Saturday, February 2, 2019

What Causes Conflict? A New Three-Dimensional Framework

Put yourself in the shoes of a  manager who believes that a dispute is preventing two co-workers from working together effectively. What do you do? Possibilities might include encouraging them to get along, locking them in a room until they work out their differences, threatening them with consequences if their work doesn’t improve, giving one of them authority over the other, reassigning one of them, or extending a deadline on a project to give them more time. But here is an important complication: each of these possible solutions will only work if it matches the actual source of the dispute. So before jumping to a preferred intervention, we need to explicit identify the sources of a particular dispute.

In the case of the ineffective co-workers, there are numerous causes. Perhaps the two workers believe that they are competing for scarce resources, such as administrative support or a single promotion opening. Maybe the workers come from different cultural backgrounds and perceive a lack of respect for each other. Perhaps one had an emotional outburst that created lingering bad feelings. It could be the case that they disagree over tasks because they foresee different uses for a product they are developing. Maybe one or both of them face difficulties communicating. Maybe all (or none) of these causes underlie this particular dispute. Not all dispute or conflict resolution methods will be equally effective in these different scenarios, and a failure to diagnose and resolve the source(s) of a conflict can cause it to persist if not escalate.

For a dispute resolution method to be successful, the parties must first understand the sources of the conflict to choose an appropriate solution. But what are the possible sources of conflict? Alex Colvin (Cornell), Dionne Pohler (Toronto), and I scoured the multidisciplinary scholarly and professional literature on conflict and have created a three-part typology of the roots of conflict. We label the three key categories as structural, cognitive, and psychogenic.

Structural conflicts result from the relationship between the parties’ interests or goals, rights, and sources of power. The classic conflict over scarce resources is when these interests are focused on things to satisfy material needs and desires. But conflicts are also possible over clashing value orientations (e.g., differing emphases on fairness, inclusion, or respect) or identity needs for a sense of purpose and meaning in one’s life, including those connected to group affiliations such as racial, ethnic, or religious affinities. We label this category “structural conflict” because the nature of these conflicts is determined by the rules, institutions, and practices in which this relationship is situated—in other words, by the structural nature of the relationship.

Cognitive conflicts relate to mental functioning. This is a broad category that includes a variety of ways in which cognition may cause or contribute to a dispute: interpretation, perception, information processing, decision-making, and communication. The human brain is not unitary or always internally consistent. So conflicts can arise because individuals perceive the same problem differently, such as when one uses a heuristic and another approaches it analytically. Common types of cognitive bias that result in conflict include loss aversion, anchoring, framing, fixed-pie perception, exaggeration of conflict, illusions of transparency, decision fatigue, and overconfidence. Individuals can also be motivated to process information in ways that validate preexisting beliefs, rather than by a search for accuracy, and in ways that magnify in-group/out-group differences. Individuals may also have different preferences or differences of opinion over how to interact or solve a problem, perhaps influenced by cultural or other differences. Lastly, communication is a cognitive activity that can lead to conflict when it breaks down. Miscommunication can result in many ways, such as noisy communication channels, different meanings, incorrect filtering of intent, and misinterpretation of nonverbal cues and personal demeanor.

Lastly, psychogenic conflict arises from the psychology of feelings. This has two main subdimensions. First, emotions and moods can cause conflict through the behaviors they create or by influencing decision-making. For example, anger, frustration, contempt, jealousy, and other hot emotions can lead to aggressive communication behaviors (e.g., criticism, contempt, and shouting) while lessening constructive communication behaviors (e.g., active listening). The recipient of negative emotions often tries to counter this by lashing out or other responses that distracts them away from processing information and making sound decisions; conversely, happy individuals tend to make riskier decisions which can also be a source of conflict. Second, personality differences can also cause or contribute to disputes. Individuals with high values of neuroticism and extraversion and/or low values of agreeableness may be more likely to be contentious, antagonistic, irritable, and even want to dominate others, whereas those who score low on openness and conscientiousness tend to be inflexible and disorganized, which can clash with those who prefer a different approach. Personality can also affect conflict by affecting an individual’s attributions—for example, different personality types tend to see a conflict as either task- or relationship-based.

Returning to the opening scenario, did you stop and consider possible sources of conflict before moving ahead to an intervention? Effective dispute resolution must be rooted in a comprehensive and accurate understanding of a conflict’s roots. But disputes can be multi-faceted with numerous causes that interact in complicated ways. Just look at the complexity of the conflict over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. My co-authors and I submit that it is important to conceptually distinguish different aspects of the full range of sources of conflict to appreciate the nature of each particular dispute. So in analyzing any conflict, look for structural, cognitive, and psychogenic aspects. Not all will be present in every dispute, but it’s better to look for them and rule them out than to not look at all and miss a major factor.

[Update: also see a follow-up posting on managing conflict at its sources]

Source: John W. Budd, Alexander J.S. Colvin, and Dionne Pohler (2020) "Advancing Dispute Resolution by Understanding the Sources of Conflict: Toward an Integrated Framework," ILR Review 73(2): 254-80. [free access to the pre-publication version here]


  1. Great post John. This brief conflicts classification covers all the possible reasons of conflicts and will surely ease the process of dispute resolution. This is definitely a must read for those who are prominently into dispute resolution process. Because if you know the exact cause of your problem you can solve it more efficiently without wasting time and energy.

  2. These problems cut across various organisations all over the world. What I do like about the brief is that it installs the habit of understanding conflicts of different sorts from the root. This prevents organisations from taking decisions that may hinder the overall growth and objectives of the Organisation.