In any workplace, there are a variety of groups working together to support and further the mission of the company. Some groups are defined by job title—the accountants, the lawyers, the marketing team. Other groups are defined by project or subject area. Still, others may be defined by the level in the company or social interactions. A typical employee will be a part of a few groups in the course of their work, even moving between groups throughout the day. Some projects or campaigns will involve only one group, but many projects and campaigns will require groups to work together.
Intergroup work can strengthen the quality of the work and encourage creative thinking; however, intergroup work may also lead to conflict when the groups do not see eye-to-eye. Some conflict, known as functional conflict, is helpful to identify weaknesses in the project and increase the quality of the output. Other conflicts, known as dysfunctional conflict, may derail a project and run counter to the company’s goals and objectives. When conflict arises in intergroup situations, identifying the possible cause, preparing for the potential setbacks that may occur, and planning to address and resolve the conflict will allow a company to move forward.
Identifying the Cause:
Anyone of a variety of factors may cause conflict between groups working together. Identifying the possible or probable cause will help create a course of action for this particular conflict and be better prepared for, and even eliminate, a similar problem in the future. Some common examples of the causes of intergroup conflict include:
- Miscommunication: Like most conflict, miscommunication is a common cause of intergroup conflict. This often results from one group not accurately or clearly representing their intentions or goals.
- Lack of Resources: If resources are tight in an organization, or the budget for a particular project is small, there may be conflict around which group can use the resources provided for the project.
- Competitiveness: Similar to a lack of resources, competitiveness for respect or esteem between the groups will often lead to conflict when the project is based on collective work.
- Superiority Belief: If one group feels that they are superior to another group, it will often result in conflict.
- Perceived Bias: Somewhat opposite of superiority belief, a perceived bias is when one group or person feels that they are valued less than another for an unknown or unnecessary reason. This often causes conflict when the situation reinforces this belief in some way, even if not true.
- Rejection of Norms: Each group will have a set of norms that are followed in the group, from work style to feedback and confrontation. When a group’s norms are violated by another group, conflict will often result.
- Individual Differences: Occasionally, individuals in different groups will have differences or conflicts that may affect the group. This may be the result of past harm or any of the examples listed above.
- Organizational Climate: Occasionally, the climate in the office will create conflict. Usually, this is the case when something about the climate of the project is making those participating feel stress. It could be the space given to work, the time pressure, or the fear of retaliation if the project is not completed on time.
These examples are not exhaustive, and many other issues can contribute to conflict. Once the cause or causes have been identified, a company will need to determine what damage has already been done and how to save the project.
Preparing for Potential Setbacks:
Conflict can be helpful for a project, as noted in the introduction. Functional conflict will unite one group to compete or prove their superiority on the project. This will often shift focus away from the conflict and onto the project, which can increase efficiency and output. Friendly competition can inspire creative solutions and force groups to think outside of the box. It can increase pride in the company and improve the relationships between the employees in the groups. However, these tend to quickly devolve into dysfunctional conflict if not closely monitored. Dysfunctional conflict may quickly push the project off track or completely derail the entire project if it is not stopped and identified quickly. Additionally, the conflict may have caused some setbacks already. Potential setbacks to prepare for when there is known or suspected conflict are:
- Loss of Focus on Goals: Conflict can quickly push the different groups into hypervigilant focus on the conflict itself and away from the goals set out in the project.
- Isolation: Groups that feel that they must compete as part of a project may isolate themselves from others. This will often stifle creativity and diversity of thought and can lead to a breakdown in communication.
- Mistrust: Similar to isolation, a group may start to mistrust the other groups participating and be very secretive about the project or ignore suggestions for improvement.
- Negativity: Unhealthy conflict will often lead to negativity, which will also decrease production.
- Miscommunication: Miscommunication is one of the biggest setbacks that will likely result from conflict. This can include both miscommunication and a breakdown of communication between the groups. When communication breaks down, the project will have a difficult time recovering.
If any or all of these setbacks are present in an intergroup project, it is best to act quickly and stop the conflict from becoming dysfunctional. This can include reiterating goals, reorganizing structure in projects to shake up the groups, and encouraging open communication and interaction. Finding solutions quickly will help keep the project on track. However, when a group’s conflict has devolved to the point of fully dysfunctional, it will likely be necessary to take more drastic measures to refocus the project.
Planning to Address and Resolve the Conflict:
Addressing and removing a conflict in an intergroup setting is not an easy task. As mentioned above, many factors will influence how the different members feel about the conflict and how they are being treated, which must influence the way the conflict is addressed. Additionally, the severity of the conflict, the instigating factors, and the type of conflict will all need to be factored into a plan. While one method may work for one type of conflict, it may not work for all, which is why the cause and the first signs of conflicts are so important to notice. The methods used to address conflict may range from avoidance and problem solving to alternative dispute mechanisms.
First, there are several options to consider when the conflict is minor or can be dealt with at the individual or group level. It is important to include team members in the discussion surrounding the conflict to ensure that they feel understood and valued as a whole. The methods of resolution that can be used are:
- Common Goal: If groups that are working together have differing goals for the project, it can be beneficial to set a goal for the whole team that may only be achieved by all groups working together. This should be tied to the most important aspects of the project in case the conflict resumes shortly after the goal is reached.
- Demonstration: Executives and upper-level employees should focus on fairness and ethical behavior, especially when approaching and giving feedback on the project to the team or in employee-facing situations. This will allow employees to see the dedication and amplify these characteristics.
- Open Communication: Encouraging employees to speak up if there is something they disagree with, reminding employees that the team is all united to work for the good of the company, and ensuring that everyone understands the value that they and their coworkers add to the company will all create open lines of communication that can stop conflict quickly.
- Avoidance: Avoidance will not resolve the underlying conflict, but it may allow a group to work together for a time by simply working around the conflict. It can also allow the group to achieve a purpose that reorients them to the original goal.
- Authoritative Command: Authoritative command should only be used on a minor conflict that cannot be resolved through other processes but can be avoided through a decision based on management. It will not resolve the conflict, but it will help the team to decide what to do next instead of being stuck in gridlock.
When conflict is larger than a simple misunderstanding or competing ideas, or if the options above did not solve the conflict, it may be best to move the conflict into an alternative dispute mechanism. These can be in-house problem-solvers, or the company may bring in outside help. When alternative dispute resolution is used, it should encourage healthy and constructive conflict, but it should also look to resolve the heart of the conflict so that a group will not end up in the same situation in the future. Alternative dispute resolution will require all of the parties to be on board with the idea and to be willing to work with the facilitators.
Intergroup conflict is often a part of projects in the workplace. It can encourage healthy competition that will drive all groups to do better. However, it can cause issues within the groups and eventually jeopardize the entire project. If a conflict begins to appear that threatens the project, it is important to identify the cause, prepare for initial setbacks, and address and resolve the conflict. Conflict is not necessary and can be avoided through some creativity and planning. Doing so will allow groups within the workplace to flourish and achieve their goals.