Conflict can arise in many different ways in the workplace. This chapter oversees conflicts of different kinds, including conflict between workers and conflict between workers and management.

There are different views on whether conflict is a natural and beneficial component of organisations, or if it is always detrimental. Dean Tjosvold, dean of the Faculty of Business at Lingnan University, argued in 2008[1] that conflict is an inevitable aspect of all organisations, and that if properly conducted assists successful teamwork and organisational effectiveness. That same year and in the same journal, Carsten De Dreu stated[2] that the research praising the beneficial aspects of workplace conflict was weak, and that organisations ought to make efforts to manage conflict in order to minimise its negative consequences.

A good overview of the field from which the frames of reference are derived can be found on the Wikipedia Industrial Relations page.

Frames of reference

A frame of reference is defined as a person's perceptions and interpretations of events, which involve assumptions about reality, attitudes toward what is possible and conventions regarding correct behaviour.[3]

Between two parties, the adoption of differing frames of reference can stand in the way of the resolution of conflict. Organizational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan gives an example; that of a labour dispute. They state that unions and management will look at the industrial relations bargaining situation from completely different points of view. Management's frame of reference is that the natural state of affairs is one in which there is no inherent conflict of interest between the different members and components of the organisation. They believe that managers and employees share the same goals, that cooperation is the norm and that all dissent is unreasonable. Senior management can't understand why or how their authority might be challenged, or why employees might engage in disruptive behaviour.[3]

At the other side of the bargaining process is the union, assuming a very different frame of reference. Profits are something to be fought over with management and shareholders, and each party seeks legitimately to maximise their own rewards. From this frame of reference, industrial action aims to maximise the rewards going to labour.


Alan Fox, a working class industrial sociologist who played a pivotal role in the development of industrial relations, defined four different frames of reference. He saw there being no right or wrong frame of reference, only the adoption of different views. These, as described in Organisational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan, were:

  1. The unitarist frame, seeing organisations as essentially harmonious and all conflict as bad.
  2. The pluralist frame, seeing organisations as a collection of groups, each with their own interests.
  3. The interactionist frame, seeing conflict as a positive, necessary force for effective performance.
  4. The radical frame, seeing conflict as an inevitable part of capitalism, driven by the inherent contradictions of capital.

Organisational Behaviour goes on to describe academics as necessarily adopting one of these frameworks when teaching or researching industrial relations. While they assert that often organisation employees or academics will often fail to state what frame they are using, self-management notes is happy to. Alan Fox at first adhered to the pluralist frame, but later broke with his colleagues in the 1970s and embraced the radical frame. The self-management notes project views management theory and industrial activity through the looking glass of the radical frame, and is proud to do so.

A chosen frame of reference will determine:

  • What a person will notice in their environment.
  • How a person will interpret noticed events.
  • How a person expects others to behave.
  • How they the will behave themselves.

Because of this, it is clear that there is value in being able to analyse from a variety of frames, so that the viewpoints of both management and the varying pro-worker factions can be understood.

The Unitarist frame of reference

This sees the organisation as essentially harmonious and the organisation as composed of loyal worker-management teams.

Organizational Behaviour summarises the key features of the unitarist frame of reference, as outlined by Stephen Ackroyd and Paul Thomson in Organizational Misbehaviour,[4] and Roger Johnston.[5] Below is a series of bullet points listed by the book.

  • It assumes that workers and managers have a common interest.
  • It accepts the political, economic and social framework within which management is performed, and adopts the language, assumptions and goals of management, which it seeks to study and understand.
  • It de-politicises the relationships between individuals, groups and classes within the workplace, and treats conflicts and contradictions as peripheral.
  • It explains instances of workplace conflict as resulting from a failure of coordination or in psychological terms (for example a personality clash or abnormal behaviour of deviant individuals).
  • It applies a liberal-humanistic, individually focused approach to conflict resolution, which is rooted in the human relations movement.
  • It holds that managers are capable of permanently changing the behaviour of employees in a conflict situation in an organisation through the application of modern conflict resolution techniques.
  • It claims that economic, technological and political developments of the past have now virtually eliminated non-sanctioned employee behaviour within the organisation.
  • It moves rapidly over the consideration of causes of conflict within the workplace, in order to focus on conflict resolution techniques
  • It uses communication failures between management and employees (and the interference of 'third party agitators', normally unions) to explain workplace conflict.

