Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Getting Past Conflict Resolution: A Complexity View of Conflict

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Getting Past Conflict Resolution: A Complexity View of Conflict

Article excerpt

The traditional view of conflict, as a problematic condition always requiring reduction or elimination and whose conditions or outcomes can be predicted, is incompatible with a complex adaptive systems view of organizations. Thus, conventional approaches to reducing conflict are often futile because the fundamental properties of complex adaptive systems are the source of much organizational 'conflict.' In this paper we offer an alternative view of conflict as pattern fluctuations in complex adaptive systems. Rather than needing reduction or elimination, conflict is the fuel that drives system growth and enables learning and adaptive behaviors, making innovation possible. Instead of focusing on conflict reduction, managers are advised to encourage mindfulness, improvisation, and reconfiguration as responses to conflict that enable learning and effective adaptation.


Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.

William Ellery Charming

Conventional approaches to organizational conflict often do not recognize its potential power for strengthening the human spirit, much less the organizational spirit. Rather, conflict is frequently viewed as a problematic condition-usually between two people or groups-that needs to be reduced, eliminated, or overcome (Rahim, 2002) so that organizational stability is not threatened (Pondy, 1967). Early organizational conflict scholars largely viewed conflict as detrimental to performance and satisfaction (March &. Simon, 1958, Pondy, 1967; Deutsch, 1969; Blake & Mouton, 1964), although some scholars have stressed its value for problem solving or task accomplishment (e.g., Churchman,1979; Mason &. Mitroff, 1981; Jehn, 1995, Amason, 1996; Jehn, 1997). However, the literature continues to characterize conflict as dysfunctional and "today's managers and employees still overwhelmingly view conflict as negative and something to be avoided or immediately resolved" (Jehn, 1997: 530). A complexity view of organizations suggests that another approach to understanding conflict may be more fruitful.

Conventional views of conflict are based on traditional assumptions of organizations as rational, linear systems in which cause and effect are tightly linked, systems are predictable, and organizational stability is achieved through planning and control. From this perspective conflict is a "breakdown" (March & Simon, 1958), an organizational dysfunction caused by management's failure to adequately plan or control (Weber, 1968), or leadership's failure to resolve disagreements (Barnard, 1968). Conflict is often viewed as "pathological" (Barley & Kunda, 1992), an obstacle to achieving "cooperation," and maintaining equilibrium. From the human relations perspective, elimination of conflict is usually the goal (Perrow, 1986). The small groups/teams literature argues that while cognitive conflict should be encouraged because it can enhance performance, affective conflict should be restrained because it is destructive (Amason, 1996:143). Insights from complexity science, however, allow a different way of viewing the nature and utility of conflict. Rather than considering conflict as a breakdown, requiring a "fix," it can be an energy source, offering opportunity and growth. A complexity lens suggests that not only is conflict inevitable, but also it can be a mechanism for adaptation. Moreover, attempts to predict its effects will be for the most part futile because of the complex, nonlinear interactions that characterize organizational behavior.

Over the last decade, ideas from complexity science have challenged the traditional "Newtonian" view of the controllability of organizations (Wheatley, 1999) and argue that systems are fundamentally nonlinear and inherently unpredictable, that disequilibrium is necessary for growth and innovation, and that "creativity lies at the edge of disintegration" (Stacey, 1996: 13). …

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