Intragroup Conflict: Meaning, Managing, Strategies

Intragroup Conflict: Meaning, Managing, Strategies

Intragroup conflict refers to the incompatibility, incongruence, or disagreement among the members of a group or its subgroups regarding the goals, functions, or activities of the group.

What is Intragroup Conflict?

Intragroup conflict refers to disagreements among group members regarding goals, functions, or activities. It involves perceptions of incompatibility and can become a problem when it involves a majority of group members.

Effective management of such conflict requires diagnosis, measurement, and analysis of conflict levels and handling styles. Key sources of conflict include variances in leadership styles, task structures, group composition, group size, and the presence of external threats.

Strategies involve the precise balancing of group composition, size, task complexity, and reward systems as well as the implementation of team-building process interventions.

An intragroup problem exists whenever a group member perceives a difference in what is presently occurring between him or her and the group and what he or she desires to occur. Unless the majority of the members of a group or its subgroup are involved in conflict, it is not classified as intragroup conflict.

A group means two or more individuals interacting and interdependent who have come together to achieve particular objectives.

There are numerous definitions of a group (Shaw, 1981; Forsyth, 1983). These definitions have mainly focused on the following criteria: objectives, interaction, and interdependence. To make the discussion of conflict within a group meaningful, the definition of a group should include the following:

A group must consist of two or more members.

  • A group must possess a stable structure, that is a collection of individuals.
  • The members should be interdependent.
  • The members should interact with each other.
  • The members should work toward the attainment of a common goal(s).

Managing Intragroup Conflict

The management of intragroup conflict involves effectively channeling the energies, expertise, and resources of the group toward the formulation and/or attainment of group goals.

Specifically, this involves altering the sources of conflict among the members of a group so that affective conflict is minimized, a moderate amount of substantive conflict is attained and maintained, and the group members are enabled to learn the styles of handling intragroup conflict to deal with various situations.


The diagnosis of intragroup conflict and the styles of handling such conflict can be performed by such methods as self-reporting, observation, interviews, and company records.


A comprehensive diagnosis of intragroup conflict should involve the following measurements:

  • The amount of intragroup conflict and the styles of handling such conflict.
  • Factors that affect intragroup conflict and the styles of handling such conflict.
  • Learning and effectiveness of groups.


The analysis of the preceding diagnosis data should indicate:

  • The amount of intragroup conflict and the styles of handling such conflict in different groups, departments, units, and so on, and whether the amount of conflict deviated from the national norms.
  • Relationships of the amounts of intragroup conflict and the styles of handling such conflict to their sources.
  • The relationship of the amount of intragroup conflict and the styles of handling such conflict to group learning and effectiveness.
  • To manage intragroup conflict, it is necessary to know the sources of conflict.

Sources of Intragroup Conflict

Groups are affected by a multitude of factors. The diagnosis of intragroup conflict should indicate the factors that are significantly related to intragroup conflict.

Leadership Styles

A leader can virtually influence all other variables affecting conflict within a group. Three examples of group conflict and their relationship to the leader, called situations A, B, and C, were provided by Maier and Verser (1982).

Situation A: This occurs when the leader treats group members differently. Group members may be in conflict with one another if the leader provides favor to one or two members.

Situation B: Intragroup conflict will increase if the group members unite against the leader. This may happen if the leader changes the task structure, schedules, or procedures or removes some privileges, changes perceived by the members as unfair and/or unfavorable.

Situation C: This represents a split in the group. Differences in status, work interest, office space, and so on can encourage the formation of subgroups and conflict among them and the leader.

Task Structure

This represents the extent to which the task is simple (routine) or complex (non-routine).

If a task is routine, it is likely to have a verifiably correct solution. Non-routine tasks are not well-defined and do not have a verifiably correct solution. Recent studies suggest that there is a positive relationship between substantive conflict and performance.

This relationship was significant only for groups performing non-routine tasks. In other words, substantive conflict is harmful for groups performing routine or standardized tasks.

In simple, routine, and structured tasks, a considerate or supportive leadership style may be more closely related to high job satisfaction and performance than a directive one.

In this situation, there is a lower possibility of conflict within a group. On the other hand, in less structured tasks, subordinates appreciate more direction from their immediate supervisor.