The Pluralist frame of reference

The pluralist frame of reference was the frame that Alan Fox adopted for an extended period before breaking with it and adopting the radical frame in the 1970s. It views organisations as possessing a variety of different groups, each with their own legitimate interests. The pluralist frame is best understood as a frame fitting that of the post-Second World War social democracy, which learnt to establish compromises between classes, and hold a pro-capitalist position yet also a scepticism of capitalism's most unequal aspects. Alan Fox is quoted as referring to Thatcherism, the form of neo-liberalism that succeeded social democracy in the UK, as seeking to:[10]

make greed respectable, to reduce the extent to which men and women feel to be one with another in our shared social experience; to reverse the long-term trend towards social provision… to ridicule and downgrade the language of compassion; and to redistribute income and wealth from poorer to richer.

This emphasises the distance of the radical and pluralist frame from the unitarist frame that forms the orthodoxy in neo-liberal politics.

The pluralist frame is therefore seen as the most accurate frame for left social-democracy. It specifically rejects the view that individual employees have the same interests as management, or that an organisation is one big happy family,[3]. It holds that conflict between workers and management is legitimate as each set of groups in an organisation attempt to pursue their own interests.

Organizational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan states that the pluralist frame takes a political orientation that sees that some of the time, the interests of different groups will coincide, but at other times will stand on opposite sides and cause conflict.

It doesn't necessarily adopt the idea that conflict is to be papered over by cooperation between unions and management, yet it is close to the ideas that drove the Quality of Work Life movement, and it does assert that it is the job of management to keep track of conflicting goals and to manage the difference between different interest groups. The pluralist frame states that the outbreak of conflict provides a 'relationship regulation' mechanism between the different groups, and provides a clear sign to both parties, to point out the different issues they disagree about. This provides a form of 'early warning system' of possible impending breakdown, that Organisational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan states would be to the disadvantage of both parties. The pluralist frame thus proposes that conflict, whilst inevitable, ought to be resolved through compromise on both sides. This is in stark contrast to the radical frame. The pluralist frame therefore states that conflict can be resolved through compromise, to the benefit of all. It states that agreements between parties are reached and through this a mutual survival strategy agreed upon, between different interest groups in the organisation, including workers/trade unions and management.

The pluralist frame sees conflict as something of a safety valve, and that it is not in itself harmful, and can drive forward organisational development. It sees inevitable conflict as something to be managed, and that the ongoing internal struggle is something that maintains the vitality, responsiveness and efficiency of the organisation. This leads on to an investigation of the interactionist frame, a frame that can be considered a 'sub-genre' of the pluralist frame, and developed as a part of it.

The Interactionist frame of reference

The interactionist frame sees conflict as an inevitable and positive part of organisational life and that it is essential for effective performance. It poses that for conflict to be dealt with positively, it must be institutionalised within the organisation through systems of collective bargaining.

It holds to the idea that there is an optimum level of conflict, neither too much nor too little, to drive forward the development of the organisation, and that it is management's role to peg conflict to the correct level.

It states that conflict ought to be established when it emerges and encouraged when it is absent. Organisational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan states that if a group or department is too peaceful, harmonious and cooperative, it may be potentially apathetic and unresponsive to changing needs. It sees this as potentially leading to groupthink, a concept to be explored in another chapter of this project.

The interactionist frame desires managers to stimulate a level of conflict within an organisation, to encourage self-criticism, change and innovation. It desires conflict of a particular type; functional conflict supports organisation goals and improves performance, while dysfunctional conflict is the inverse and is not desired.

The benefits of functional conflict are listed by Taffinder.[13] This kind of conflict motivated the parties to deal with underlying problems, sharpened employees' understanding of goals and interests, enhanced mutual understanding between different groups of employees, stimulated a sense of urgency, discouraged avoidance and prevented dangerous resolution problems.

Similarities to Mario Tronti's theory of capitalist development

Mario Tronti is an Italian Marxist most well known for his participation in the journals Quaderni Rossi (in which a great deal of original research into workers' inquiry was published), Classe Operaia and Contropiano, and also for his 1966 book Operai e Capitale. Tronti developed a theory of capitalist development as being driven by the struggle of the working class,[5] stating that:[6]

At the level of 'socially developed capital', capitalist development becomes subordinated to working class struggles; it follows behind them, and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital’s own reproduction must be tuned.

This is quoted to show the similarities between the interactionist frame and this theory of capitalist development. The short but fantastic article from which the quote is taken, can be found here: Lenin In England.

The interactionist frame sees organisational progress as achieved by the stimulation of a certain level of conflict, including conflict between individuals, groups and between workers and management. This is to an extent similar to Tronti's assertion that the development of capital follows from the class struggle of the working class, although Tronti is referring to capital as a whole, and not simply to a single capitalist organisation.

Both the interactionist framework and Tronti's theory were formulated at the height of post-Second World War social democracy. This is important to note.

