Since time eternal — or at least since the first caveman cracked his neighbor over the head with a rock — conflict has been omnipresent in our lives, an inevitable part of human interaction. That it happens to feel particularly pervasive in 2024 might well be perception — a little negativity bias in action — or a very real effect of an increasingly interconnected world (one with social media and cable news, at that).

In any case, the truth remains that success in the business world — survival, even — relies on knowing how to navigate conflict wherever we meet it, from interpersonal headbutting to the myriad iterations of group conflict right on up to rivalry and warfare on a global stage. This is why Wharton students are schooled in identifying and working through conflict. It’s also why Wharton faculty seek to understand the best ways to deal with the friction and fighting that can affect us as individuals, co-workers, managers, and parts of organizations functioning in a global economy.

Here, we take a look at five different — and common — types of conflict that can and do affect modern organizations, and the research-based insights Wharton professors have brought forth to help people steer through roiling waters rather than be sunk by them.


Identity Conflict: Self Versus Self

Reconciling multiple workplace roles
Conceptual illustration of a person with antlers on their head and hats hanging from the antlers.

When we think about identity conflict at work, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the identities of two people might butt up against each other. Consider, says Nancy Rothbard — deputy dean of the Wharton School, management professor, and David Pottruck Professor — a team with one member in finance and another in R&D. You can see where conflict might arise, Rothbard says, “if you have one person who’s worried about the annual report and the disclosure statements, and another who says, ‘I don’t care about this year; I care about five years from now and investing in that.’” This type of role-related identity conflict happens all the time in cross-functional teams, Rothbard adds — and barring a devolution into personal conflict (more on that later), this sort of role- or task-related friction can even be helpful to an organization.

But what happens when the same person has multiple identities at work — say, as a manager who must evaluate workers and as a mentor who nurtures them — and those identities feel in tension with one another? This type of intrapersonal conflict is what Rothbard considered in her 2017 paper “Discordant vs. Harmonious Selves: The Effects of Identity Conflict and Enhancement on Sales Performance in Employee-Customer Interactions,” wherein she and her co-authors examined how workers’ identification with different roles affected job performance.

For their study, the researchers looked at more than 700 employees at a customer-service call center — people who represented and specialized in credit cards from two or three different well-known retail or financial brands. Because the workers were tasked with selling additional products and services to callers, the researchers could study how juggling these multiple identities impacted sales performance. In other words, would representing Bank of America and REI and Gap (random examples for the purpose of this story) affect the success of the employee, depending on how that employee identified with and related to each role?

The answer, Rothbard and her colleagues found, was yes. Employees who reported feeling conflict between their roles — identifying with one brand, perhaps, but not the other — showed lower-than-average sales over a four-month period. The reverse was true for those who reported identity harmony in their roles. When the researchers further investigated why people’s sense of complementary brand identities helped their performance, they found that these workers benefited from more intrinsic motivation: They were more likely to find their work interesting, Rothbard says, and be driven by enjoyment.

Multiple work identities are not, of course, just limited to people in this sort of role or to brand identities. Most of us have more than one identity when we show up to work, Rothbard points out, and in fact, more complex work and workplaces mean that multiple work identities might be even more sharply delineated than before, if only “because we have so many!” Tack on the expectation many workers have about immersing themselves in their roles, she says, and you can see the extent to which this sort of conflict can be demotivating and even destructive. It can lead not just to less productivity, Rothbard notes, but to greater burnout and more turnover.

And yet, given its internal and personal nature, identity conflict isn’t easily quelled by office policies or protocols. Instead, Rothbard says, a manager (or employee) might aim to frame or reframe multiple roles “from a standpoint of finding ways to focus on the synergies between them rather than the discontinuities or conflicts between them.” So: How does being a mentor support being an evaluator? Or, to use another of Rothbard’s examples, how might catering to a high-end clientele jibe, rather than conflict, with sourcing fair-trade materials in a socially conscious way? What complementary skills and mindsets do both roles use?

Think of it like this, Rothbard suggests: “The flip side of identity conflict is identity enhancement.” And that reframing, she says — finding links between those different identities to support them all — offers the potential for a less fractious, more motivated mindset about work and how to do it well.


Conflict in Negotiation: Employer Versus Employee

The price of playing hardball
Decorative illustration of two businesspeople with antlers on their heads facing each other with speech bubbles over their heads.

