People are people, no matter where they are – at home, out on the town or at work – and sometimes intergroup conflict is inevitable when we come together with other folks. Typically, we flock to those we're comfortable with, which doesn't necessarily mean we avert conflict, but we prefer to get along well together. But in the workplace, we're usually brought together with people of all sorts and obligated to make the best of it, which isn't always possible. At times, it's personalities that cause a clash between various work groups, but often it's work-related pressures or disagreements that create agitation or resentment.

Workplace groups, such as focus groups or shift-work teams, are formed out of company necessity, but other groups of coworkers come together or connect on a personal level. When you bring large or small groups of people together – people who may not otherwise spend time with each other – for many hours a week, week after week, year after year, it's only natural for conflicts to arise occasionally.

Although folks have the right to disagree with decisions or rulings politely or to dislike each other respectfully, problems can escalate behind the scenes or up front. If a conflict isn't worked out quickly or in an intelligent manner, a further upset can fester as coworkers take sides or clam up. The conflict is only exacerbated if management pretends not to notice, is oblivious to the matter or handles the situation poorly.

Regardless of how clashes arise between workplace groups, they affect more than the teams involved. If left unchecked, differences in opinion, segregation or unhealthy competition can rock the company boat – maybe even sink it. Sometimes, however, intergroup conflict in an organization isn't a bad thing. How could conflict be good for business? Take a closer look to get the bigger picture.

Types of Work Groups

Wherever they are, people naturally flock together because of personal likes or dislikes. But often at work, they're brought together by need, as in focus groups, service or sales teams, surgical teams, construction crews (separated by expertise, such as framers, roofers and finishers), management departments or simply as alternating-shift workers for the same company.

What Is Intergroup Conflict?

Intergroup conflict arises when two or more workgroups of any type clash or disagree with each other – but it isn't always about personality differences. In a nutshell, such a conflict develops when at least one person in a group behaves inappropriately, feels rejected or offended or perceives opposition of any sort from at least one person on another team or side.

It's no secret that this type of strife is ever-present between religious groups and even countries that disagree with or develop a dislike or hatred for each other. In the business world, intergroup conflicts can arise between various levels of employees or management or can flare up when workers naturally gravitate to each other, forming an in-group and causing a divide that offends the out-group.

What Causes Intergroup Conflicts?

Like the causes of war between countries, upsets can trigger intergroup conflict in organizations. For starters, workplace disputes or confrontations between groups might stem from misconception, disagreements, intercultural differences, poor negotiations, poor social exchange, a perception of unfairness or various other circumstances or negative types of interaction. And we all know what happens when one person perceives a conflict – real or not. Others often see the conflict as well and then feel pressured or obligated to join forces. Or, they become empowered and eager to fight the imagined, or actual, injustice.

The gender factor can play a role at work, such as when men or women flock together out of a feeling of superiority. On the other hand, each gender group might band together if harassment is a hidden or overlooked problem in the organization.

It isn't always about disagreements or injustices. Sometimes people form groups naturally, due to circumstances, preferences or differences, such as culture, gender or personality. But with separation, conflict often follows.

Competitiveness can cause healthy or unhealthy conflict between opposing focus groups. And what about a merger or other major changes within an organization? When two companies unite, the employees of each original company may stick together, harboring mixed feelings about "the other side" rather than blending seamlessly as a unified group. Similar indifference might occur when you hire a new manager; existing staff may have strong viewpoints about the change of leadership, while employees hired after the managerial change wouldn't.

And what sometimes happens when a company runs shifts around the clock? Conflicts can occur between the day and night shift workers if one group feels overworked, under-compensated or unfairly paid.

On a bigger scale, a global company might experience conflicts between two or more of its country's divisions.

When Is Intergroup Conflict Good for Business?

Intergroup conflict occasionally flares up within the social dynamics of, well, pretty much every species on the planet. In the animal world, it's a matter of survival. When two or more human groups experience social tension or a downright heated disagreement, the results can be good or bad for business, depending on the circumstances or what caused the upset in the first place. How on earth could a conflict be good for business? Well, imagine the ideas flying around when two teams or focus groups compete to come up with the best solution for a company problem. As the heated energy of completion drives each team to outdo the other, the company should end up with plenty of suggestions and ideas to consider.

Think about how a conflict of any type affects folks. Typically, when we approach conflict in a positive, productive manner, we're encouraged to think creatively, become more open-minded and consider innovative ways to solve the problem at hand, just for starters. In the workplace, this type of intergroup conflict should produce positive change, feelings of connection, a sense of belonging and a boost in productivity and morale.

