So what are “inter-group relations” and why should a leader be prepared to deal with them? The saying—birds of a feather flock together—probably makes sense to you. People feel closer to and look out for people who are like them. In fact, researchers have shown that it only takes the smallest distinction to make people favour members of their own group (the in-group) over members of other groups (the out-groups). The discord between countries, religious groups and even civil wars are vivid examples of inter-group conflict. But negative relationships between groups can also arise in organizational settings. One important aspect of leadership involves managing inter-group relationships so they don’t result in conflict that can be detrimental to organizational goals. This discussion is focused on key insights into recognizing, understanding and managing inter-group conflicts in your organization.
The when and why of inter-group conflict
Leaders often underestimate the power of inter-group relations. Inter-group conflict can occur between many different types of groups in organizations: different functional groups, different divisions, men and women, whites and blacks, people who were part of the original organization and those who joined after the merger, people who were part of the organization before you were in charge and those you brought in after you became the leader, Democrats and Republicans, US vs European vs Asian divisions of a global firm, bankers and traders, finance and legal, the day shift and the night shift, etc.
You have the potential for inter-group conflict to occur whenever individuals belonging to one group, collectively or individually, interact with another group or its members in terms of their group membership, instead of who they are as an individual. So instead of thinking of Elena as an individual, we think of her as a member or representative of the accounting department. Group conflicts are “rational” and “realistic” because they are often based on real competition for scarce resources, and in organizational settings there are often perceptions that other groups are getting more of the pie than your own. For instance, the fall of Lehman Brothers in the mid 1980s has been blamed on the conflict between the bankers and traders which was rooted in perceived inequities in reward distribution, resources and status within the organization. Sometimes groups in organizations have conflicting goals—legal wants to protect the corporation and marketing wants to get as many people to buy the product as possible. These differences in goals can foster conflicts that permeate interactions between individuals and subgroups from the functional groups.
People derive a sense of self-esteem from the groups to which they belong and tend to interact with, give more resources to, and think more highly of members of their group compared to members of other groups. My own research has shown that one important consequence of inter-group dynamics is that people tend to assume that individuals of their group will support them, agree with their opinions and disagree with the other group(s). These expectations fuel even greater distinctions and conflict along inter-group lines, and can cause group members to punish individuals who deviate from in-group norms. In other words, in order to be a good member of the group, you have to support and favour your group and disfavour the out-group. As you might imagine, this pressure from your group accompanied by the negative treatment by the out-group can make it very difficult to overcome the problems associated with inter-group relations. Moreover, stereotypes and prejudices toward other groups develop in these situations and then people seek confirming information which only serves to perpetuate the stereotypes.
How to minimize inter-group conflict
So, how can you stop these problems from occurring in your organization? First, I must say that some inter-group conflicts are easier to deal with than others. Some inter-group dynamics are a product of a long history of negative relationships that are difficult to overcome. However, here are some important steps that you might take when you suspect inter-group dynamics to be the source of your problem.
Step 1: Understanding possible reasons for organizational conflict
You must first understand what is the real source of the conflict. Once you know that, you will be better able to solve the cause of the problem and not just control the symptoms. The root cause could be:
Interpersonal: Some conflicts may really be a result of personal dislike. The conflict may stem from personal history—I worked with you at ACME Inc. before joining Phillips Consulting, and when we were at ACME you sabotaged one of my projects. The fact that we are in conflict has nothing to do with the fact that we belong to different functional groups here at Phillips; it has only to do with our personal history. Likewise, there may just be personality differences that make it difficult for two individuals to work together.