Conflict stimulation and the interactionist frame

Supporters of the interactionist frame argue that conflict can, and should, be stimulated in the workplace. Techniques that can be used by senior management are described in Organizational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan, these are:

  • Stimulate a crisis by allowing a financial loss to occur or an error to blow up.
  • Eliminate obvious examples of excess (such as corporate jet fleets and gourmet dining rooms).
  • Set targets so high that they can't be reached by doing business as usual.
  • Share information about customer satisfaction and financial performance with employees.
  • Insist that workers speak regularly to dissatisfied customers, unhappy suppliers and disgruntled shareholders.
  • Cease senior management's 'happy talk' and attempt to get the organisation to adhere to more honest discussions of its problems.

Further techniques are listed below, and are derived from a listing in Organizational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan.

Communications. Managers can deliberately manipulate the information passed on to workers, such as threatening that the firm is likely to go bust, in order to get people arguing.

Restructuring. Altering the structure of work groups so as to increase interdependence between previously independent units.

Bringing in outsiders. Integrating individuals with different (career) backgrounds to existing managers and workers.

Devil's advocate. Assigning a person to play the role of critic, to stimulate critical thinking and reality testing within a group.

'Dialectic' method. The management literature describing this uses the crude simplification of dialectical thinking described as 'thesis + antithesis = synthesis'. An example that they give of this method, is assigning two teams with access to the same information, with one tasked to argue for, and the other against, something. The conflict of ideas can then be synthesised to formulate a final decision.

Leadership style. The organisation can choose to appoint managers that encourage non-traditional thinking, rather than one that seeks to suppress opposing viewpoints.

The Radical frame of reference

The unitarist, pluralist and interactionist frames have a hard time explaining organisational phenomena such as racial and sexual harassment, theft, bullying, romance, sabotage and labour strikes. It is only through the radical frame of reference on conflict that this behaviour can be understood. The other frames recognise these, but then ignore them.

The radical frame views the workplace as holding a deeply inherent bias toward conflict between management and workers. It sees the managers, in their role as agents of the owners of capital, as being the controllers of the means of production. This project has already talked about managers seeking to drive down wages and increase productivity/exploitation; Organisational Behaviour by Andrzej Huczynski and David Buchanan directly states that the radical frame holds that the logic of profit maximisation involves managers relentlessly driving down the costs of production and controlling the manufacturing process. The radical frame views conflict as an endemic property of capitalist employment relations, and that it cannot be resolved by any management techniques.

Management literature uses the term organisational misbehaviour to describe anything that workers do in the workplace that is not sanctioned by management.

For Richard Edwards in 1979, the struggle between capital and labour is the main dynamic that shapes employment relations.[8] Instead of conflict, he describes what he terms structural antagonisms, arising from the conflict over the distribution of the surplus. This is expanded by viewing Carter Goodrich's notion of the 'frontiers of control', and what he terms resistance.[9] Resistance is defined as covert behaviour that counteracts and restricts management attempts to exercise power and control in the workplace. Goodrich developed a view that saw management's attempts to assert control as met by employee resistance, producing clashes of interest. Resistance is defined as something intermittent, with the frontier being pushed forward and back, as opposed to conflict, which occurs as a single and visible explosion.[3]

Alienation and resistance

Management literature states that resistance manifests in a number of different ways. It describes shop floor employees developing ways to counteract alienation - yes, this is a reference to Marx's theory of alienation - and professionals such as academics, engineers or doctors resisting management directions, up to senior managers resisting the directives of the board of directors.

Ways in which workers counter alienation can be found in a book written Noon and Blyton, named The Realities of Work. They list five 'survival strategies':[11][3]

  1. Making out: an elaborate system of informal employee behaviour that regulates work processes and ensures targets are met, yet allows workers to reassert some degree of control over their work (much like the informal systems developed by workers in the Hawthorne plant).
  2. Fiddling: Illegitimately acquiring company products, services or time for personal use.
  3. Joking: An interaction in which one party makes fun of another, with the other party required to take no offence.
  4. Sabotage: An intentional attempt to disrupt or destroy a work process or a product.
  5. Escaping: Removing oneself from one's work tasks.

It is interesting to see that management literature now has full awareness of Marxist theories of alienation, showing that it is a much more developed science than people associated with pro-worker politics assume. Since this is the case, it is only fair that the scales are balanced through making those associated with pro-worker politics aware of the details of management science and industrial relations, something this project is aiming to achieve.

