Sources of conflict

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Conflict is inevitable in organizations. The projects in the organization are constrained by several factors including budget, scope, and quality, which can lead to conflicts. [1] If organizational conflicts are not managed well, it may lead to decreasing team performance and have a negative effect on the outcome. Conflict management can be defined as the process of identifying and managing conflicts constructively. [2] In order to achieve effective conflict management, it is crucial to address conflict early to prevent it from escalating, why a project manager must understand the different sources of conflict and its tendency to escalate. A project manager should not necessarily try to avoid or resolve a conflict but should address the conflict before it escalates and manage it so that it leads to a useful outcome for the organization.

This article aims to cover multiple aspects and factors initiating an organizational conflict to enhance understanding of how to identify, prevent, and manage dysfunctional conflict. Several works of literature on organizational conflict are applied to give a broad perspective on the sources of conflict. The article focuses on the primary sources of organizational conflict and how a conflict may evolve.


Characteristics of conflict

There is a lot of literature on conflict, and it is perceived differently from the scholar in various fields such as sociology, economics, anthropology, etc. hence, there is no universally accepted definition. Although Rahim (2001) conclude that the various definitions are similar in the following points:

  • Conflicting interests between individuals and/or groups,
  • The conflicting interests must be recognized of a conflict to exist,
  • Conflict is a process; it arises from existing relationships between individuals or groups, reflecting on their past interactions and the contexts,
  • Actions from one or both sides result in the goals of others being obstructed. [2]

Conflict is an interactive process that is incurred by disagreement and incompatibility within or between social entities, e.g., individual, group, organization, etc. [3] Roloff (1987) explains the occurrence of an organizational conflict by: "members engage in activities that are incompatible with those of colleagues within their network, members of other collectivizes, or unaffiliated individuals who utilize the services or products of the organization.” [4]

The literature disagrees on whether an organizational conflict is detrimental or beneficial for an organization. There is a primary view of conflict as a negative process in organizations. [5] However, more literature has begun to perceive conflict functional for the organization. A moderate amount of conflict managed constructively can contribute to attaining and maintaining the desired level of organizational effectiveness. [6]

The impact of conflict on a team's performance depends on the specific type of conflict experienced within the team and organization. [5] The table below lists some examples of dysfunctional and functional outcomes from conflict an organization may encounter.

Table 1: Examples of dysfunctional and functional outcomes from conflict: [2] [5]
Dysfunctional outcomes: Functional outcomes:
Detriment the team and individual effectiveness Enhance the team and individual performance
Decrease communication between individuals and groups Increasing creativity and stimulating innovation
Deteriorate the project’s outcome Improve decision making

Type of conflicts

This article divides the source of conflict based on its organizational level since all types of conflict does not function similarly. Organizational conflict can occur at the organizational levels; intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup and intergroup as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1: The organizational levels. Inspiration from Rahim and Bonoma (1979) [6]

Intrapersonal: This type of conflict is experienced within an individual when the execution of a task is inconsistent with the person’s expertise, interest, values, etc. [2] The conflict arises if there is a significant incompatibility between the role an organization member expects to perform and the role that the organization requires of the person. This can also be termed as role conflict. [6]

Interpersonal: This type of conflict arises due to fundamental differences between two or more organizational members who are required to interact to perform a task. [2]

Intragroup: This type of conflict is experienced among the members of a group or its subgroup, where the members conflict regarding the task, goals, interest, procedures etc.

There are two main types of intragroup conflicts: Relationship conflict is experienced when there is emotional tension and personal incompatibilities between the group members regardless of the task. Task conflict arises when the group members disagree about the best practices for performing the task. [7] According to Pelled & Adler (1994), there are a number of theorists who argues that relationship conflict tends to be dysfunctional while task conflict tends to be functional. [8]

Intergroup: Intergroup conflict is common in an organization. This type of conflict arises when there are disagreements or differences between two or more groups or departments within an organization - production, marketing, headquarters are some examples of departments. [6]

Source of conflicts

An organization must not be considered as a closed system. External factors and dynamics contribute to and impacts the conflicts experienced within an organization. However, this article will only focus on the sources of conflicts within an organization based on the different organizational levels.

General, in order for a conflict to arise, the level of intensity must exceed for the individual to experience or become aware of a potential conflict. The level of intensity differs among individuals, which means some individuals may experience a conflict sooner than others under similar situations. [3] Subjective processes often exacerbate the sources of conflict in the ways individuals perceive and interpret the situation. [2] Moreover, a general contributor to the escalation of the conflicts is emotions, since these control and direct behaviours. When individuals react in conflict, it is based on the context, but the individual may also be reacting from the experience of previous similar situations. [9] These factors are recurring as they are embedded in the other sources and can generate and affect the sources of conflict.

