person is actively involved in an ongoing conflict, they are less likely to see any other conflicts accurately.


Participants in a team or group experiencing conflict have been found to identify conflict differently than those who are outside observers. Those in leadership positions demonstrate increased conflict awareness and accuracy over those whose position isn’t central to the work at hand.

Conflict accuracy, explained Avgar, depends not only on personality and subjective interpretation of events but also on the context from which the situation is experienced.

Four levels of conflict

There are four levels on which conflict occurs. Intrapersonal conflict occurs within one person, perhaps an employee unsure whether to follow a procedure with which they disagree. Conflict can also occur between individuals: interpersonal conflict. Likewise, conflict can be intragroup, occurring within a group – or inter-group, arising between groups.

Conflicts occurring within a group often are the result of the organizational structure itself. Role obligations are often the dominant driver here.

“Work is structured to create conflict,” in many organizations, Avgar said. “Often, roles pit employees against one another.”

The root of organizational conflict stems from numerous sources, including differences in values or status, role obligations, competition, goals, scarcity of resources, insensitivity to diversity and environmental pressures. The manner in which an organization is structured impacts the types of conflicts that occur too. A team-type structure will have different types of conflicts than a hierarchical one.


Avgar said a primary source of intragroup conflict within a dairy operation stems from concerns that not everyone on a team is doing their assigned work. This concern is rooted in the need for recognition and revolves around aspects of employee training and validation.

Three types of conflict

But all conflict is not created equally, and organizational conflict isn’t all of the same type. Along with varying levels of conflict, there are three different types of conflict:

  • Relationship conflict is about how people get along.

  • Task conflict revolves around how things are done.

  • Process conflicts involve how the decisions about how things get done are made.

Within any organization, different types of conflict cause more or less dysfunction. While relationship conflict always has some negative impact, task conflict “pushes us to rethink the way we do things,” and can be beneficial, Avgar said, although “at a certain point, task conflict is negative.”

Although relationship conflicts within a group do have an influence on task conflicts, it’s the emerging team-level conflicts that probably matter more than individual disputes among people. Personality types do matter and influence the dynamics within the team, but it’s task conflicts that can cause the most damage.

The role task conflict plays “depends on when it emerges in the lifespan of the team,” Avgar said.

Early emergence tends to be helpful, while late emergence brings negative results. The early arrival of task conflict can be readily overcome as agreements can be reached early in the scope of the work, and levels of conflict will lessen as the team moves forward. However, when task conflict emerges later in the team’s development, it tends to escalate and interfere in the team’s ability to continue functioning.

Conflict management: Start early

Managing disagreements is the key to avoiding overt conflict. Overt conflict involves “actions, not just opposing beliefs,” Avgar said, and involves formal ramifications such as litigation.

Even before things get to that level, unmanaged conflicts cause problems. They can reduce job satisfaction, lead to distrust, create stress and burnout, and affect loyalty.

The direct costs of conflict include the time and money spent by management to handle conflict, as well as the loss of employee productivity, along with any consequences to the job at hand. Indirect costs are those associated with the “innocent bystanders,” who aren’t central to the conflict but feel its repercussions.

Conflict is natural, but something can be done about it, Avgar said. Conflict affects organizational life, and training “conflict-competent managers and leaders” will allow organizations to reduce the negative aspects of conflict while harnessing its power to promote organizational excellence.

Conflict comes in many sizes, occurs on many levels and offers a variety of flavors. When conflict is recognized and channeled, it can stimulate innovation, improve decision-making and force individuals or groups to clarify their strategies and adopt new approaches. By having a better understanding of the role conflict plays in organizations, leaders can do just that.  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.