The Importance of Conflict

Organizations and society are both significantly influenced by the conflicts that take place within their respective systems. No system is spared from conflict between individuals or collective groups of people. As Davis and Scott state ” conflict and change are a part of organizational life no less than consensus and stability.”(82) As a result, to gain a better understanding of the functioning of a system, removed form the ideal of how it should operate, the conflicts that occur must be examined. Furthermore, conflict can inspire innovation that reshapes systems and society.

Over the past century conflict, not just within organizations but on a larger political and social scale, has been one of the most influential forces acting in our world. Consider conflicts like the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which shaped not only the policies of the two nations involved but political interactions on a global scale as well. Such conflicts force society to change, and shift the nature of the larger system. No matter how formalized a system might be, conflicts like the Cold War change even the most clearly stated goals. Yet the effects of conflicts are not necessarily negative, for they can lead to important innovation.

It could be argued that without conflicts like World War Two, and the arms race it inspired, important scientific developments like nuclear power would have been much slower in developing. On the organizational level conflicts, like those between and within companies, have pushed the systems to evolve in order to survive. For Example, marketing has developed past the myopic focus on selling a product to satisfying the needs of the consumer as a result of companies’ need to better position themselves to survive in a competitive market. The conflict of the competitive market forced practices to adapt and evolve, leading to a new method of doing business that is now widely embraced. The innovative influence of conflict not only shapes the system itself, but can be seen with companies as well.

Despite the rational definition of organizations as collectives oriented to the pursuit of relatively specific goals and exhibiting highly formalized social structures, the conflicts within a company can greatly influence its behavior. The interactions between employees, managers, and shareholders are all influenced by the goals of the individuals and the power structures of the organization. The goals of individuals, while they might share a vested interest in the continued existence of the organization, can conflict easily. Consider Toyota’s current issues arising out of malfunctioning equipment, and how different segments of the company might have conflicting goals, for example. Where the shareholders might desire a quick solution to the problem to help raise stock prices, the upper-management might be focusing on addressing the issues that led to the problem to begin with in an effort to prevent future crisis. While these goals are both concerned with the survival of the company, the could conflict on the nature of how to address the problem now facing Toyota. The shareholder’s potential focus on the here and now could come into conflict with the management’s long term goals, forcing the company to innovate and adapt in order to meet the differing desires.  While this might not actually be the case within Toyota, one can still see how the conflict between individuals and groups within an organization can drive action.

Historically conflict has been a constant, with our perception of the past being shaped by our knowledge of the conflicts which took place between societies, cultures, and innovative thinkers. Socrates himself came into conflict with the social ideals of his time, and was executed for challenging them. Yet, to this day we still study the teachings of Socrates because they questioned prior conceptions and proposed new ways of thinking. In modern organizations conflict remains present, shaping the behavior of companies by forcing change and creating the necessity for innovation in the face of differing goal sets. Consequently, the importance of conflict can not be ignored because it helps to shed light on the complex interactions of individuals and collectives that shape organizational behavior.

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One Response

  1. Your description of conflict fit well when compared too The Rise and Fall of Enron. Leaders in Enron like Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling actively avoided conflict within their organizational structure, and basically let other executives run the company into the ground. What if someone would have stepped up earlier and questioned the outrageous investments the company was making. Maybe Enron would be more than just a page in the business ethics history book.

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