Examples of Intergroup Conflict in the Workplace

Not unlike the way wolves hunt together to feed the pack, coworkers often work together in groups to jointly meet the needs of their employer. At times, wolves within a pack might challenge each other; much the way employees might compete for dominance, recognition or promotion. In both cases, competitiveness can lead to changes in the hierarchical structure or the outcasting of a member, whether to a lower position or the proverbial street – or woods, whichever the case may be.

What about social dilemmas in the workplace? Chances are, you've witnessed a case of selfish gain from someone on a team. For example, a person in a focus group might hijack another team's idea and shamelessly present it as his own to upper management or the boss.

Stress from upper management or a team lead can also cause intergroup conflict that could produce positive or negative results, depending on the stressor. For instance, if a group feels pressure from challenge-related stress, such as a tight deadline or heavy workload, they might push harder than usual to meet the demand, and then celebrate their accomplishment – with high-fives or after-work beverages – increasing their bond. Negative, hindrance-related stress, on the flip side, can be triggered by numerous detrimental factors – office politics, unrealistic demands, excessive control or a lack of guidance.

Consequences of Intergroup Conflict

A lot of what we understand about the effects of intergroup conflict comes from studies and reports, but who hasn't witnessed it firsthand? As many of us know, if a serious issue between two or more groups of employees is not defused early, it can bring down company morale or cause an offended person – and maybe her supporters – to bad-mouth the company or quit. In turn, such instability can cause unhealthy financial stumbling, a poor reputation or other devastating consequences for the company.

Fear, mistrust and resentment are just a few of the emotions stirred up by intergroup conflict, depending on the context and severity of the issue. Grudges can develop when higher-ups favor a competing group or member. Guilt might consume people who allow a team member to steal an idea from another group if no one speaks up. As for a slighted group that had a great idea taken from them, they may feel anger, embarrassment and finger- pointing can arise.

The consequences of healthy, stress-related conflicts often include company pride, strengthened relationships between opposing teams and team members and the desire to go all out for the employer. On the other hand, unhealthy stressors generate group-wide negativity, relationship breakdown and lower productivity. Stress caused by a higher-up who favors one team over the other could spark jealousy or a feeling of unfairness in the "unloved" team, bringing down their morale and productivity.

When a conflict evolves from personal matters, such as one gender overlooked, underappreciated or snubbed by another, coworkers might take sides or form groups within groups, which can lead to communication breakdown, misdirection, backstabbing, mistrust and reduced production.

If the teams feel supported by each other, their competition and the employer and management, positive consequences of intergroup conflict should include a healthy sense of competitiveness, a boost in team spirit and an overall sense of company togetherness

How Company Culture Affects Intergroup Relations

Imagine a company that supports its employees and boosts morale, encourages positive behavior and deals with poor group behavior before it becomes an issue. In this situation, intergroup conflict likely would seldom arise, but if it did, it wouldn't be left to smolder. Teams or groups would know what's expected of them, how they should interact and what might happen if they step out of line.

Now, think about the problems that might grow from poor company culture, where conflicts are commonplace among management and executives. This type of bad behavior could fester and perhaps spread down through each level, causing intergroup disrespect or even bad vibes between members of the same group (intragroup conflict).

How to Resolve Intergroup Conflict

Of course, a negative intergroup conflict must be resolved to keep it from getting blown out of proportion and becoming a company-wide issue. If the groups involved can't solve their problem on their own, assistance is needed. To encourage healthy, productive conflict between groups, smart organizations:

  • Demonstrate fairness and ethical behavior throughout upper levels – be the example.
  • Create teams with compatible personalities and varied attributes in mind.
  • Urge employees to speak up if they don't agree with a ruling or suggestion.  
  • Encourage all employees to see themselves as one united team, working toward the same goals in a healthy manner.
  • Offer relevant services, such as conflict coaching, conflict intervention and confidential mediation.
  • Ensure that everyone understands not just their own value to the company, but their coworkers' value, as well. 

Even if just one person appears to be causing an upset among groups, alienating him or calling him "The Troublemaker" isn't wise, healthy or professional. So it's best to approach the issue with a calm head and bright ideas for improvement. Take your teams aside – during a conflict or, preferably, before an issue arises – to practice ways to rebuild relationships or find common ground. For instance, you could have each team member give their opinion on the pain point, and then have them try to see the situation from the opposing team's or member's point of view. Exercise intergroup-conflict management a few times a year or as needed. But if the same person repeatedly brings down the organization's productivity level by perceiving or creating a conflict between groups, it may be time to end the relationship.

When coworkers see each other as valuable parts of the same hard-working machine, trust and bonds strengthen, goals become clearer and conflicts turn into opportunities.