What Is "Role Conflict" in Organizations?

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Everyone assumes a number of "roles" throughout the day

Role conflict is a type of social conflict caused from an individual being forced to take on separate and incompatible roles. Role conflicts can occur individually, as in the case of one person being torn between separate roles for different organizations or groups, or within an organization, when an individual is asked to perform multiple roles in the same group. An employee with both work and management roles in a department, for instance, assumes the conflicting roles of supervisor and co-worker.

  1. The Importance of Roles

    • In sociological terms, roles operate as important guidelines for behavior. A role, from parent to teacher or police officer, can define expected behavior and set the parameters for actions seen as socially acceptable. Most members of society assume a number of roles in their lives. Any one individual can assume specific and different roles at work, at home or among friends, each generating a set of expectations within each group.

    Role Conflicts

    • Role conflicts can develop between or within groups
      Role conflicts can develop between or within groups

      Given the importance of roles and the broad social agreement they imply, role conflicts can be extremely complex and personally challenging. In one common example, a fireman, assuming a social role that asks him to protect society from danger, is thrown into a role conflict when a fire erupts on his block and he is conflicted between the social expectations of his professional role and his role as a father and husband that asks him to first care for his family. Less dramatic role conflicts occur on a regular basis for most individuals.

    Role Conflicts Within an Organization

    • Every group assigns roles to its members
      Every group assigns roles to its members

      While most role conflicts occur because of multiple obligations to different groups, role conflicts can also occur within a single organization when individuals have various conflicting responsibilities. In many companies, mid-level supervisors often work among the people they supervise, leading to frequent role conflicts with the supervisor expected both to work collaboratively with the group and report underperforming members. Role conflicts can also emerge when a member of an organization is asked to perform contradictory tasks, as when an employee is asked by one supervisor to increase production and by another to increase quality control.

    Role Conflicts and Personality

    • Family roles can often come into conflict with professional of social roles
      Family roles can often come into conflict with professional of social roles

      Overall, role conflicts tend to cause friction and frustration, but the effects can vary with personality. Certain people are simply more able to assume different roles and avoid friction when the roles overlap. Others find the conflict extremely stressful and are unable to maneuver their multiple responsibilities without causing more tension or resentment. The ability to be more flexible with conflicting tasks and better negotiate roles with other members can be a very useful skill in dealing with role conflicts, but that does not necessarily mean individuals with these skills will also be as competent in their individual areas of work as individuals with less role negotiating ability.

    Effects on a Workplace

    • Despite individual levels of comfort with contradictory roles, role conflicts generally have a negative effect on group dynamics. Every member of a group comes to expect certain behaviors from another member, asking that member to essentially perform his role. When those roles are questioned by another contradictory role, the results can be disappointing and even cause resentment. The individual experiencing a role conflict can also feel frustrated or overwhelmed by the contradiction, or even hurt by resentment among his peers.

    Avoiding Conflict

    • Role conflicts are nearly inevitable in complex social groups where every member has a wide set of responsibilities. Each event is so distinct that no single method could seek to avoid the escalation of all role conflicts, but open and good communication is critical to limiting the tension of role conflicts and letting all members know that an individual has multiple roles to perform.

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