The term role conflict refers to a clash between two or more of a person’s roles or incompatible features within the same role. These incompatibilities can consist of differing expectations, requirements, beliefs, and/or attitudes. The term role relies on the theatrical metaphor of an actor performing his or her part in a staged play. Although stage actors generally play only one character per play, the same actor will go on to play multiple characters throughout his or her career, and different actors often play the same role in different ways. Unlike theatrical actors, people in everyday life enact multiple roles simultaneously. For example, Jane might be a boss, an employee, a daughter, a mother, and so on. Often, these roles are activated concurrently and harmoniously. Jane’s role as the primary wage earner for her family is not likely to be in conflict with her role as a supervisor at work. Different roles are sometime incompatible, however, and the requirements of one role can clash with those of another. In addition, contradictory requirements within the same role can produce role conflict.
There are two types of role conflict: intrarole conflict, referring to incompatible requirements within the same role, and interrole conflict, referring to clashing expectations from separate roles within the same person. Intrarole conflict can arise in two ways. First, different people sometimes have inconsistent conceptions concerning the requirements and expectations that constitute a particular role. Jane’s conception of being a good mother might consist of having a job outside of the home. She might also believe that providing socioemotional support to her family is a necessary ingredient in her role as a mother. However, Jane’s mother-in-law might think that to be a good mother Jane would need to relinquish her job to provide around-the-clock care for her children. Because of these differing conceptions concerning the role of a mother, Jane is likely to experience intrarole conflict.
Intrarole conflict can also occur when the role itself has contradictory expectations or requirements. Jane might feel that her role as a mother requires her to provide emotional warmth to her children. The same role might also require her to discipline her children following misbehavior. Because being sensitive and supportive is at odds with enacting discipline, Jane is likely to experience intra-role conflict in situations where her children misbehave. To resolve intrarole conflict, the role can be compartmentalized. In her role as mother, Jane might justify her job outside the home by noting that it allows her to care for her children financially. Working outside the home provides them with groceries, housing, heat, schooling, medical care, and so on. As such, it fits with Jane’s conception of the motherhood role. An additional way to resolve intrarole conflicts is to avoid those who define a role differently. As such, Jane might avoid her mother-in-law because of their clashing conceptions concerning the motherhood role.
Interrole conflict arises when the requirements and expectations of one role interfere or conflict with those of another role. Jane’s role as mother is likely to conflict occasionally with her role as a worker employed outside the home. When one of her children becomes ill, Jane may find that the demands of her job (e.g., staying at work) are in conflict with the demands of motherhood (e.g., taking her child to the doctor). There are a number of ways to resolve interrole conflicts. Often, people will prioritize their roles. In some situations, such as when an important deadline looms at work, it may be more important for Jane to stay late at work. In this situation, her role as a worker will take priority over her role as a mother. At other times, such as when her children are ill and in need of care, her role as mother will take priority. We can also compartmentalize different roles. For example, Jane may find that she interacts with others very differently at work and home. By compartmentalizing her roles, she can be task-oriented in her role as a boss, but socioemotionally oriented in her role as wife and mother. Roles can also be specialized. If children need to be disciplined, Jane and her husband can develop a system in which her husband is in charge of discipline while Jane is in charge of providing warmth and comfort.
The experience of role conflict has been associated with negative health, psychological, social, and work related outcomes. Role conflict is positively correlated with experienced stress level and depression and negatively correlated with self-esteem. In the workplace, role conflict is negatively correlated with job commitment, job involvement, participation in decision-making, and satisfaction with compensation, coworkers, and supervision and, as Mary Van Sell, Arthur Brief, and Randall Schuler (1981) observed, positively associated with job dissatisfaction, on-the-job tension, and intentions to leave an organization.
SEE ALSO Conflict; Family; Happiness; Identity; Mental Health; Motherhood; Performance; Role Theory; Self-Concept; Self-Esteem;Work
Goffman, Erving. 1961. Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
Van Snell, Mary, Arthur P. Brief, and Randall S. Schuler. 1981. Role Conflict and Role Ambiguity: Integration of the Literature and Directions for Future Research. Human Relations 34 (1): 43–71.
Scott T. Wolf