What is conflict?

Conflict, a noun defined here by the Oxford English dictionary as ‘a serious disagreement or argument’, is a common-place word in the English language and is used in a variety of contexts to describe different types of disputes, disagreements or clashes in beliefs, values, ideas etc.

It’s common to hear conflict being used to describe a war (‘the conflict in Iraq’) on the latest news bulletin, or to read it summarising yet another legal proceeding of some kind (‘conflict of interests’) in one tabloid or another. What is most common though, and often unchanging about this word are the connotations linked to it. Conflict as an notion will generally always conjure up negative images, emotions and scenarios in the minds’ of most people. Why? Well simply put, because conflict can’t ever be a good thing, right? Wrong!


Well, wrong in the sense that my lecturer recently said so, because some books told her so! I know, shocking! Shocking to believe that this word, which for all my life would only ever be used or understood to signal a negative reaction of some kind, can be viewed by anyone as a positive phenomenon.

She had my attention up until this point, but now she had my interest… How was she going to explain this? I just couldn’t imagine ever hearing or reading about conflict without alarm bells sounding in my head.

It turns out, that the issue which acts as the source or catalyst of conflict is apparently neither here nor there according to Buchanan & Huczynski (2010), but controlling and carefully manipulating conflict can lead to positive outcomes, which then in the long-run can mean conflict becomes a positive thing. Get it? I know, it’s a little hard to get your head around at first!

According to Mullins, who writes in his 2005 book ‘Management and Organisational Behaviour’ conflict can be looked at in two distinctly different ways. The traditional view; which encompasses my initial views on the subject, sees conflict as a negative force, which is bad for organisations because of the negative effects produced, often displayed through unnatural and disruptive behaviours by individuals who in turn would traditionally be stopped.

However he goes on to explore conflict as a polar opposite constructive force, characterised as an agent for change, which can energise the workforce and improve performance, resulting in positive outcomes such as better ideas produced, heightened creativity and resolutions to underlying problems previously avoided or left unaddressed.

So, there you have it, conflict isn’t that looming dark cloud of chaos and despair we always thought it was, well not at least according to some of the aforementioned experts on organisational behaviour and management.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be using this blog to explore conflict further, using theoretical models to apply to real-world case studies in an attempt to understand this topic better. Make sure you check back for regular updates, follow me on Twitter here and join in the debate by leaving comments in the comments section of each of my posts.

So for now I leave you with this, can conflict be a positive thing? What are your views? Have you ever benefited from conflict, or do you know of a time where conflict has had a positive result? Let me know, and vote in the poll below too!

In my next post I’ll explore how to maximise conflict and leverage it to achieve full potential in the workplace, but until then don’t forget to give me your thoughts!

Oliver Bailey

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4 thoughts on “What is conflict?

  1. Amanda Osborne says:

    I agree with your lecturer. Conflict can indeed be a good thing, as it may lead to two people solving their problems. Sometimes, the problem is (I haven’t actually seen what I am about to say in any book, so far) that after two people have a disagreement, they may not actually remain in good terms, no matter how many times the two advocate for this. They may say that everything is fine, diplomacy may be used, but it will still be a tense ambiance and trust may be lost. Let me ask you something: have you recently had a disagreement with someone? If yes, then do you still feel the same about them, the same meaning before the conflict?

    • Hi Amanda,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Conflict, and in my opinion conflict resolution doesn’t have to be about ending things on good terms it just needs to be about resolving the conflict.

      Negative conflict between co-workers for instance is to the detriment of the team, the company and the workers themselves if it hinders any ability to be as productive and efficient as possible.

      I think it’s indeed important for conflict of this kind to be resolves, but strongly disagree that it is important for either party to be on good terms outside apart from professionally.

  2. Johan says:

    Hi Oliver,

    Let me start by saying GREAT POST! Especially as an introduction to your blog and this complex topic.

    As an Internal Comms specialist, I see conflict from a number of viewpoints when going in to an organisation to reinvigorate their staff.

    Conflict in most cases is always a bad thing, but only because as you mentioned of the way in which it is handled and dealt with.

    Competitiveness, which can in essence be seen as conflict, conflict in the sense that people are at odds with each other over personal ambition, in my opinion is something that should be welcomed and more so cultivated by any decent manager, HR or internal comms practitioner.

    However, there are some situations where conflict can never be healthy like interdepartmental conflicts over budget restrictions etc. in these cases they’re just pure old fashioned conflict which is always counterproductive.

    While your post was very interesting and I look forward to perusing your future uploads, I wouldn’t champion conflict as a ground-breaking communications aid just yet, don’t let your lecturer completely turn you over to the dark side. If we all spent our days initiating conflict in the workplace, crime rates would suddenly spike through the roof :-).

    Good job, keep it up,


    • Hi Johan,

      Thanks for commenting on my blog, I’m glad you enjoyed the read.

      I agree that competitiveness is a good kind of conflict, personally I find this to be very exciting in the workplace and usually encourages me to up my game.

      However, I think conflicts over things like budgets can also be taken in a positive way, personally if I was told my budget was being cut, then I think this would only motivate me to incentivise my team to work harder and prove why it should be left alone or even increased, no?

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