‘Houston, we have a problem’ and we don’t mean baseball

November 5, 2019 in
By Jess Milloy

When we planned this month’s theme to focus on conflict with the truism ‘Houston, we have a problem’ we never imagined that we’d be in the midst of a Washington Nationals (our hometown team) and Houston Astros World Series where every sports, radio, and TV newsperson was throwing that line around. We sought to reference that line, made famous by the movie Apollo 13, as an indicator or precursor of conflict. We never expected that we’d be listening to it on TV every night in reference to an ongoing battle of athletic performance between two baseball teams. And yet, since an athletic competition meets the definition of conflict, maybe our timing is better than we imagined- particularly since the Nats won! Go Nats!

Moving past that and turning our attention to the topic at hand, conflict, we wanted to start this month with a quick intro to conflict–why it can be really derailing or incredibly productive (perhaps even at the same time), what are the basic elements of a conflict, and how they manifest in our daily workplace and life (given that the two exist in parallel).

So, what is conflict? We can use a definition from Cambridge Dictionary to inform our conversation. Conflict is “an active disagreement, as between opposing opinions or needs.” And while many of us seek to avoid it and others run towards it, conflict itself is neutral. How it manifests, is negotiated, and ultimately resolved can be very destructive or remarkably transformative, but the incompatibility of the beliefs, desires, or goals that generate conflict is just that—a basic incompatibility that creates tension and requires action.

We frequently assume that conflict is predominantly inter-personal; however, it manifests on a global scale with the power to reshape nation-states, emerges within societies to upend long-held institutions, exists as a necessary force for tension and balance within a system (e.g.,  checks and balances), and is present even on an intra-personal level as we navigate questions of identity. Regardless of the scale, conflict can serve as a necessary precursor to change, where we recognize that a current state of disharmony has the potential to lead to a more functional future with shared goals and desired outcomes. Along the way, the disruption, innovation, chaos, or negotiations that stem from conflict may lead to powerful results, depending on how that process is navigated.

Later this month, we’re going to go deeper into the positive outcomes that stem from conflict, as well as explore some of the common strategies to help successfully navigate conflict where we find it most frequently–in our interpersonal interactions. For the moment, let’s look at some of the common causes of conflict within an organization, which is typically the perspective we take within these blogs.

Referencing the work of Omisore and Abiodun (2014), structural factors that can contribute to organizational conflict include-

  • Specialization– While people may have a general familiarity with the types of work done in other parts of the organization, they tend to specialize in their particular functional area. This specialization can lead to a lack of awareness or insight into common processes, practices, or even delivery timelines for other parts of the organization, setting up inter-unit conflicts.
  • Common Resources– Perhaps one of the easiest organizational conflicts to imagine, when there are scarce and shared resources, competing needs easily contribute to conflicts. Resources can be money, people, or information and, I would even add, space (as anyone who has worked in a crowded office can attest).
  • Goal Differences– When various components of an organization have different goals, working towards a common outcome can be incredibly challenging. While this can be mitigated by strategic planning, clear leadership communication, and collaborative working relationships between departments, you can easily imagine tensions bubbling when everyone has their own version of the same goal.
  • Interdependence– While not necessarily a source of conflict, conflict is more likely to occur when tasks or activities are dependent upon someone (or something) else.
  • Authority Relationships– While we all hope and imagine that our supervisory relationships will be supportive and functional, many work environments have cultures or practices that separate or create barriers between employees and managers, contributing to differences in beliefs and opinions.
  • Roles and Expectations– Unclear roles and ambiguous expectations set the stage for potential conflict as easily as scarce resources. Whether this is within a team or between departments, a lack of clarity around who is supposed to be doing what can easily fester and quickly escalate.
  • Jurisdictional Ambiguity– Using plain language, we frequently refer to this as having unclear ‘swim lanes’, meaning a shared understanding of who owns what. Without this clear understanding, responsibilities can fall through the cracks, be inappropriately delegated, or even potentially snagged by other parts of the organization.

If one of the first steps towards conflict resolution is identifying the source of conflict, these seven common causes of conflict within an organization provide a solid starting place. When understood in these terms, not only can we potentially avoid conflict (e.g., by ensuring clear roles and responsibilities, reinforcing shared goals and rewarding collaborative behavior), but we can look at the causes more objectively to find solutions. It is the process of finding a better solution that can lead to exciting results and has the ability to make conflict transformative.

Stay tuned to read more about strategies to address interpersonal conflict and understand the transformative and positive impact of conflict.


Omisore, B.O. & Abiodun A.R., (2014). Organizational Conflicts: Causes, Effects and Remedies. International Journal of Academic Research in Economics and Management Sciences, Nov 2014, Vol. 3, No. 6. Retrieved from http://hrmars.com/hrmars_papers/Organizational_Conflicts_Causes,_Effects_and_Remedies.pdf

Conflict. (n.d.) In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/conflict