Inter-group processes: Some conflicts are a result of inter-group processes that I’ve discussed earlier. The conflict may stem from differences in group culture or group goals, making it difficult for any two individuals from the two subgroups to get along. Consider the following statements—“That’s just not the way we do things (and the way we do things is, of course, the right way to do things)” or “That’s really not what’s important; we really should be pursuing more customers with this product instead of producing a new one”. In identifying this conflict, you want to ask yourself, “If I put two other individuals from the two subgroups together to work on this project, will they have the same conflict that the first two individuals had?” If your answer is no, the conflict might stem from interpersonal differences; if your answer is yes, you probably have an example of inter-group conflict. Other things that may fuel this inter-group conflict include barriers to communication because of location, time, language, national culture, etc., and perceptions that resources are scarce. For example, employees may believe that if we use more money for marketing, we won’t have enough to develop new products.
Step 2: Identifying the real source of conflict
Define the conflict: Who are the critical parties and how do they see the conflict? What is this conflict really about? Is it really about the fact that legal can’t get the paperwork done by Tuesday or would Friday really be soon enough? Is there a personal history behind the conflict? Do these individuals have problems with others in the organization, perhaps individuals within their own subgroups? Is the conflict about resources? Is it a function of the task or the structure of the organization?
Look for the source of the conflict: Often, the easiest thing for us to do is to say: “This is a people problem—we just need to get rid of this person and our problem will be gone.” However, the source of the conflict may have nothing to do with the people and may actually be a function of inter-group relations, structural issues, the task, the reward system, the culture of the organization, etc. Think back to the congruence framework, which identifies all the pieces of the organization that might have an impact on organizational outcomes. Diagnose the situation and be sure to match the conflict resolution approach to the real source of the problem.
Step 3: Managing inter-group conflicts
So now that you are at the point where you suspect that this problem is really due to inter-group dynamics, what can you do to eliminate such conflicts?
Perspective taking: Have each party step into the other party’s shoes. Often, the process of taking the perspective of the other group will open one’s eyes and help one understand that the problem is really not about the person or about the group, but that the other person is just playing a particular role or has goals that are misaligned with his own. Identifying this misalignment can lead to more creative problem solving and conflict resolution. Sometimes, literally rotating people from one subgroup to another or having individuals train cross-functionally can really help improve inter-group relations. Consider formal rotation programmes.
Recategorization: Minimize the salience of the banker and trader subgroup distinctions and recategorize or restructure the group either in reality or psychologically, so that individuals think of themselves as one instead of multiple groups. This recategorization is critical in situations where organizations are embarking on mergers or joint ventures.
Superordinate goals: Consistent with this recategorization, help the subgroups focus on superordinate goals that their own individual goals actually contribute to and help achieve. The superordinate objectives should be those that both subgroups can fully support and contribute to so that they both see each other as important to accomplishing the goals.
Task interdependence: Create more, instead of fewer, opportunities for the subgroups to work directly together. This increased interdependence can serve as an opportunity for individuals to learn more about what the others contribute to the task and may increase the mutual respect that subgroups have for one another.
Reward interdependence: People generally do what you reward them for. Make cooperation with other subgroups a critical part of receiving one’s rewards. For instance, the bankers and traders should be collectively rewarded for the success of the firm; instead of giving the bankers and traders incentives to steal business, and sabotage one another’s efforts.
All these things together create a sense of common fate among groups that is critical for sustained cooperation and reduced inter-group conflict.
Inter-group divisions occur in organizations and can be barriers to accomplishing organizational goals. As a leader, you must be aware of the fact that some conflicts may not have anything to do with the particular individuals involved. Instead, they may be the result of harmful divisions within the organization which have led to inaccurate, negative perceptions of others. These divisions can handicap your organization and lead to a failure to perceive opportunities for cooperation and mutual gain. You must set up the social environment so as to maximize organizational identification and align the goals of the subgroups so that everyone understands the importance of working together to achieve the larger goal. So, be aware of these issues and do a systematic examination of the possible sources of conflict. Encourage your employees to take the perspective of others, recategorize them into one group and minimize the salience of inter-group differences, and work together toward a larger superordinate goal that you all must accomplish to receive the ultimate reward.
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