Mikkelsen, E. and Humle, D. “Dynamics of overt and covert conflict in organizations: The power of organizational identity” (2020). Group & Organization Management, Vol. 0(0), 1–40.
Background & Theory:
Many studies have examined the various roles overt conflict has on the workplace, but few have examined the role of covert conflict in the workplace. Covert conflict can be defined as a type of conflict that is typically suppressed, sometimes expressed because overt styles of conflict do not agree with the dominant organizational culture. This study focuses on the roles of overt and covert conflict in relation to dominant organizational identity.
Research was conducted by Elisabeth N. Mikkelsen and Didde M. Humle to answer the following questions:
- What roles do overt conflict and covert conflict play in the workplace?
- How are these forms of conflict shaped by organizational identity?
- In the workplace, why are some conflicts overtly expressed, while others are covert?
An ethnographic study of conflict was completed at a Nordic aid agency called Development-Aid to investigate how staff members narrated conflict on a day-to-day basis. This company, comprised of around 30 employees and 20 volunteers, is purposed with promoting human rights and democracy through assisting in political and social development. The study was conducted over three periods of fieldwork which took place over the course of three years, resulting in around seven months of fieldwork total. Between the second and third period of fieldwork, the employees underwent conflict resolution training, making this a longitudinal study.
31 qualitative interviews were conducted among 22 people consisting of staff and management. The interviews were cross-departmental and were focused on obtaining multiple perspectives of the same conflict in the organization. A combined performative-thematic narrative analysis was completed to analyze the qualitative data. Data were analyzed by first looking for any sign of conflict in the readings and coding it. Then, the coded data were explored more in depth and sorted into themes. Finally, the data were further analyzed to highlight unspoken assumptions that portray instances of covert conflict.
The results found that within Development-Aid, instances of covert and overt conflict were heavily influenced by the dominant organizational identity. Due to Development-Aid’s egalitarian values of collaboration and harmony, logical steps were put into place to deal with conflict. The study results indicated that overt and covert conflict narratives were interconnected to this dominant identity, either through aligning with the identity or opposing it. Two overt conflict narratives and two covert conflict counter-narratives arose from their relationship with organizational identity.
The two overt conflict narratives were (1) the claim of a conflict-free work environment and (2) the claim of unavoidable subcultural frictions. First, the claim of a conflict-free work environment was very common, with employees voicing that everyone at Development-Aid treats each other like family, due in part to the organization’s social cause they care about. This narrative fits with the dominant organizational identity through preserving collaboration and harmony.
The second claim of unavoidable subcultural frictions was also influenced by the organizational identity. Employees of specific departments noted common instances of “natural frictions” between people with different working styles. When examined, these frictions were actually conflicts between people, but were often perceived as simply occupational differences through the influence of the organizational identity. It allowed employees to accept the innate differences between people and the conflicts that arose from these differences without challenging the dominant organizational identity of a happy family-like culture.
The two covert conflict counter-narratives were revealed only in private conversations and revolved around the conflict of (1) power struggles with management and (2) unnoticed status conflict. First, employees often privately talked about the frustrations with management’s lack of communication, lack of positive feedback, and legalistic style of supervision. Employees would often joke covertly about these power struggles, always keeping it out of the public dialogue and commonly making it a part of side conversations. Talking covertly about these power struggles was a suppressed way for employees to narrate conflict because it opposed the dominant organizational identity.
Hidden status conflict was reflected among administration workers, voicing that they felt belittled and not as respected as other employees at Development-Aid, both in how they were communicated with and in compensation. However, these employees did not voice their opinions to anyone, instead internalizing the conflict. Similar to before, this suppressed way of expressing conflict was utilized by administrative employees because it opposed the dominant organizational identity.
What We Can Learn:
Looking over this research, we can take away the following key insight:
- Instances of overt and covert conflict in the workplace can be heavily influenced by organizational identity. An organization that structures which conflicts can be expressed and which conflicts cannot be expressed ultimately influences employees to voice specific conflicts overtly or covertly based on their alignment with organizational identity.
For Consultants: In crafting conflict resolution systems, it may be helpful to consider how organizational identity impacts how employees deal with conflict.
For Everyone: Deciding the best way to resolve a conflict may depend on how comfortable you feel bringing up a conflict due to organizational identity. Keep this in mind in your decision-making process in conflict management and resolution.