Conflict is a multifaceted phenomenon . It can be manifest or latent, overt or hidden. Manifest conflict is in-your-face disagreement . It occurs when executives square off at a committee meeting or when someone comes into your office complaining loudly about next year's budget. Latent conflict is submerged disagreement. It occurs when people sit quietly through meetings plotting ways to sabotage their teammates when they walk out of the room. It exhibits itself indirectly, through lack of cooperation between departments or procrastination on project deadlines.
Take, for example, a group of Chinese engineers from a consumer goods company in Shanghai. The team faced a raft of issues: Its decision-making process was downright cryptic; its manager never asked for anyone 's input; no one knew who was responsible for what; and a few extroverts dominated team meetings.
Did the engineers remain passive and stoically endure the dysfunctional environment? Not on your life! Although conflict never became manifest, it bubbled just below the surface. Some engineers offered the proverbial cold shoulder to colleagues. Other avoided interaction with fellow team members . And those who dominated the airwaves often found that their requests for support were blatantly ignored. The latent effects of not confronting conflict, it turned out, were not covert.
Whether conflict remains latent or is put on the table so there is a chance that it can be managed depends in large part on the culture of the organizationand on the signals sent down by the senior management team. The example of the German team is instructive: When the leader signaled that disagreement was healthy , his employees obliged by providing candid feedback.