Although there is a greater possibility of conflict among group members when the task is complex or non-routine than when the task is simple or routine, the management of such conflict can be effective if there is an appropriate match between leadership style and task and other contingency variables.

Group Composition

If a group is composed of individuals with too diverse interpersonal styles, attitudes, values, and interests, the members will have divergent perspectives toward group and organization goals.

In this situation, the members will experience undesirable interpersonal conflict and will have a difficult time attaining synergistic solutions to the group’s problems.

Rahim’s (1979) experimental study found intragroup conflict to be significantly less inhomogeneous than heterogeneous groups. However, in organizations with more standardized roles, the association between conflict and heterogeneity may not be significant (Becker & Geer, 1960).

Hall and Williams (1966) found that whereas established groups responded to conflict creatively, the ad hoc group resolved conflict through compromise procedures.

A change in group membership intensifies conflict (Kelly, 1972). When a new member joins a group, group stability may be disrupted. The manager of a group can affect group composition and conflict by selecting a newcomer with differing attitudes, backgrounds, and experiences.

It is generally accepted that diversified tasks or heterogeneous groups tend to perform better on many problem-solving tasks than do extremely homogeneous work-group performance.

Group Size

The size of a group can affect group processes and conflict. As a group grows, the potential for conflict increases. Several earlier studies found a positive relationship between group size and dissatisfaction and tension (Corwin, 1969; Hackman & Vidmar, 1970).

A large group generally encourages the formation of subgroups, each with its informal leader. Some of these subgroups may engage in conflict unless the formal leader follows a more directive and structured approach.

One study indicates that with respect to decision quality, groups of more than five members may not be justified (Yetton & Bottger, 1983). The researchers recognize that “to meet needs other than high decision quality, organizations may employ groups significantly larger than four or five.”

Group Cohesiveness and Groupthink

One of the major liabilities of a group is that one or more individuals may be forced to conform to the mode of thinking of their majority group members. Janis identified the following eight main symptoms of groupthink that reduce intragroup conflict:


Most or all of the members of the ingroup share an illusion of invulnerability that provides them with some degree of reassurance about obvious dangers and leads them to become overly optimistic and willing to take extraordinary risks.


Victims of groupthink ignore warnings; they also collectively construct rationalizations in order to discount warnings and other forms of negative feedback that, taken seriously, might lead the group members to reconsider their assumptions each time they recommit themselves to past decisions.


Victims of groupthink unquestionably believe in the inherent morality of their ingroup; this belief prejudices the members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.


Victims of groupthink hold stereotyped views of the leaders of enemy groups: they are so evil that genuine attempts at negotiating differences with them are unwarranted, or they are too weak or too stupid to deal effectively with whatever attempts the ingroup makes to defeat their purpose, no matter how risky the attempts are.


Victims of groupthink apply direct pressure to any individual who momentarily expresses doubts about any of the group’s shared illusions or who questions the validity of the arguments supporting a policy alternative favored by the majority.


Victims of groupthink avoid deviating from what appears to be the group consensus; they keep silent about their misgivings and even minimize to themselves the importance of their doubts.


Victims of groupthink share an illusion of unanimity/agreement/harmony within the group concerning almost all judgments expressed by members who speak in favor of the majority view.

Mind guards

Victims of groupthink sometimes appoint themselves as mind guards to protect the leader and fellow members from adverse information that might break the satisfaction they feel about the effectiveness and morality of past decisions.

External Threats

The proposition that external conflict increases internal cohesion is an old one. Coser (1956) suggested that conflict with outgroups increases in-group cohesion.

After an exhaustive review of the theoretical formulation and empirical tests of this proposition, Stein (1976) concluded that external conflict does increase cohesion under certain conditions. Under external threats, group members temporarily put aside their differences and unite against the common enemy.

The ingroup often develops stereotypes against the outgroup to justify the conflict and its causes. Bass (1965), Blake and Mouton (1961), and others found in their experiments that all groups in conflict rated themselves better than the other groups.