Management literature even goes on to describe the phenomenon of anonymous work blogs, referencing a series of Financial Times articles about it. It describes the appearance of work blogs, some of them contextualising their work (such as in call centres) within the context of Marx's theory of alienation. It describes these as making visible the process of employee's creative resistance to management directives and alienation. It also describes how some of these blogs have led to workers being fired, something it refers to as 'internet McCarthyism'.

Richard Edwards notes[8] that the struggle for control in organisations is not always constant or visible, and that because of the covert nature of resistance, researchers require knowledge of a particular organisational context before they can fully perceive what forms of resistance exist. Management literature states that resistance can take the form of 'soldiering' (output restriction, as seen in the Hawthorne plant), pilferage, absenteeism, sabotage, vandalism, practical joking and sexual misconduct.[3] A good account of these types of behaviour can be found in an article named Paperslutting from a magazine called Processed World.[12]

Ackroyd and Thompson developed an opinion of management literature on the presence and absence of the aforementioned types of misbehaviour. They concluded that this literature was limited insofar as it:[4][3]

  • Provided sanitised accounts of worker behaviour that depicted workers as constantly constructive, conforming and dutiful.
  • Saw employees' behaviour as orderly and directed toward the achievement of management's goals.
  • Defines 'normal' behaviour as that which has been programmed by management, which the literature described as 'pro-social' and which complied with managerial norms and values, treating employees' deviations from these as misbehaviour.
  • Assumed that when management direction and employee response did not coincide, what needed to change is the latter.

Managerial conflict resolution techniques

After having defined the different frames of reference with respect to industrial conflict, what can now be looked at are how management approaches conflicts, with a view to resolving them.

There are a variety of different techniques which are best outlined by looking at Kenneth Thomas' five categories. These categories are defined by the level of assertion each party uses in pursuing its own concerns, and the level of cooperation it seeks in helping the other party achieve their concerns.

These five categories are:

  1. Competing
  2. Avoiding
  3. Compromising
  4. Accommodating
  5. Collaborating


Bargaining refers to the way in which management approaches a collective bargaining situation with a trade union. It was Richard Walton and Robert McKersie's research into negotiation behaviour that defined the two bargaining strategies. The first is Integrative bargaining and the second is Distributive bargaining.[3]

Integrative bargaining pursues a 'win-win' strategy, in which conflict is seen as a mutual problem. The way in which it functions is to create solutions that benefit both workers (labour) and management (capital). Of the conflict resolution approaches mentioned previously, collaborating can be seen as an integrative approach. The integrative approach uses open, honest and accurate communication of the group's needs goals and proposals. It also seeks to avoid threats, and to communicate a flexibility of the party's position. Unions that adopt the integrative approach as their day-to-day policy might be yellow unions.

Distributive bargaining pursues a 'win-lose' strategy, and defines conflict in this way. Of the conflict resolution approaches mentioned previously, competing, avoiding, compromising and accomodating each require one of the parties sacrificing something and can therefore be classified as distributive. It approaches conflict as a zero-sum game, aiming to use force and threats to push the other party into submission. It uses inaccurate and misleading communication of the group's needs, goals and proposals. Unions that adopt a distributive approach to the bargaining situation as their day-to-day policy might be red or militant unions.

1. Tjosvold, Dean. 2008. 'The Conflict-Positive Organization: It Depends Upon Us'. Journal Of Organizational Behaviour 29 (1): 19-28. doi:10.1002/job.473.
2. De Dreu, Carsten K.W. 2008. 'The Virtue And Vice Of Workplace Conflict: Food For (Pessimistic) Thought'. Journal Of Organizational Behaviour 29 (1): 5-18. doi:10.1002/job.474.
3. Buchanan, David A, and Andrzej Huczynski. 2010. Organizational Behaviour. Harlow, England: Financial Times Prentice Hall.
4. Ackroyd, Stephen, and Paul Thompson. 1999. Organizational Misbehaviour. London: Sage Publications.
5. Johnston, Roger. 2000. Organization And Management: A Critical Text. London: International Thomson Business Press.
6. Tronti, Mario. 2012. 'Our Operaismo'. Libcom.Org.
7. Tronti, Mario. 1964. 'Lenin In England'. Marxists.Org.
8. Edwards, Richard. 1979. Contested Terrain: The Transformation Of Industry In The Twentieth Century. London: Heinemann.
9. Goodrich, Carter. 1975. The Frontier Of Control. London: Pluto.
10. Topham, Tony. 2002. 'Obituary: Alan Fox'. The Guardian.
11. Noon, Mike, and Paul Blyton. 2007. The Realities Of Work. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave.
12. 'Paperslutting'. 2015. Processed World 29.
13. Taffinder, P. 1998. 'Conflict Is Not Always A Bad Thing'. Personnel Today.