Multiple authors of different fields have researched conflict, which has led to identifying many sources of conflicts. The sources of conflict are mainly from the scientific paper by Rahim & Bonoma (1979). The key sources of conflict will be examined in the following section:

Intrapersonal conflict

The sources of intrapersonal conflict are mainly situationally imposed. The following section will examine two main sources of intrapersonal conflict:

Misassignment and goal inconsistency: An intrapersonal conflict may occur if an organizational member is misassigned to do a task that the person is not competent to accomplish. The member may feel an undesirable frustration if the person does not possess the appropriate expertise to do the job. Furthermore, the goal of the organization must be consistent with the organizational member's goals and expectations to motivate them to do the job. [6]

Inappropriate demand: An organizational member may experience an intrapersonal conflict if it is impossible for the person to properly fulfil all the demands of the member’s position even by working at the maximum capacity. In addition, if the member’s expectation of their role is not fulfilled, the person can find the job demotivated, initiating an intrapersonal conflict. [6]

Interpersonal conflict

Groups consist of individuals; hence groups respond like individuals. Usually, a group does not respond constructively to disagreement and differences when the identity of the group is felt threatened. The most significant sources of interpersonal conflict are elaborated as follows:

Personality characteristics: Personality clashes may occur due to disagreements of fundamental differences in goals, values, etc. People perceive things differently, making it difficult to understand one who is the opposite. Emotional intelligence, meaning the ability to understand one’s self and others is critical in a team environment. [1] If people are experience inconsistencies with their integrity, it can be almost impossible to reach a compromise which often leads to a conflict. Social settings also influence the interactions between individuals and form the interpretation of people interacting. [7]

Lack of trust: Mistrust among the organizational members often contributes to a dysfunctional organisational environment. The organizational members work toward a collective organizational goal, which makes their tasks dependent on each other. The interdependence among the members makes it necessary to build trust within the organisation to prevent conflicts. [6]

Ineffective communication: Unintentional communication problems and misunderstandings may initiate a conflict. People often fail to communicate about challenging and complex issues, especially in emotional situations. An Individual's ability to communicate effectively may be affected by other factors such as culture, position and environment. Projects are managed through communication, which makes communication a key factor for projects to succeed. [10]

Different interests and incompatible goals: It is almost inevitable that a grouping of the organisation does not create different goals and time horizons. If the goals are incompatible, it can contribute to conflict, especially when it compromises with individuals’ interests and goals. [6]

Intragroup conflict

Conflicts within a group can arise from a variety of sources. The most significant are further elaborated in the following sections:

Task characteristics: The extent of a task, whether it is a simple (routine) or complex (non-routine) can contribute to a conflict. In general, complex tasks are more likely to generate interpersonal conflict between the group members. If the task is not well understood, the execution of the task requires more debate among group members leading to a greater potential for conflict to arise. [11]

Group composition, diversity, and size: These aspects can have a significant effect on many group processes and contribute to conflicts arising. Groups can be composed in various ways regarding the size and the diversity of organizational members. Larger groups have greater diversity and are more likely to be composed of individuals with too diverse backgrounds, experiences, and opinions, which increases the potential for conflicts. [11] Organizational members from different backgrounds have different skills and perceive organizational issues differently. Furthermore, groups with more people have more difficulties with communication and developing cohesion. [11] In these situations, the organizational member will experience undesirable conflict and have difficulty working and solving the group problem. [6]

Cohesiveness and group thinking: Group pressures can change or affect individuals’ opinions. [6]. Individuals can feel forced to conform to the thinking of the majority of the group and thereby unwillingly omit their opinions in order to avoid conflict.

Conflict aftermath: Previous conflicts and the legacy of these conflicts, e.g., whether a group had success or not, are another factor for intragroup conflict. A group that did not achieve the desired outcome may experience more tension, which can contribute to deteriorated relationships among organization members. If a conflict has been suppressed and never been resolved, the conflict may escalate into a more serious conflict. Opposite, if the conflict is resolved with satisfaction for all group members, is there better conditions for a more cooperative relationship [12]

Intergroup conflict

As for the other types of conflict, there are different sources of intergroup conflict. Some of the previous sources are also vail for this type of conflict, such as; miscommunication and different interests. The three most significant sources for intergroup conflict will be explained further in the following section:

Dependence on scarce resources: An organization consisting of different subunits that often depend on common resources both material and nonmaterial to achieve their respective goals. Whenever different subunits compete for scarce resources, conflict is almost inevitable. [6]

Task interdependency: Subunits must often engage in mutual tasks, which require an exchange of resources and information. A high task interdependence increases the need for information sharing, coordination, and cooperation. [7] When the task interdependence is low, the subunits’ performance is less dependent on the effort of the other subunits. Under these conditions, the organizational members can better operate as individuals and pursue their respective goals. High interdependency creates a greater potential for conflict, especially when the goals of each subunit are incompatible. [11]

Uncertain responsibility: Authority and responsibility between organizational members are not always clearly defined. Organizational members tend to pass unwanted tasks onto another member when responsibility and authority are uncertain. A clear definition of the responsibility will decrease ambiguities and the conflicts arising from them. [6]


As stated in this article, conflict is inevitable in an organization, as it occurs due to people interacting. A manager must understand and recognize the proper diagnosis of the sources of different types of conflict because its underlying sources may not be as it appears. If a manager attempts to solve the conflict without a proper diagnosis, there is a probability that the manager may solve the wrong problem. [3]

Conflict is a dynamic process that operates as a cycle. [12] The effect of a conflict changes original sources or generate new ones. The cycle perpetuates the conflict, which can potentially develop into an escalation if not handled constructively. [13]

Conflict can both be detrimental and beneficial for an organization depending on multiple factors. Therefore, managers must understand when conflicts should be discouraged or resolved as quickly as possible, while other conflicts should be allowed to arise. [5] In situations where there is too little conflict, it can be a difficult task for the manager to increase conflict. By understanding some of the sources of conflict, a change of the group composition could encourage a functional conflict.