As a result, conflicts among the members of a group are reduced significantly when the members perceive their group to be in conflict with another group. In order for external intergroup conflict to be reduced, the following conditions must be satisfied (Stein 1976):

  1. The external conflict needs to involve some threat.
  2. [The external conflict] affects the entire group and all its members equally and indiscriminately and involves a solution (at least there must be a useful purpose in group efforts regarding the threat).
  3. The group needs to have been an ongoing one with some pre-existing cohesion or consensus, and to have leadership that can authoritatively enforce cohesion (especially if all the members of the group do not feel the threat).
  4. The group must be able to deal with the external conflict and provide emotional comfort and support to its members.
  5. External conflict may not reduce intragroup conflict if the external aggressor can tactfully split a subset group from the rest of the group members and create opposition and distrust, leading one subgroup to blame others.

Such a factor of equal importance for intragroup conflict is the conflict aftermath, that is, whether the group wins or loses.

The losing group may experience more tension and may reassess its strategies or composition. This may lead to an upset in its internal relationships, for example, change in leadership and undermining cohesiveness, and the group’s cohesiveness may increase.

A diagnosis of intragroup conflict should particularly indicate whether there is too little, too much, or a moderate amount of conflict and whether the conflict is handled by the group members effectively.

A diagnosis should also indicate an organization’s functional and/or dysfunctional aspects of intragroup conflict. Based on this information, an intervention decision can be made.

Intervention for Managing Intragroup Conflict

The process and structural interventions recommended for managing intragroup conflict are discussed as follows:

The Process Intervention

An organizational development technique, such as team building, has been presented as a process intervention that can be used to extend organizational development intervention. Team building emphasizes group learning rather than individual learning, as in the case of T-groups.

Team building is a planned strategy to bring about changes in the attitudes and behavior of the members of an organizational group (or team), whether permanent or temporary. A team-building exercise may be designed to enable the members to learn the styles of handling conflict and their appropriate use.

The intervention should also enable the group leader and members to become aware of the symptoms of groupthink and make appropriate changes in the group structure and process to remedy them. A team-building discussion should enable the group to achieve the following:

  • To formulate new and/or revise existing goals.
  • To formulate and/or revise tasks.
  • To allocate tasks to group members to achieve the revised goals.
  • To examine the effectiveness of group processes (such as communication, conflict, leadership, motivation, etc.).

Team building, used inappropriately, may have dysfunctional consequences. For example, “the development of a team that results in high conformity may be more dysfunctional than having the existence of conflict” (Bobbitt, et. al. 1978).

  • To guard against high cohesiveness and groupthink, which may result from team-building intervention, the following steps, adapted from Ganis (1971), may be useful:
  • The leader may encourage each member to critically evaluate group decisions. The leader should legitimize this practice by accepting some criticisms of his or her own behavior.
  • The leader should refrain from stating his or her preference for a problem solution.
  • The group should split into several subgroups to work on the same problem, each under a different leader. The separate solutions prepared by the subgroups should be integrated by the members of the group or the representatives of the subgroups.

Structural Intervention

Reduction of intragroup conflict through process intervention may not be a problem. Conflict may be reduced by making a group more cohesive and homogeneous.

However, if the manager of a group finds that there is less than an adequate amount of substantive conflict within his or her group, they undertakes the difficult task of containing conflict through structural changes.

Strategies for Managing Intragroup Conflict

  1. One of the potential strategies available to a manager to manage conflict is to change group membership. When a new member joins a group, the level of conflict may be significantly affected if the newcomer is specifically selected for their differing beliefs, training, and experiences. The manager can reduce conflict by transferring one or more conflicting members to other units. This should not be done unless the styles for handling conflict by the members in question are clearly dysfunctional.
  2. The level of conflict may also be altered by changing the group size. The potential for conflict increases as the size of the group increases. A literature review by Gist, Locke, and Taylor suggests that relatively small groups tend to be more efficient. Therefore, the size of the group should not be increased just for the purpose of generating conflict.
  3. The administrator of a group can change the level of conflict by altering the difficulty and variability of the task. The amount of conflict may be reduced by redefining and restructuring tasks and reducing the interrelationships among tasks performed by different members.
  4. The group leader can change the amount of conflict by altering the reward system. A reward system based on performance can generate productive competition and conflict among group members, which can increase group effectiveness. This is probably one of the effective ways of managing conflict within groups.
  5. The amount of intragroup conflict can be affected by the group leader by altering the rules and procedures and the appeals system.