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Intergroup Conflict in Organizations

Intergroup Conflict in Organizations

Intergroup conflict is the behavior that occurs among groups when participants identify with one group and perceive that other groups may block their goal achievement, involves group identification, observable group differences, and frustration. Intergroup conflict within organizations can occur horizontally across departments, or vertically between different levels of the organization.

Sources of Conflict

Organizational characteristics that can generate conflict include goal incompatibility, differentiation, task interdependence, and limited resources.

  • Goal incompatibility is probably the greatest cause of intergroup conflict. Exhibit 12.1 shows examples of goal conflict between typical marketing and manufacturing departments.
  • Differentiation, the differences in orientations among managers of different functional departments, may even involve cultural differences brought on by mergers or acquisitions.
  • Task interdependence, the dependence of one unit on another for materials, resources, or information, tends to increase the potential for conflict as opposed to pooled interdependence when units have little need to interact.
  • Limited resources, over matters as common as budget, may involve competition between groups.

 Rational versus Political Model

When goals are in alignment, there is little differentiation, departments have pooled interdependence, and resources seem abundant, managers can use a rational model [Exhibit 12.2] in which goals are clear and choices are made in a logical way. When opposite characteristics are in place, the political model comes into play because disagreement and conflict make power and influence needed to reach decisions. The political model describes organizations that strive for participation in decision making by empowering workers.

Power and Organizations

Individual versus Organizational Power

Sources of individual power include the following:

  • legitimate power is the authority granted by the organization to the position
  • reward power stems from the ability to bestow rewards
  • coercive power is the authority to punish others
  • expert power derives from a person’s skill or knowledge
  • referent power comes from personal characteristics people admire.

Power in organizations results from the structure of the organization, with power vested in the position rather than in the person. Some positions in the hierarchy have access to great resources or have great responsibility and authority.

Power versus Authority

Power is the ability of one person or department in an organization to influence other people to bring about desired outcomes. Authority, which flows down the vertical hierarchy, is prescribed by the formal hierarchy and is vested in the position held.

Vertical Sources of Power

Whereas top management typically retains a large amount of power, some employees may obtain power disproportionate to their formal positions, and can influence in an upward direction. Four major sources for vertical power include:

  • Formal position provides legitimate power.
  • Resources (responsible for allocation of budgets, salaries, equipment, facilities).
  • Control of decision premises and information. Top managers set guidelines or constraints for decision making at lower levels. They also control information to lower levels and have access to more information than do other managers.
  • Network centrality stems from central location in the organization with access to information and people that are critical to the company’s success.

Horizontal Sources of Power

Horizontal power is not on the organization chart. It refers to relationships laterally and the ability of respective departments to impose their interests on other departments. Departments are not equal in power as indicated from the results of Perrow’s survey, shown in Exhibit 12.4. Today e-commerce departments and information service departments have growing power in many organizations.

Strategic contingencies are those events and activities both inside and outside the organization that are essential for attaining organizational goals; departments involved with strategic contingencies tend to have greater power. There are five strategic contingencies that serve as power sources shown in Exhibit 12.5:

  1. Dependency occurs when one department depends upon another for resources or information to accomplish its task
  2. Supplying financial resources to the organization gives a department power
  3. Centrality means that the department’s role is essential to production of the organization’s outputs
  4. Nonsubstitutability increases departmental power because its contribution is not easily replaced
  5. Coping with uncertainty from a variety of environmental sources will increase a department’s power.

Political Processes in Organizations


Power is the available force or potential for achieving desired outcomes, while politics is the use of power and other sources to influence decisions and obtain one’s preferred outcome. A dark view of politics, involving deception and dishonesty for purposes of individual self-interest, is widely held by laypeople. However, appropriate use of political behavior can serve organizational goals. Politics can also be viewed as a natural process for resolving differences among organizational interest groups.

When Is Political Activity Used?

Political activity tends to appear more frequently when uncertainty is high and there is disagreement over goals, or when managers confront nonprogrammed decisions, as we saw in the Carnegie model. Three domains of political activity are structural change, interdepartmental coordination, management succession, and resource allocation. Structural change will rearrange power relationships and will generate extensive political activity. Management succession that involves promotions, transfers, and hiring new executives at top levels will entail political behavior. Resource allocation is so vital to departments that political activity will be undertaken to resolve disagreements and reduce uncertainty.

Using Power, Politics, and Collaboration [Exhibit 12.6]

Tactics for Increasing Power

Tactics for increasing the power base include: enter areas of high uncertainty; create dependencies; provide scarce resources; and satisfy strategic contingencies.

Tactics for Using Power

Political tactics for using power include: build coalitions; expand networks; control decision premises; enhance legitimacy and expertise; make a direct appeal, but keep power implicit. 

Tactics for Enhancing Collaboration

Tactics for enhancing collaboration to reduce damaging conflicts include: create integration devices, use confrontation and negotiation, schedule intergroup consultation, practice member rotation, and create superordinate goals.

Labor-management teams such as that between Alcoa and IAM are considered an integration device, and are designed to provide a cooperative model for union-management problems. Differences between win-win and win-lose strategies of negotiation are shown in Exhibit 12.7; confrontation is successful when managers with a positive attitude engage in a win-win strategy.

Collective bargaining, resulting in an agreement specifying each party’s responsibilities for several years, is one type of negotiation to resolve a disagreement between workers and management.