Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Functional Conflict

Jason Haseldine January 2004

Functional conflict is not a contradiction in terms. Several writers have been identified in this paper to highlight the importance of conflict as a managerial tool used to maximise benefits within the workplace.

Conflict has been defined from the Oxford dictionary and several readings to provide a broad outline of what it means within the workplace. Sociologists and theorists dating back to the late 1800’s have documented conflict and the employer/employee relationship that still remains current today.

To assist us in our approach or attitude towards actions within an organisation, four frames of reference on conflict have been identified. The unitarist, pluralist, interactionist and radical frames identify different understandings as to how organisations are operated.

The frames of reference introduce the terms functional and dysfunctional conflict. Functional conflict is derived from the pluralist and interactionist frames of reference, the former accepting that conflict is inevitable whilst the latter perceives conflict as a positive and necessary action within any organisation.

Several sources of conflict have been identified to provide an understanding as to why functional or dysfunctional conflict arises within the workplace.

Conflict is defined in The Oxford Dictionary (2000) as the ‘opposition of incompatible wishes.’ McShane and Travaglione (2003, p.434) and Huczynski and Buchanan (2001, p.770) both identify perception as the key to conflict. The former identifying one party as perceiving its interests as being opposed and the latter identifying conflicts as a state of mind, which has to be perceived, by the parties involved. Van Gramberg (2002, p.208) identifies conflict as the struggle between two parties over resources.
Conflict within the workplace has been documented as far back as the late 1800’s. The development of the classical organisation theories by Taylor, Fayol and Weber identified formal regulation and authority, which articulates control and the employee/employer relationship.

Control is an important factor within conflict. Child (The Study Guide 2003) stated that control ensures that a predictable level of performance is attained yet unfortunately not everyone within an organisation shares the same goals. Thompson and McHugh (2002, p.103) identify labour process theory and the works of Marx in transforming labour power into labour. This refers to capitalists having control over labour and seeking a maximum return of production, whilst the workers pursue their own interests for job security, higher rewards and satisfying work. This theory results in the employment relationship being inherently conflictive.

Edwards’s study in 1979 (cited in Deery et al, 1997, p.301) highlights how the interests of employees and employers generally collide for ‘what is good for one is frequently costly for the other.’

There are four different frames of reference on conflict; they are unitarism, pluralism, interactionism and the radical or Marxist approach. The frames of reference assist the individual in their approach or attitude towards certain actions within an organisation.

The unitarist expects a harmonious workplace, comprising committed and loyal employees. Conflict is considered a threat and must be eliminated. Further, unions are perceived as unnecessary as they are disruptive and divide employee loyalty. Some key features of the unitarist frame of reference include a commonality of interests between owners and workers, acceptance of the political, social and economic culture and focuses more on resolving conflicts than the actual cause itself. (Van Gramberg, 2002, p.208; Huczynski and Buchanan, 2001, pp.772-773)

Huczynski and Buchanan (2001, pp.773-774) identify the pluralist as one who rejects the unitarist belief that employees have the same interests as management, for the pluralist believes many parties within an organisation will have different goals to that of the organisation. Conflict is inherent; it is an inevitable course of action within the organisation and can be resolved through compromise to the benefit of all. Unions have a legitimate role in the workplace.

Huczynski and Buchanan (2001, p.774) state ‘The interactionist frame of reference on conflict views it as a positive and necessary force within organisations that is necessary for effective performance.’ This frame of reference introduces functional and dysfunctional conflict within the organisation. The interactionist perceives an optimal level of conflict will be advantages to the company. Groups or departments that are not engaging in some level of conflict could be considered lethargic and not responsive.

The final frame of reference is the radical or Marxist approach. This notion rejects the pluralist frame of reference for Van Gramberg (2002, p.209) states ‘the Marxist view is to achieve annihilation of the suppressive social order…unions are seen as vehicles of this social revolution.’

The frames of reference introduced functional and dysfunctional conflict. Huczynski and Buchanan (2001, p.774) define ‘functional conflict is a form of conflict which supports organisational goals and improves performance.’ It derives from both the pluralist and interactionist frame of reference, the former accepting that conflict is inevitable whilst the latter not only accepts it, it also perceives conflict as being a positive and necessary force within organisations. Dysfunctional conflict however hinders organisational performance and can result in either overt (open or visible) or covert (hidden or concealed) forms of action.

Hatch’s study in 1997 (cited in Huczynski and Buchanan, 2001, p.775) developed a contingency model of conflict, which identifies the level of organisation performance based on the level of conflict on a bell-shaped curve. The curve identifies that an optimal level of conflict will result in a high level of performance within the company.

Conflict can be used as a functional tool of management to improve performance by exposing weaknesses and prompting changes. (Huczynski and Buchanan, 2001, p.775). The Study Guide (2003) identifies additional advantages for conflict as: enabling resistance to change to be overcome, promoting group adhesiveness, exposing problems, increasing competition and questioning outdated values and attitudes.

