Hidden Conflict in Organizations: Uncovering Behind-the-Scenes Disputes

Deborah M. Kolb

Jean Bartunek

Papers presented at a symposium of the 1988 meeting of the Academy of Management marked the genesis of this book. Kolb & Bartunek set up that symposium, acted as editors for the book, and also made substantial contributions to the work.

In a prefatory statement, Kolb notes how a reviewer of the book's first draft pointed to "a dialectical tension between the way the authors in this book talk about conflict and the dominant ways conflict theorists talk about it" (p. viii). That reviewer claimed that scholarly discussion usually focuses on public and formal aspects of conflict, a process characterized by rationality--whereas the authors of this book give their attention to private and informal conflicts hidden in the "nooks and crannies of organizations" (p. viii). This focus stamps the book as necessary reading for anyone interested in a comprehensive understanding of conflict theory. The dominant strength of this book is that it looks beyond the sometimes fraudulently tidy constructs of conflict theory to the messy and often irrational nature of social intercourse.

While the editors claim that their focus is unusual in the context of conflict theory, the approach fits well with an overall trend in organizational studies to move toward ethnographic approaches to studying organizational behaviour. For example, they see the formal ways of identifying, articulating, and dealing with conflict as being highly symbolic and ritualistic, legitimized by social myths. The main function of such mythological systems, say the authors, is to maintain the status quo. Formal organizational theories support the status quo in that they advocate socialization of the individual and move dissident members toward conformity. Yet resolving conflict--that is, dealing with the roots of the conflict--may imply fundamental changes in balances within the system. Achieving such changes can be difficult and involve risks that organizational members are unwilling to chance.

Their reluctance is easy to understand. Conflict is about differences. Some of these differences are extremely difficult to resolve because they result from different views of reality. These views grow out of acculturation of the individual. Within North American society, cultural imprints on the individual will vary greatly, depending upon demographic affiliations. Expecting that the individual will be willing, or even able, to make fundamental changes in life-view is more than a little optimistic. In that sense, organizations may be realistic in assuming that it is easier to achieve superficial compliance than to get at the roots of conflict.

It may be important nonetheless to remember that organizational culture, like the broader culture in which it is set, is interactive, dynamic, and multi-dimensional. An individual in an organization does not wear the corporate culture like a lab coat and take it off when the five-o'clock whistle sounds. Rather the person tries to achieve some kind of dynamic balance among competing cultural groupings with which he or she is affiliated. Therefore, there will be a necessity on the part of the individual to work toward some degree of compromise.

The Dubinskas article gives further support to the editors' thesis. He describes the cultural differences between the scientific and account arms of one biotech start-up organization. The polar differences in the world-views of these two groups would seem to make conflict the main characteristic of such an organization. There is little hope of resolving the conflict; at best, the organization can work to contain it. The situation will be familiar to many communication specialists who work within organizations with scientific research aims. Those who work in communication capacities frequently confront the reality that scientists do not always see the necessity to communicate the results of their work. Conflict that sometimes characterizes relations between medical doctors and support staff in hospitals may arise from fundamental differences in how each sees his /her position and relationship to others in the organization. These differences are ingrained in the system. No employee communication survey is likely to get at hierarchical and other status factors that may be the dominant influence; and no attempt at conflict resolution will change the situation until the larger society changes how it acculturates people to view the work of doctors, nurses, and others who work within the health-care industry.

Bartunek et al. give a second example of this dialectical tension between the formal and informal ways of handling conflict. They describe the way in which decisions are reached in the process of electing a university chancellor. Lobbying and political trading sessions precede the formal meetings that legitimize, rather than decide, who will be the next chancellor. Kolb also describes the kind of private and informal manipulations that can influence organizational decisions. For example, she outlines the covert character-assassination techniques that can decide the careers of individuals in organizations. Casual remarks can plant seeds of doubt regarding individual performance and can acquire the status of fact through repetition as in the following case example (p. 76): "Sarah is great and it is too bad that we can't keep her." (Start with the conclusion.) "Her work is high quality." (Block discussion by implying you have already considered all the positive attributes.) "Not enough of it [her work] is out." ( Justification for firing is based on highly subjective, individual, and possible fictitious evaluation.)

Other chapters address social drinking as a means of reducing the tensions of police work in London, factors that inhibit change in a school situation, motivators for change in an accounting firm, a strike that involved International Harvester Company, and gender conflict.

In the concluding chapter, the authors note the traditional quest for prescriptive approaches to conflict resolution. They see, however, a current trend to move toward research approaches that uncover and articulate the phenomena of organizational interactions. The objective of such research, they say, should be to expand the knowledge base and provide the practitioner with a more sophisticated repertoire of concepts. Kolb & Bartunek's collection of articles fulfils this criterion, including a few prescriptions for conflict resolution. This approach is congruent with a widespread tendency across many areas of study to return to more qualitative and humanistic research perspectives. Sage Publications, the publishers for the book, exemplify this trend.

The somewhat exaggerated claims of the editors to be taking a novel approach to conflict resolution should not detract from a favourable view of the scholarship that is apparent in the book. The succinct recapitulation of organizational theory that is relevant to conflict studies, and the extensive notes and bibliographical references in the book give the reader quick and effective access to the conflict resolution literature. The case-study approach makes the book attractive as supplementary reading.



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