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Why Perceptual Differences Contribute to Conflict


Goal differences can be accompanied by differing perceptions of reality, and disagreements over what constitutes reality can lead to conflict.  For instance, a problem in a hospital may be viewed in one way by the medical staff and in another way by the nursing staff.  Many factors cause organizational groups to form differing perceptions, and different perspectives.

Status in congruence conflicts concerning the relative status of different groups are common.  Usually, many different status standards are found in an organization, rather than an absolute one.  The result is many status hierarchies. For example, status conflicts often are created by work patterns, which group initiates the work and which group responds.  A production department, for instance, may perceive a change as an affront to its status because it must accept a sales group’s initiation of work.  This status conflict may be aggravated deliberately by the sales group.  Academic snobbery is certainly a fact of campus life at many colleges and universities.  Members of a particular academic discipline may perceive themselves, for one reason or another, as having a higher status than those of another, as having a higher status than those of another discipline.

Inaccurate perceptions often cause one group to develop stereotypes about other groups while the differences between groups may actually be quite small, each group will tend to exaggerate them.  Thus, you’ll hear that all women executives are aggressive, or all bank trust officers behave alike.  When the differences between the groups are emphasized, the stereotypes are reinforced, relations deteriorate, and conflicts develop.

The example given earlier of alumni and faculty having different perceptions concerning the importance of a winning football program is an example of different perspectives.  Alumni may wish for a winning football season because that shows a form of institutional success in a very visible public manner.  Faculty on the other hand may see the program as a distraction from the school’s primary objective of creating and disseminating knowledge.  The two groups simply may have a different view of what is most important.  Group goals, values, and culture are all factors that may contribute to different ways of seeing the world.  The different perspectives growing out of different organizational cultures can explain why conflict frequently results when companies are merged.

The nearby management pointer provides some suggestions for minimizing the role perceptual differences may play in causing conflict.