Dynamics of Overt and Covert Conflict in Organizations: The Power of Organizational Identity

Elisabeth Naima Mikkelsen*, Didde Maria Humle

*Corresponding author for this work

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Conflict in organizations takes many forms. However, most existing literature on organizational conflict focuses on overt forms of conflict expression and handling. While covert conflict exists and shapes the collective organizing of conflict in organizations, the relationship between overt and covert forms of conflict has not yet been well explicated. This article offers a novel perspective on the dynamics of overt and covert conflict in organizations by examining why some forms of conflict gain legitimacy over others. We present an ethnographic study of how the staff and management experienced everyday conflict at a Nordic aid agency that highly prized harmony and collaboration in the workplace and had therefore adopted a deliberate and logical approach to conflict. An affective underside of the organization, marked by subtle and suppressed conflict expression, however, alluded to an acknowledged organizational order that guided conflict interaction among members and kept the production together. To explain these organizational dynamics, we use narrative theory as an original and fertile perspective for studying both overt and covert forms of conflict and their interaction. This reveals an important feature of their relationship: they are intertextually linked through their relationship to the dominant organizational identity, which hegemonizes what is and what is not allowed to get into conflict over. From these findings, we develop a model of the structuring of overt and covert conflict through organizational identity, thus contributing to the organizational conflict literature.
Original languageEnglish
JournalGroup & Organization Management
Issue number6
Pages (from-to)768–807
Number of pages40
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Published online: 23. September 2020


  • Conflict in organizations
  • Narrative theory
  • Organizational identity
  • Ethnography
  • Power

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