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Conflicts between Staff and Line Managerial Officers

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Published: Thu, 12 Oct 2017

Conflicts between Staff and Line Managerial Officers (1950) Melville Dalton

The main aims of this article appear to be to investigate the conflicting aims of staff members and their middle line managers, and by doing so, to better define the causes of these conflicts, and the resulting conflicts within the working environment. The ultimate aim of this investigation and research would appear to be an attempt to reconcile these groups to each other, by demonstrating that the main functional differences were merely cosmetic, and thus improve relations between staff and their managers. Based upon the contexts of the period in which this piece was written: the demise of Taylor’s (1911) scientific style of management, and the ascendancy of ‘Human Relations’ management, pioneered by Mayo (1945), it could be hypothesised that Dalton intended his work to be used as a management tool, to help managers improve the relations with their staff.

The paper’s key argument appears to be that all of the “various functioning groups of the plants were caught up in a general conflict system; but apart from the effects of involvement in this complex, the struggles between line and staff organisations were attributable mainly to few reasons.” Dalton claimed that these reasons included functional differences between the two groups, differences in the age distributions, the degree of formal education both groups had received, the potential ceilings to promotion that both groups faced, the external and internal affiliations of members of the two groups, e.g. trade unions, and finally the need of the staff groups to justify their existence. The crux of this argument is that, although the conflicts appeared fairly fundamental, as they resulted from factors which could not be influenced, such as age distribution and formal education, they were in fact largely cosmetic, and could be avoided if both sides were sufficiently considerate of the other.

Dalton’s main data was gathered from research in three industrial plants, all of which showed conflict between the managerial staff and line groups that hindered the attainment of organizational goals. As a result of this, the other arguments claimed by the paper are focused on the attitudes which cause these conflicts. One argument was that attitudes among most of the high line executives focus on a hope that greater control of staff groups can be achieved; or that the groups might be eliminated and their functions taken over in great part by carefully selected and highly remunerated lower-line officers. This is a key point in Dalton’s main argument, as it reinforces his claim that line managers viewed their staff as being somewhat fundamentally different from the company officers, and thus placing officers in the same role would remove any problems. The other conclusion along those lines is that staff members almost always want more recognition, and a greater voice in control of the plants, rather than simply a shift in policies hence, claims Dalton, staff believed that the managers were unable to understand or represent the staff, thus the staff needed the ability to represent themselves.

One of Dalton’s empirical claims arose from his examination of at the interaction between ‘techno structures’ and middle lines, two basic parts of the organisational space, which Dalton concluded would engage in interminable conflicts with each other. Whereas a ‘techno structure’ develops methods that standardise and organisation’s core work, a middle line, and the line’s managerial officers, either directly or indirectly supervises the people who perform the core work: the staff. By designing work processes, specifying outputs, and controlling the application of workers’ skills, ‘techno structures’ remove some discretion, power and control from middle line managers. As a result, some of the conflicts between ‘techno structures’ and middle line managers can, directly or indirectly, cause conflicts between said line managers and their staff, by redesigning staff roles and responsibilities without consent or input from line managers. Equally, the ‘techno structure’ of an organisation can be influenced and developed by all the functional specialists and subject matter experts working within that organisation, such as industrial engineers, financial controllers, production planners, quality assurance or employee training staff and, in modern organisations, IT staff. This could create yet further conflicts, as the managers may wish to manage the staff using one particular method, but the technologically skilled staff may need other degrees of freedom to do their job properly. As such, there will be resentment from both sides, leading to conflict, and also potential resentment from unskilled staff, who find themselves under greater degrees of control than their skilled counterparts.

However, this discussion actually undermines Dalton’s key argument, a fact that was taken up in a later piece by Nystrom (1986). Dalton argues that it is fundamental demographic differences which are the root cause of most of the conflicts between staff and line managerial officers; however Nystrom’s research has shown that, even after sampling and statistical manipulation to control for the possible effects of these demographic factors, conflicts in belief still existed between the two groups. In particular, the ‘techno structure’ differences, such as the specialist knowledge of some engineering staff, can create differences in opinions over how best to achieve a task with a manager who has a very similar demographic background, or even a colleague at the same level as the specialist. As such, although it is apparent, from the concurrence of Dalton and Nystrom, that “differences in beliefs probably do create and amplify intraorganisational conflicts” (Nystrom, 1986) these differences apparently do not stem entirely from demographic factors, such as suggested by Dalton. Thus, whilst any academic or practitioner looking to examine and explain the root cause of conflicts between staff and managers in an organisation would do well to look at demographic differences as a possible cause, they would also do well to bear in mind that this is unlikely to be the only contribution to the conflict.


  1. Dalton, M. (1950) Conflicts between Staff and Line Managerial Officers. American Sociological Review, Vol. 15, Issue 3, p. 342.
  2. Mayo, E. (1945) The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization. New Hampshire: Ayer.
  3. Nystrom, P. C. (1986) Comparing beliefs of Line and Technostructure Managers. Academy of Management Journal; Vol. 29, Issue 4, p. 812.
  4. Taylor, F. W. (1911) The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper Bros.

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