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Thinking Out Loud

Leadership Notebook 8: Some Positive Functions of Conflict

by Michael Jinkins | Dec 18, 2014
Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

Leadership 8Perhaps this has happened to you.

You experience a moment, either in a conversation with another person or while reading something, when suddenly the tumblers fall into place. You can almost physically feel it happening. Not only does something puzzling suddenly make sense, but evermore after you remember that moment of insight.

I was reading Lewis Coser’s book, The Functions of Social Conflict early one morning on a train from Oxford to London when such a moment occurred. I might as well have heard angels singing and seen shafts of heavenly light descending in the carriage. It was just one of those moments, and I often look back warmly on it. Since then, Coser’s theoretical model has provided for me a way to better understand the social dimensions of organizational life and leadership. When I look through the lens he provides, so many things come into sharper focus.

While many people view conflict as inherently and inevitably negative, and understand it as diametrically opposed to cooperation and good leadership, Coser sees conflict as often potentially positive and constructive. He agrees with those sociologists before him (and he was a social scientist) who understood conflict and cooperation as existing in a kind of complementary rhythm as phases in a single integrated “process which always involves something of both.” (L. Coser, Functions of Social Conflict, New York: Free Press, 1956, 18.)

Coser explores the functions of social conflict especially in conversation with the pioneering work of Georg Simmel. Along with Simmel, Coser notes the ways in which conflict “serves to establish and maintain the identity and boundary lines of societies and groups.” (Coser, 38)

Conflict does things for a society that nothing else can do. Conflict is neither inevitably a social stressor to be avoided, nor merely a necessary evil to be endured. Rather, conflict represents those ordinary dimensions of social engagement by which individuals and groups, through varying modes of negotiation (implicit and explicit) and through dissent and disagreement, come to an understanding of who they are, what they care most about, and what they should do in relation to others who may or may not agree with them. Conflict defines boundaries.

Conflict also defines identities and clarifies values. It plays a crucial role in what Coser calls “group binding.” He explains: “It seems to be generally accepted by sociologists that the distinction between ‘ourselves, the we-group, or in-group, and everybody else, or the others-groups, out groups’ is established in and through conflict.” Groups of people, in other words, express who they are and what they care about (identity and values), in part, by saying who they are not and what they will not accept. As Coser observes, this process of self-understanding is neither necessarily negative nor hostile, though he does not deny that conflict can at times be negative, hostile and very destructive. (Coser, 35-36)

Far from being inevitably dysfunctional and damaging to social interaction, according to Coser “conflict is often necessary to maintain relationship” because when members of a group express their dissension and greet the conflict as an opportunity to take seriously their disagreement, their adherence to the group may actually be strengthened. If group members do not have ways appropriately to channel their disagreement and dissent, by contrast, their ownership in the group can be diminished, and they may simply withdraw from it. This is why Coser sees danger in a group’s or a leader’s habitual suppression of conflicts, ignoring complaints and disagreements. An organization is wise to provide “specific institutions which serve to drain off hostile and aggressive sentiments.” (Coser, 47-48) Those in leadership are wise who support such institutionalized means of catharsis that can act as safety valves to reduce the more extreme disruptive effects of conflict while allowing differences to be expressed in the normal course of events.

It is at this point in his study, however, that Coser reflects on one of Georg Simmel’s most useful ideas: the distinction between what he called “realistic” and “nonrealistic” conflict. Coser explains that realistic conflicts “occasioned by clashes of interests or clashes of personalities contain an element of limitation insofar as the struggle is only a means toward an end.” Should parties in such a conflict find that their interests can be met and their goals be achieved through some means other than conflict, there is no reason why they cannot and will not pursue those alternatives. However, “where the conflict arises exclusively from aggressive impulses which seek expression no matter what the object, where in the conflict the choice of object is purely accidental,” there is no real limit of the conflict because “it is not the attainment of a result, but rather the acting out of aggressive energies which occasions the outbreak.” (Coser, 48-49) In the case of nonrealistic conflict, the conflict becomes an end in itself, and may become an end with no end in sight.

Nonrealistic conflicts fall into the realm of broken relationships, perceived slights, resentments that are inherited from one generation to another that smolder and break-out in anger repeatedly with little or no prompting. Leadership requires discernment on many levels, and nowhere more than in assessing whether a conflict is realistic (and, therefore, represents a problem that can be solved) or is nonrealistic (and, thus, represents a predicament that must be endured with as little social damage as possible).

The intensity of conflict follows an ironic calculus familiar to anyone who has tried to negotiate a Middle Eastern peace treaty [see, for example, Lawrence Wright’s excellent recent account Thirteen Days in September (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2014) of the Camp David negotiations hosted by President Jimmy Carter between Prime Minister Begin of Israel and President Sadat of Egypt] or who has ever been a marriage and family therapist. As Coser says: “The closer the relationship, the more intense the conflict.” (Coser, 67)

Furthermore, conflict is only exacerbated in those groups that make a greater or more comprehensive claim on the “total personality” of group members (i.e. members of a church who understand their belonging to the congregation as a comprehensive matter of personal loyalties and ultimate values). Hostility and resentment, long pent-up, deep and infectious, sometimes seeking no end but to hurt others, can lash out in such conflicts, the more violently the longer they have been held back, suppressed and subverted into passive aggression, the more viciously the better the opponents know one another and their mutual weaknesses. (Coser, 69)

Understanding the nature of nonrealistic conflict is crucial, because dealing with it as leaders requires a different approach from the way we deal with realistic conflicts. While with the realistic conflict the social structures exist to facilitate the emergence and expression of diverse perspectives that can help the group to gain a broader understanding and to negotiate (and re-negotiate) its values and ends, when it comes to nonrealistic conflict, it is important to limit damage by providing social structures that channel the flow of emotion in the least destructive manner possible. In both cases, it is essential for leaders not to take conflict personally because doing so actually undermines one’s effectiveness and the group’s capacity to respond to the conflict itself. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Coser, always the social scientist, is clear-eyed in his assessment of those conflicts that contribute to the health and unity of a group and those conflicts that merely function to tear groups apart. He recalls J.S. Mill’s argument that “it is possible to pass through turbulent times without permanent weakening of the political structures only if: 'However important the interest about which [people] fall out, the conflict did not affect the fundamental principles of the system of social union.' ” (Coser, 74). This maxim, of course, implies conversely that the fabric of groups, in fact, can be weakened if those conflicts do call into question “the fundamental principles of the system of social union.” This is worth remembering in a church, a school or an entire nation.

Of the many positive functions conflict can serve for groups, three more are worth noting. Conflict, Coser reminds us, can act as a sort of stimulus to encourage us to establish new processes, standards of behavior, norms and institutions, while also leading us to reevaluate and perhaps reaffirm norms that we have long taken for granted. Conflict can also encourage us to reformulate “power relations,” even helping us redistribute power structures in creative new ways which may help our groups adapt in new environments. Finally, conflict can break-up hardened patterns of social behavior making important and necessary changes possible. Alliances across previously unbreachable boundaries can pave the way for new, lasting relationships as people discover unimagined commonalities and develop an understanding of contrasting perspectives, interests and needs. Conflict, then, can actually lead to the development of greater trust among members of a group. (Coser, 128, 137, 148-149)

Among the most important insights in Coser’s analysis of the functions of conflict is this: Groups that manage their conflicts well tend to be more lively, more dynamic, more interesting and more open to diversity, and (at least potentially) more resilient to change than groups that manage only to suppress their differences. This alone is an insight worth remembering.

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