This article is not a guide for conflict management but merely a theoretical understanding of the underlying mechanisms for a conflict to occur. However, it is essential to notice that reality in an organization does not always conform as described by the literature and theorist. Organizational behaviour will vary, and individual processes and factors inside the organization are not be covered by this article. This article aims to provide a general understanding of the sources of conflict.

Conflicts are complex, which also applies to their sources, as multiple factors affect how conflicts are generated. This article only focuses on the main sources of organizational conflicts. Furthermore, in order to truly cover the understanding of conflicts, further investigation and literature are necessary. This article does not cover other essential aspects of conflict, such as conflict management. As there are many different sources of conflicts, so there will be multiple practices for managing conflicts.

This article has used a common classification to understand the sources of organizational conflict, focusing on types of conflicts: intrapersonal, interpersonal, intergroup and intragroup. The literature applied in this article classifies conflict differently. However, it is discovered that the same sources of conflict recur. Conflicts occur in various settings, e.g., political conflicts between countries, however, this article only covers conflict from an organizational context. The sources and their tendency to escalate will probably differ in other contexts, while some may recure because the same factors will also be present in these contexts.

Annotated bibliography

Rahim, M. A., (2001) Managing conflict in organizations (3rd Ed.) Several of Dr. Rahim’s book and scientific articles are used as sources in this article. Dr. Rahim is the founder of the International Association for Conflict Management and his work is cited a lot in various literature. The book covers several aspects of managing conflict in an organization, although mainly chapters 1 and 2 are used as sources. Chapter 1 introduces organizational conflict, including different definitions of conflict from various disciplines, and chapter 2 covers a more theoretical understanding of the nature of conflict, emphasizing organizational conflict.

Rahim, M. A., & Bonoma, T. V., (1979). Managing organizational conflict: A model for diagnosis and intervention. This scientific paper is one of the primary sources of the article. The paper classifies the source of conflicts into three major categories: intrapersonal, intragroup, and intergroup. The paper identified several factors that can contribute to or escalate conflicts

Jehn, A. K., & Bendersky, C., (2003). Intragroup conflict in organizations: A contingency perspective on the conflict-outcome relationship. The scientific paper reviews recent empirical work on interpersonal conflict in organizations, thereby providing a multiple disciplinary view on the intragroup conflict. Among many aspects, the paper considers the different types of conflict and the circumstances under which conflict occurs.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Project Management: A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide), 7th Edition (2021). chapter 2
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Rahim, M. A., (2001). Managing conflict in organizations (3rd Ed.).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Rahim, M. A. (2002). Toward a Theory of Managing Organizational Conflict. International Journal of Conflict Management, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2002.
  4. Roloff, M.E. Interpersonal communication: the social exchange approach. (1981). Sage, Beverly Hills, Ca.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Jehn, K. A., & Bendersky, C. (2003). Intragroup Conflict in Organizations: a Contingency Perspective on the Conflict-Outcome Relationship. Research in Organizational Behavior, 25(03), 187–242.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 Rahim, A., & Bonoma, T. V. (1979). Managing Organizational Conflict: A Model for Diagnosis and Intervention. Psychological Reports, 44(3_suppl), 1323–1344.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Korsgaard, A. M., Soyoung Jeong, S., Mahony, D. M., & Pitariu, A. H. (2008). A multilevel view of intragroup conflict. Journal of Management, 34(6), 1222–1252.
  8. Pelled, L. H., & Adler, P. S. (1994). Antecedents of Intergroup Conflict in Multifunctional Product Development Teams: A Conceptual Model. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 41(1), 21–28.
  9. Mayer, B. (2000). The dynamics of conflict resolution. Conflict Resolution, 263. Retrieved from Dynamics of Conflict Resolution.pdf
  10. Thuesen, C. (2020). Doing projects. In Principles and Practice of Informal Education. 95-97.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Mooney A. C., Holahan P. J, & Amason A. C. (2007). Don’t Take It Personally: Exploring Cognitive Conflict as a Mediator of Affective Conflict. Journal of Management Studies 44:5. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6486.2006.00674.x
  12. 12.0 12.1 Pondy, L. R. (1967). Organizational Conflict : Concepts and Models. Administrative Science Quarterly, 12(2), 296–320.
  13. Fritchie, R. (1995). Conflict and its management. British Journal of Hospital Medicine, 53(9), 471–473.
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