Groups and how they influence the individual (Part Two)

MenIn an earlier write-up, we looked at what a group is and how the individual who is part of the group functions. Being part of a group comes with challenges, responsibilities and roles.  In this second and final part of our discussions on how groups influence the individual we start with a discussion on conflict.

Conflict resolution in a group

Conflict can be defined as a struggle involving opposing ideas, values, and/or limited resources.

According to Merton Deutsch, conflict exists when there is an “action that is incompatible with another [and it] prevents, obstructs, interferes, injures, or in some way makes the latter less likely or less effective.”

Coser (1964) also describes conflict as a struggle over values and claims to scarce status, scarce power and or scarce resources. The goals of those in the struggle are to damage, neutralize, or actually eliminate one another.

The ideas in these definitions imply incompatibility of opposing ideas or values, the struggle over perceived scarce status, scarce power, and or scarce resources, and the goal of preventing, obstructing, interfering, injuring, or in some way making it less likely that the opposing goal will be achieved.

The incompatibility of ideas, values and or goals is the cause of conflict. The incompatibility may be either real or imagined, but there must be a feeling that important differences exist. This feeling leads to an attempt to prevent, obstruct, interfere, injure, or in some way intervene to achieve the desired end.

The intensity of the conflict, and thus the stress involved, is related to several con­textual variables. First, the more important and attractive the individual goals, the more intense the conflict is likely to be.

(If I am the leader of a group and know that the evolv­ing decision is going to be difficult to implement, and if I think the decision will cause me a great deal of grief, I will fight hard to defeat the proposal.)

Second, the relative attractiveness of the options affects the intensity of the con­flict. If the group perceives two ideas to be equally attractive, there is likely to be great conflict if the members also see the alternatives as being important. Conflict of this type has been called approach-approach conflict. On the other hand, when one alternative seems somewhat more attractive than the other, there is less conflict.

Third, a group may find that the ideas it is considering have both attractive and unattractive features.

(A solution to a parking problem at a company premises might be to provide more space for people to park, but it also might cause them to walk much farther to their work­stations. Such a situation produces approach-avoidance conflict.)

Finally, the number of ideas to consider may affect the conflict. The group that sees several possible alternatives as equally attractive and sees its decision as important may experience very intense conflict. Members want to make the best decision, but they are likely to have trouble sorting through the many alternatives.

The effect of conflict on groups

The term conflict resolution reflects an attitude about conflict. To resolve something is to settle it. To resolve conflict is to bring it to an end. The attitude is that conflict is something that can and ought to be settled. Conflict resolution sometimes is not possible and may not even be desirable.

For example, if two people who are members of a committee, have serious differences over the content of a report from their committee. Each is committed to his position. They know that in the end they will need to come to some agreement, but the active conflict is something that can produce benefits. It may cause Kwaku to be extra careful as he drafts the report and documents his ideas. It also may lead Kwame to be extra critical as he reads what Kwaku writes. The best that they might hope for is to manage the conflict. They may never resolve it, and in fact resolving it might not be desirable at all.

Because this kind of conflict which makes Kwaku to carefully draft report which he is aware Kwame would read carefully, goes to benefit the organization. What happens is that, in the end, a good report is drafted.

The term conflict management is used to refer to handling conflict. This term does not imply that conflict necessarily ought to be brought to a swift conclusion. Nor does it promote the idea that conflict is good or bad. To suggest that conflict must be swiftly resolved denies that it might be “good” and implies that it would be “bad.” A more sen­sible approach is that conflict can be either functional or dysfunctional for a group.

Functional and dysfunctional conflict

A number of people have grown up with the idea that conflict should be avoided. Many people believe in harmony in their groups. They seek interaction with little or no conflict, as if conflict were bad (Wall, Galanes, & Love, 1987).

This attitude may have its root in the fact that conflict is often painful. The argument goes something like this: “Pain is bad. Conflict is painful. Therefore conflict must be bad.” This argument is an easy one for people to believe, because it is sometimes true. Painful experiences are some­times bad, but they also can be good. Likewise, conflict can be bad for us, but it also can be good.

Whether conflict is bad or good depends in part on how skillfully it is managed. Skillfully managed conflict has a good chance of being functional for the group. Poorly managed conflict may tear the social fabric of the group and may be dysfunctional.

The objectives of those involved may affect the usefulness of the conflict. Conflict is most likely to be functional when members value both the group task and each other. This valuing produces the incentive to work through differences. When members do not value each other, they often take on self-centered goals in the end, sometimes adopting an all-or-nothing attitude. When members possess the wrong goal orientation, conflict is likely to be dysfunctional.

Finally, conflict seems to be functional for some kinds of group activities and dys­functional for others. Leonard C. Hawes and David H. Smith (1973), after examining the results of several studies, concluded that conflict is functional when a group is search­ing for and evaluating information. Conflict facilitates the search-and-analysis processes.

On the other hand, conflict is dysfunctional in choice activity (selecting outcomes). Successful groups avoid this kind of dysfunction by concentrating most of their conflict in the middle of their group process, where they are searching for and evaluating infor­mation. The emergence phase marks the end of most of the conflict and is a period of substantial agreement.

Some functions of conflict

Conflict increases involvement

Conflict provides us with the stimuli to continue in a debate. When we have the opportunity to express our views and disagreements, and allow others to do the same, our involvement in a discussion increases. Because not only do we see other people’s views, we also see how our own views stand against others’ views.

Conflict provides an outlet for hostility

People within groups can develop deep-seated hostilities that can be damaging to the social climate and goal attainment of groups. People are through conflict able to air their hostilities. When people realize that they can air their disagreements and still be accepted within the group, that sense decreases acrimony. People are able to release tension through conflict and the airing of their positive and negative views.

Conflict promotes cohesiveness

When groups manage conflict successfully, members tend to develop commitment to one another. There is an increase in mutual respect, and support for one another in the group.

Through a history of being successful under conflict conditions, a group that holds on together through the conflict learns to stick together.

Tips for resolving conflicts

·    Before conflict can be resolved in a group, you need to know what others are thinking about the issue. Talk to other members of the group and get to know their views. You may not be successful if they disagree.
·    Make a list of the behaviours you have observed as being disruptive. Describe the days, times and actual behaviours that bother you. This will minimize arguments and defensiveness.
·    Have some tentative suggestions in mind. Once you say what you don’t like, you must say what is appropriate.
·    Be prepared to listen to the other person’s views carefully. When you have listened carefully, and the other person knows that you have, the person feels more understood and may be more open to change.
·    Attempt to integrate the views of others when possible.


Groups will always exist with us, so long as human societies persist.  Groups involve individuals who interact, share common goals, are interdependent and persist over time.

There are involuntary and voluntary groups. Involuntary groups are groups that we belong in without choice. Voluntary groups are those we freely join.

Formal Organisations, though are also groups, are deliberately formed, have specific goals, operate on formal rules and regulations. Individuals who are part of formal organizations tend to form informal groups within the wider organization, based on social relations that are derived from the wider social norms and conditions from which people come from. These formal groups have characteristics that leaders can use to the advantage of the wider organization.

Conflicts arise in groups because of the variety of ideas, views and interests. The scarcity of status, resources and so on also generate conflict.

Conflict can either be good or bad for a group, depending on how it is handled. But all in all when managed properly, conflicts can strengthen groups and make them more effective.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi
Email: [email protected]

Read the Part One here

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.