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What Is "Role Conflict" in Organizations?

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Role conflicts occur when an individual is forced to take on separate and incompatible roles. Role conflicts can occur when one person is torn between roles for different organizations or when an individual is asked to perform multiple roles within one organization. For instance, an employee with both worker and management roles in the same department assumes the conflicting roles of supervisor and co-worker.

The Importance of Roles

In sociological terms, roles are important guidelines for behavior. A role, from parent to teacher or police officer, defines a person's expected behavior and sets the parameters for what is socially acceptable. Most members of society assume a number of roles in their lives. For example, an individual assumes different roles at work, at home or among friends. Each role creates a set of expectations within the particular environment.

Role Conflicts

Given the importance of roles, role conflicts can be extremely complex and challenging. For example, a fireman has a social role that asks him to protect society from danger. When a fire erupts on his own block, he is conflicted between his duties as a fireman and his role as a father and husband that requires him to take care of his own family first. Less dramatic role conflicts occur on a regular basis for most individuals.

Role Conflicts Within an Organization

While most role conflicts occur because of obligations to different groups, role conflicts can also occur within a single organization. In many companies, mid-level supervisors also work among the people they supervise. This leads to frequent role conflicts because the supervisor is expected both to work in cooperation with the group and report under-performing members. Role conflicts can also emerge when an employee is asked to perform contradictory tasks. For example, one supervisor may ask an employee to increase production and while another asks her to improve quality control.

Role Conflicts and Personality

Overall, role conflicts tend to cause friction and frustration, but the effects can vary from person to person. Certain people are simply more able to assume different roles and avoid friction when the roles overlap. Others find these conflicts extremely stressful and can't assume their multiple responsibilities without tension or resentment. The ability to deal with conflicting tasks and negotiate roles with other members can be a very useful skill. However, people who can handle conflicting roles aren't necessarily more skilled in their own work than those who lack this ability.

Effects on a Workplace

In general, role conflicts have a negative effect on group dynamics. Every member of a group comes to expect certain behaviors from another member, asking that member essentially to perform his role. When this role is disrupted by a contradictory role, other people can feel disappointed and even resentful. The individual experiencing the role conflict can also feel frustrated or overwhelmed. He may even feel hurt by the resentment from his peers.

Avoiding Conflict

Role conflicts are nearly inevitable in complex social groups. Each conflict is unique, so no single method can prevent all types of role conflicts. However, open communication helps limit the tension from role conflicts. Clear communication also helps all members understand that each individual has multiple roles to perform.


Edward Mercer began writing professionally in 2009, contributing to several online publications on topics including travel, technology, finance and food. He received his Bachelor of Arts in literature from Yale University in 2006.

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