Is conflict within a relationship a bad thing?

28th January 2016 |   Mark Hollyoake, Dr Melanie Ashleigh and Professor Malcolm Higgs

Is conflict a bad thing?

Is conflict within a business-to-business (B2B) relationship a bad thing? Gargiulo & Ertug (2006) argue that hostility and bitterness resulting from disagreements not being resolved amicably can lead to almost pathological consequences such as relationship dissolution.

However, when disputes are resolved amicably, such disagreements can be referred to as functional conflict, because they prevent stagnation, stimulate interest and create curiosity, providing a “a medium through which problems can be aired and solutions arrived at” (Deutsch 1969, p19). In this instance, functional conflict may increase the relationship productivity and be seen as “just another part of doing business” (Anderson & Narus, 1990, p45). The authors also go on to state that “firms who have developed strong trust in a relationship are more likely to work out their disagreements amicably” (ibid p45).

During functional conflict, there is give and take and a more consultative relationship among organisational members, and opinions and feelings are expressed freely.

A number of senior commercial leaders within fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), industrials, and financial services (FS) have recently challenged the relentless pursuit of utopia or the nirvana of deeply interdependent customer relationships, strategic partners and trusted advisor status. They point to two key areas that are worth consideration and supported through B2B scholarly research – for example, (Grabher, 1993; Gargiulo and Benassi, 2000; Gargiulo & Ertug 2006; Hammervoll & Toften 2013; Tushman & Anderson 1986; and Uzzi, 1996 & 1997) to name but a few.


The first area of concern is the over investment within relationships that are never going to be more than transactional. The second concern relates to the over-dependence that can develop and has the potential to deliver relationship catastrophe if it implodes, or a gradual reduction in value as it declines.

Co-founder and Director at Customer Attuned Ltd. | + posts

Dr Mark Hollyoake is an associate lecturer at the University of the West of England, faculty of Business and Law. He is also a co-founder and director of Customer Attuned Ltd. His applied work across FMCG, industrials, medical devices, business services and construction has led to organisations making significant improvements to their customer management. A large focus of this work has been moving organisations up the “Trust Ladder”, enabling them to benefit from reduced cost to serve, while continuing to innovate and deliver mutual value. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and Member of the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management. He holds an MBA from Henley Business School.

Associate Professor at University of Southampton Business School | + posts

Dr Melanie Ashleigh is an Associate Professor in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the University of Southampton Business School. Her research interests cover multi-level trust, team training and leadership. Before joining the Business School in 2003, she attained her PhD in Engineering and previously was a Human Resource manager in the field of technology and a sales consultant. She is an associate member of the CIPD and British Psychological Society.

Professor of Human Resources at University of Southampton Business School | + posts

Professor Malcolm Higgs is Professor of Human Resources and Organisation Behaviour at the University of Southampton Business School. He joined the School in November 2007, having for the previous four years been the Academic Dean at Henley Business School. He remains a Visiting Professor at Henley Business School and is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Public Administration at Erasmus University. He is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist.