Conflict is part and parcel of life and conflicts do occur in every organization or between and among organizations. To effectively and constructively deal with conflicts people need to understand the dynamics of conflicts and the strategies for effectively dealing with them. An understanding of the conflicts is the first step in conflict resolution and as such in this article we are going to find out what conflict is?
There has been no shortage of definitions of conflict. Despite the divergent meanings the term has acquired, several common themes which underline most definitions. Conflict must be perceived by the parties to it; whether or not conflict exists is a perception issue. If no one is aware of a conflict, then it is generally agreed that no- conflict exists. Additional commonalities in the definitions are opposition or incompatibility and some form of interaction. These factors set the conditions that determine the beginning point of theconflict process. According to Robbins 2003 “we can define conflict, then, as a process that begins when one party perceives that another party has negatively affected, or is about to negatively affects something that the first party cares about.”
This definition is purposely broad. It describes that point in any ongoing activity when an interaction “crosses over to become an inter-party conflict. It encompasses the wide range of conflicts that people experience in organizations—- incompatibility of goals, differences over interpretations of facts, disagreements based on behavioral expectations, and the like. Finally, our definition is flexible enough to cover the full range of conflict levels—- from overt and violent acts to subtle forms of disagreements.
Traditional view towards conflict:
People perceive conflict differently. You may perceive it part and parcel of life but I may look at it as something different. Historically, the early approach to conflict assumed that all conflict was bad. Conflict was viewed negatively, and it was used synonymously with such terms as violence, destruction and irrationality to reinforce its negative connotation. Conflict, by definition, was harmful and was to be avoided. The traditional view was consistent with the attitudes that prevailed about group behavior in the 1930s and 1940s conflict was seen as a dysfunctional outcome resulting from poor communication, a lack of openness and trust between people, and the failure of managers to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of their employees. Robbins 2003
The human relation view towards conflict:
The Human relations position argued that conflict was a natural occurrence in all groups and organizations. Since conflict was inevitable, the human relations school advocated acceptance of conflict. Proponents rationalized its existence: It cannot be eliminated, and there are even times when conflict may benefit a group’s performance. The human relations view dominated conflict theory from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s. Robbins 2003
The interactionists view towards conflict:
While the human relations approach accepted conflict, the inter-actionist approach encourages conflict on the grounds that a harmonious, peaceful, tranquil, and cooperative group is prone to becoming static, apathetic, and non-responsive to needs for change and innovation. The major contribution of the inter-actionist approach, therefore, is encouraging group leaders to maintain an ongoing minimum level of conflict—- enough to keep the group viable, self-critical, and creative. As such this view towards conflict aims at generating creativity, innovation, change management etc. through a certain level of conflict. Robbins 2003
Functional vs. Dysfunctional Conflict:
There are two ways of looking at organizational conflict. Each of these ways is linked to a different set of assumptions about the purpose and function of organizations. These two opposing views of conflict are functional and dysfunctional.
The functional view of organizational conflict sees conflict as a productive force, one that can stimulate members of the organization to increase their knowledge and skills, and their contribution to organizational innovation and productivity. Unlike the dysfunctional conflict, this more modern approach considers that the keys to organization success lie not in structure, clarity and orderliness, but in creativity, responsiveness and adaptability. The successful organization, then, needs conflict so that diverging views can be put on the table, and new ways of doing things can be created. The functional view of conflict also suggests that conflict provides people with feedback about how things are going. Even "personality conflicts" carry information to the manager about what is not working in an organization, affording the opportunity to improve. If you subscribe to a flexible vision of effective organizations, and recognize that each conflict situation provides opportunity to improve, you then shift your view of conflict. Rather than trying to eliminate conflict, or suppress its symptoms, your task becomes managing conflict so that it enhances people and organizations, rather than destroying people and organizations. So, the task is to manage conflict, and avoid what we call "the ugly"....where conflict is allowed to eat away at team cohesiveness and productivity.
The dysfunctional view of organizational conflict is imbedded in the notion that organizations are created to achieve goals by creating structures that perfectly define job responsibilities, authorities, and other job functions. Like a clockwork watch, each "cog" knows where it fits, knows what it must do and knows how it relates to other parts. This traditional view of organizations values orderliness, stability and the repression of any conflict that occurs. Using the timepiece analogy we can see the sense in this. What would happen to time-telling if the gears in our traditional watches decided to become less traditional, and re-define their roles in the system? To the "traditional" organizational thinker, conflict implies that the organization is not designed or structured correctly or adequately. Common remedies would be to further elaborate job descriptions, authorities and responsibilities, increase the use of central power (discipline), separate conflicting members, etc. This view of organizations and conflict causes problems. Unfortunately, most of us, consciously or unconsciously, value some of the characteristics of this "orderly" environment. Problems arise when we do not realize that this way of looking at organizations and conflict only fits organizations that work in routine ways where innovation and change are virtually eliminated. Today, virtually all organizations work within a very disorderly context -- one characterized by constant change and a need for constant adaptation. Trying to "structure away" conflict and disagreement in a dynamic environment requires tremendous amounts of energy, and will also suppress any positive outcomes that may come from disagreement, such as improved decision-making and innovation. In essence the dysfunctional view of conflict is not encouraged by modern day management experts as according to them it discourages creativity, change adaptation, and responsivenss to changing conditions.
Conflict is part and parcel of life. All of us have conflicts but it is the ability to understand and effectively deal with conflicts which is important. In fact the first and foremost step towards conflict is understanding what conflict is? By understanding the true meaning of conflict we can then move towards resolving it. Let us resolve the conflicts and make the world a better place to live in.

Author's Bio: 

Dr Adalat Khan
is the president of Mina Resources Sdn Bhd and an international columnist and expert in conflict resolution who can be reached through You can read his other articles in his blob at: