Conflict is the condition in which the needs or desires of two or more parties appear to be incompatible. When two or more parties vie for the same thingwhether it is money, materials, space, time, or any other resourcethey are in conflict. The word conflict comes from the Latin fligere ("to strike") and com ("together"), so it is not surprising that one of the images that often comes to mind when we speak of conflict is that of striking or butting heads.
This negative image often brings to mind other words that evoke discomfort and struggle, such as anger, pressure, argument, enemy, disagreement , and obstacle . Vocabulary that was once restricted to the battlefield has made its way into boardrooms. People talk about "shooting down" coworkers' ideas, "coming up with a plan of attack," "rolling out the big guns," "mounting an offensive," and "dropping a bombshell." A visitor from Mars could easily get the idea that executives on this planet settle management disputes with weapons of mass destruction.
The belligerent mind-set with which people approach conflict is indicative of their belief that conflict springs from some sort of malevolent force: the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the dark side of the moon, the fundamentally flawed nature of humankind. As we pointed out earlier, this type of value judgment does conflict a great disservice. How different we would feel about conflict if we could learn to think of it as simply another expression of human diversity, which, in fact, it is.
Whenever people are brought together, each with individual needs, there exists the potential for disagreement. Conflict is inevitable, at some point, in all personal relationships and, even more so, in business transactions. In what other social institution besides business are people with different cultural backgrounds, values, and beliefs, and with different psychological needs and makeup , thrust together almost at random for eight or more hours a day, year after year, in the hope of working together to achieve a common set of objectives? It is inconceivable that all parties will consistently agree on all matters.
And business conflict is not found only among the Goliaths at the top. It is omnipresent in organizations. It transcends hierarchies, cuts across functions, and exists at that basic molecular unit of workplace reality where supervisors meet direct reports and where one employee interacts with another.
Even worse , the modern industrial enterprise, with its hyperactivity and need for business at the speed of thought, its asynchronous work patterns and global reach, and its increasing reliance on electronic communication, has become a holding pen for conflict.
Senior executives need, more than ever, to become adept at managing conflict throughout their organization. To do this, they need to understand more about the roots of conflictin other words, the reasons that conflict is essential to the human condition.