Conflict can develop trust and establish authentic relationships. When conflict is well managed it can increase energy and productivity. Managing conflict constructively can assist supervisors and staff to recognise their mutual interests and work cooperatively. (Diversity@work, 2004)

This view is further supported by Eisenhardt et al study in 1997 (cited in Huczynski and Buchanan, 2001, p.793) who declares ‘the absence of conflict is not harmony, its apathy’ further she highlights that conflict develops an enhanced understanding of choices, allowing better options thus enhancing decision making.

McShane and Travaglione (2003, p.434) identify conflict as either task-related (functional) or socioemotional. Task-related conflict occurs over disagreement with goals, key decision areas or procedures as opposed to socioemotional, which is personal for example personality clashes at work. Task-related conflict helps people recognise problems, identify various solutions and better understand issues.

Thus functional conflict is not a contradiction in terms. Management or departments within an organisation can use conflict as a tool to maximise benefits.

Conversely too much conflict can result in dysfunctional conflict. Dysfunctional conflict from a collective can be overt and covert from an individual aspect. Overt actions include strikes, work bans and go slows to name a few as opposed to covert actions which may entail absenteeism, sabotage, shrinkage and labour turnover. Dysfunctional conflict affects organisational performance and productivity.

Dysfunctional conflict can act as a cancer within an organisation, it can waste time and resources, de-motivate staff, reduce moral, it can lead to financial loss through unproductive labour costs and possible lack of customer satisfaction.
Conflict may take many forms, whilst overt are the most visible; absenteeism (covert) is considerably more costly than overt actions. Inverson’s study in 2000 (cited in Deery et al 1997, p.310) identifies that absenteeism in Australia in 1998 cost industry $2.56 billion.

Sociologists have identified various incidents that will give way to conflict within an organisation. Common examples include: incompatible goals, different values and beliefs, task interdependence, scarce resources, ambiguous roles and communication problems. Additional sources of conflict include self-image and stereotypes, gender, culture, ethics and perception to name a few. (McShane and Travaglione, 2003, page 438; Huczynski and Buchanan, 2001, p.777).

By identifying the source of conflict within an organisation, management can then exercise appropriate mechanisms to either reduce or eliminate this conflict or conversely stimulate functional conflict to maximise performance and productivity.

A recent example of functional conflict within my workplace was based on communication, ambiguity and perception, all of which have been identified as a source of conflict above.

Being a company developing educational resources on the Internet, email is a vital element of the company’s success. Email has grown so rapidly that it is now the most widely accepted form of communication with customers and suppliers and a necessary tool for internal correspondence. Problems existed due to the lack of policy and procedures associated with email. Conflicts have arisen amongst staff due to people misreading or not providing sufficient information within an email. The use of capitals signifies shouting within an email, which some staff were unaware of and the readers had taken offence. Further, lack of greetings and sign off also contributed to frustrations amongst staff.

This conflict has been harnessed through the development of a collaborative team from members representing each department. To avoid any socioemotional conflict a facilitator utilised de Bono’s six hats to brainstorm the issues into functional outcomes. The team have now developed a policy and deployed training sessions for all staff resulting in improved performance in the entire suite of functions within Microsoft Outlook, not just email.

Functional conflict is not a contradiction in terms, as it refers to the deliberate method of controlling the level of conflict by management to ensure an optimal level of performance and exposing any possible weaknesses within an organisation.

Four different frames of reference assist us to understand the approach and attitude towards actions within organisations. The frames of reference bring about functional and dysfunctional conflict.

Functional conflict is a tool that can be used by management to maximise productivity and performance. Dysfunctional conflict is the opposite; it can lead to either overt or covert actions by employees possibly affecting company performance and financial loss.

Finally sociologists have identified various sources of conflict that assist management in understanding why conflict has arisen and how best to manage it accordingly.

Deery SJ, Plowman D & Walsh J 1997, Industrial Relations: A Contemporary Analysis. Sydney: McGraw Hill.

Diversity@work 2004, Workplace conflict: threat or opportunity? viewed 23 Jan. 2004,

Huczynski, A. and Buchanan, D. 2001, Organisational behaviour: an introductory text. 4th edition. Hemel Hempstead UK: Prentice Hall Europe.

McShane, S., and Travaglione, T 2003, Organisational Behaviour on the Pacific Rim.
McGraw Hill Australia.

The Oxford Dictionary 2000, ed. P Hanks, Oxford University Press, New York.

The University of South Australia 2003, Study Guide - Work and Organisation (11337 ver4). Written by L Faulkner. Adelaide.

Thompson, P and McHugh, D. 2002, Work Organisations 3rd edition, Palgrave, New York.

Van Gramberg, Bernadine 2002, employee relations management. Prentice Hall, Sydney.

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