Some negotiations are one-and-done. Maybe you’re haggling at a garage sale or selling your used car. These aren’t the more service-oriented negotiations most of us see in a corporate setting but have nevertheless historically been the dominant type of paradigm in business-school classrooms and lab studies, says Maurice Schweitzer, professor of operations, information, and decisions, professor of management, and Cecilia Yen Koo Professor of Operations. You know the drill: One person is assigned to be the buyer and another the seller. “We’ll read background information about the most we can pay, the least we can accept; we’ll have 20 or so minutes to negotiate a price, sign a term sheet, wave goodbye, and we’re done,” Schweitzer says.

To be sure, he notes, many helpful insights have been gained by studying this process — for example, that showing anger might lead the other party to make concessions, while showing gratitude can lead to the opposite. But what Schweitzer and Wharton postdoc researcher Einav Hart wanted to know was what happened within a work setting after that negotiation. In “Getting to Less: When Negotiation Harms Post-Agreement Performance,” their paper published in 2020, the researchers revealed that some widely touted strategies for “successful” negotiation might actually hurt long-term working relationships and post-agreement performance.

Say that you, an employer, follow that conventional negotiation wisdom — being assertive, conceding slowly, playing hardball — and voilà: You get that employee to accept a lower salary, fewer benefits, and schedules that are good for you but less good for that employee. “And I think, ‘I killed it in this negotiation,’” Schweitzer says. “‘Go, me.’ But that misses what happens tomorrow.” You’re not coming out ahead, he says, if your employee resents the salary, perceives that his own interests are in conflict with yours, or gets through training and then looks for another job. The reality in negotiation, Schweitzer notes, is that “there’s a continuum of how much the relationship matters to the economic value we derive from the deal.”

When you negotiate, says management and OID professor Maurice Schweitzer, the specifics of that conversation — the level of assertiveness — “should be a function of the relationship we want and the economic value we’re creating.”

In some cases, we intuitively understand this. “When the babysitter says, ‘I charge $12 an hour,’” Schweitzer explains, “you say, ‘Okay, here’s my money, and the fridge is all yours.’” That’s because unlike the “single-shot transaction” of car-buying, maintaining the quality of that relationship matters, given the nature of the service provided. The same can be said of any negotiation involving someone with whom you have repeated interactions (management and unions, for example) or ongoing collaborations (like employees and employers). And yet for these situations, Schweitzer says, “There are so many negotiation books out there that have, firstly, a one-size-fits-all message, and, secondly, a typically distributive, hard-bargaining approach.” And while some of that advice can be helpful, it often fails to reflect Schweitzer’s findings that creating or focusing on conflict — or even the perception of conflict — in negotiation can hurt far more than it helps.

What, then, does this mean for hammering out a deal? First, the researchers say, you might consider whether you even need to negotiate. Schweitzer notes that some managers will ask potential employees about their preferred starting salary and not only refrain from talking them down, but even offer them more if they feel it’s too low: “They’re leaning toward an approach that’s totally different from that ‘getting more’ outlook.”

When you do negotiate, Schweitzer says, the specifics of that conversation — the level of assertiveness — “should be a function of the relationship we want and the economic value we’re creating.” You can’t pay your babysitter $90 an hour for the sake of the relationship, he allows, but you can lean toward being more accommodating, more generous. Beyond that, there’s an opportunity to build rapport into the negotiation process, he says, by focusing on the non-task communication — the chitchat, the information exchange, the sharing of goals and common interests — while aiming to keep the back-and-forth exchange of offers to a minimum. That offer-countering is where the perception and highlighting of conflict set in — and the realization that sometimes “winning” the negotiation might not be worth it in the end.

Unless, of course, you’re really just trying to sell that car.

Values Conflict: Peer Versus Peer

How to manage differing employee worldviews
Decorative illustration of two people scaling a pair of antlers using climbing ropes.

Societal wisdom these days generally argues that team diversity is good for performance, but just about anyone who’s studied the topic will tell you it’s not always quite that simple, says Edward H. Bowman Professor and management professor Katherine Klein. The type of diversity most people are talking about here, when you get down to it, is cognitive diversity — people who know different things. And while racial, age, and gender diversity might help on that front, that’s not a given, she says — not to mention that there are different dimensions to all those diversities. And other factors also matter: Do people respect each others’ varying expertise? Where does leadership come in?

In short, Klein says, “It’s a lot more complicated and nuanced than the simple assumption that diversity is good for a team.” Case in point? In Klein’s study, titled “When Team Members’ Values Differ: The Moderating Role of Team Leadership,” diversity in certain worldviews and beliefs created barriers between team members, leading to more conflict and less overall effectiveness. Moreover, the conflict was exacerbated or attenuated based on the style of management the team’s leader displayed.

“It’s a lot more complicated and nuanced than the simple assumption that diversity is good for a team,” says management professor Katherine Klein.

To delve into this issue, Klein and a trio of other researchers studied a cohort of young people who had signed up for a residential, team-based, 10-month-long national service program. They looked at the diversity of two key values in the randomly assigned teams of workers, Klein says: One value was work ethic, which focused on how hard team members felt they should work, how they viewed taking breaks, and the importance of staying busy. The other value was traditionalism, related to how much each member did or did not self-identify as having “old-fashioned values,” such as following social conventions, living by a strict moral code, and so forth. The researchers also measured team leaders’ “task orientation” and “person orientation.” Leaders who scored high on task orientation were “more controlling” in assigning roles, deadlines, and performance standards for the team. Leaders who scored high on person orientation were friendly and approachable and took pains to look out for team members’ personal welfare. (Some team leaders scored high on both orientations, some on neither, and some on one or the other.)

Klein and her colleagues found that teams high in values diversity that had highly task-oriented leaders ended up showing less personal conflict and more overall effectiveness — and this was especially true for those teams high in work-ethic diversity. Teams with highly person-oriented leaders — especially those teams high in traditionalism diversity — showed more inter-team conflict and less overall effectiveness.

Admittedly, Klein says, the takeaway that person-oriented leadership can worsen conflict might feel slightly out-of-step — a tricky notion in this moment when more and more people seem to want leaders to recognize their values. At the same time, though, values diversity and its resulting conflict feel as real and consequential a part of our lives today as ever. (Indeed, though the study is more than a decade old, it’s hard to think of a more timely topic.) This is why, Klein says, it’s especially important for a team leader “to be quite thoughtful about what the source of the conflict” might be — to strike a balance, as she’s put it, between acknowledging employees’ personal values and providing a structure that zeroes in clearly on the team’s common goal. “There may be times,” Klein says, “when keeping people focused on their tasks will be more productive and less distracting than attending to and validating their individual preferences and points of view.”


Culture Conflict: Team A Versus Team B

When merging organizations have diverging cultures
Decorative illustration of two people sitting on a swing that is hung between two antlers acting as poles.

You’re no doubt aware that the success rate for mergers and acquisitions is dauntingly low. The fatal flaw, says management professor and William and Jacalyn Egan Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, is usually more about people than products or bottom lines: “If you look at the postmortem of many a failed merger, you see it often happens in the integration process, when it becomes impossible to create a bridge between the two cultures.”

That, she says, is because organizational culture is something that can seem invisible but in fact underpins everything from behavior to dress to what the organization believes to be important and its theories about what success means and how you get there. So in a merger situation, or even instances of dual identities in one organization — topics on which Wrzesniewski has co-authored numerous papers — if there’s misalignment in the beliefs that guide the various cultures, “Well, that becomes akin to dating someone who has a fundamentally different value system from you.” In short: There are pitfalls.

Nevertheless, she says, organizations do this all the time: “The thinking is, ‘We’re bureaucratic, careful, and slow. We’re known for high quality, but we need to get more innovative, to break things. So let’s merge with or acquire an organization that’s good at those things!’”

But Wrzesniewski warns that if the attitudes, values, and norms are oppositional enough to have made a merger attractive in the first place, things can easily get dicey post-merger. Even people randomly assigned to a group in a lab study are primed to show bias toward their own team and against another, she says, so consider the effects when what’s at stake is actually “your work identity, your paycheck, your legacy. You’re suddenly working with people who have come from a very different organization, people you’re supposed to trust, people with whom you’re meant to come to a shared understanding. But a shared understanding of the world might be the thing you have the least of.”

When Wrzesniewski teaches on this topic, she often points to Time Warner and AOL’s ill-fated 2000 union — one of the most disastrous deals in American history, the famous failure of which was preceded by a now widely recognized post-merger culture clash. Quoth Fortune: “The aggressive and, many said, arrogant AOL people ‘horrified’ the more staid and corporate Time Warner side. Cooperation and promised synergies failed to materialize as mutual disrespect came to color their relationships.”

And yet, Wrzesniewski says, “I’m still astonished at how much this [type of culture dissonance] is underplayed as an important part of these kinds of decisions.”

So what are merging firms to do? Wrzesniewski suggests that blending organizations with wildly different cultures should only be undertaken “if there are no other ways to gain the benefits.” And in those cases where mergers proceed, she says, the architects of the deal should be “extraordinarily careful and explicit” about org charts and roles, but also “be curious, to learn and plan for what the different logics are that will drive the decision-making processes, what gets privileged when trade-offs have to be made, and doing that in a way that’s planned.” This is preferably achieved by recruiting people in each organization who are knowledgeable and can articulate the logic and assumptions that make their respective places tick, she says — and then having them help plan new collaborations or separations that make good sense.

“Being really thoughtful and careful planning in advance is the only way to succeed,” Wrzesniewski says, “other than by luck.”

Global Conflict: Side 1 Versus Side 2

Building a peace-positive business in conflict-prone areas
Decorative illustration of two people with antlers on their heads circling a globe.

In the context of doing business in a global economy — and also in the context of this story — the first thoughts most of us have when we think about businesses grappling with local or regional conflict are probably related to how an organization might best navigate various socio-political tensions, instability, or all-out warfare to minimize their potentially damaging impacts on the business and, in particular, its workers. But that sort of self-preservation lens, while wildly relevant, isn’t the only one worth considering in today’s world, offers Witold Henisz, Deloitte & Touche Professor of Management in Honor of Russell E. Palmer and vice dean and faculty director of the Wharton School’s ESG Initiative. The ESG perspective zooms out even further to consider what businesses might do to make sure their presence and workings don’t exacerbate — or cause — conflict.

Often, Henisz says, there’s an assumption that simply bringing business and money to an area will have a stabilizing effect, reducing poverty, precarity, and conflict. But of course, he adds, money can just as easily cause major problems if, say, one ethnic or religious group gets it and another doesn’t. “Inequality is a massive trigger for conflict,” he notes, and even good actors’ choices in hiring, sourcing, marketing, and operations can escalate tension and violence if they’re not handled with conflict sensitivity and a true understanding of the groups and communities involved and impacted, the socio-political context, and the region. Much of the work coming out of the ESG Initiative’s Political Risk and Identity Lab, Henisz says, involves trying to get businesses to be more conflict-aware in this sense. One research initiative the lab has partnered in, the Business and Conflict Barometer, offers a suite of data and analytics tools to help scholars and, in the future, practitioners and civil society representatives identify conflict-prone private-sector development and find peace-positive pathways.

“Inequality is a massive trigger for conflict,” says management professor and ESG Initiative vice dean Witold Henisz.

There’s no lack of case studies of both successes and failures on this front. Consider the massive natural gas find in Mozambique a few years back and the resulting foreign direct investment project, Henisz notes, funded with billions from around the world, including the International Finance Corporation. The investment was projected to boost development in one of the world’s poorest countries and lift thousands of people out of poverty. Instead, he says, “It ended up triggering a war that led to the evacuation of all of the workers. That led to the suspension of the project, and now Mozambique is probably worse off than it was before.”

Alternately, Henisz points to a number of case studies his ESG colleague, collaborator, and frequent co-author Brian Ganson, of Stellenbosch Business School’s Center on Conflict & Collaboration, has written about successful “peace-building” initiatives from companies. Take, for example, Chevron — not a perfect company from every ESG perspective, as Henisz notes, but its Niger Delta Partnership Initiative Foundation (NDPI) has taken a collaborative approach to community relationships and engagement in the region. Since its founding in 2010, NDPI has aimed to be a part of social progress by supporting access to education, health care, and other economic development. All of this — plus the systems the company put in place to provide regional conflict analysis — has, in Ganson’s words, “helped Chevron reduce conflict and violence not only against the company, but in communities around the company.”

The idea of this sort of “peace building” as a corporate responsibility has gained some traction, Henisz says, but adds, “I wouldn’t characterize this yet in the mainstream as the way people are thinking about ESG or political risk management.” The prevailing view remains that simply sinking money into a poor and violent place will make it wealthier and more peaceful — despite the risks that can so often accompany that. Via their analyses, Henisz says, researchers in the ESG field are working hard to make this sort of conflict-awareness de rigueur … no easy task, but the case for it exists: “We’re making — to use a phrase my advisor used throughout his career — modest, slow, molecular, and definitive progress.”


Christine Speer Lejeune is a freelance writer and editor based in Philadelphia.

Published as “Clash Point” in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Wharton Magazine.