Last updated: March 19, 2019
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Managing Conflict in Organizations: A Focus on Conflict Resolution Skills

It is an inevitable fact that conflict could occur within an organization. Conflicts could arise whenever disagreements exist in a social situation over issues of substance or whenever emotional antagonisms create frictions between individuals or groups. Managers and team leaders can spend considerable time dealing with conflict, including conflicts in which the manager or leader is directly involved as one of the principal actors (Kotter, 1982).

However, to think that all conflicts are bad is wrong. This is because some conflicts are preventive and reduce hindrances to goal attainment. Thus, an effective leader or manager can learn to curtail conflict on one hand and to design or to allow its influence on the other, becoming increasingly wise in determining the need for each.

Also, keeping conflicts from getting out of control requires communication between participants. Managers need to assure the staff that open sharing can be safe and in their best interest as long as there is respect shown to each other. The open communication should continue until there is consensus.

In the recognition of the basis of conflict, people could help in managing it. Recognizing events that are bound to be problematic can allow for effective interventions to reduce their magnitude or to eliminate them altogether. Decisive action is complex, and analysis of the premises from which action was formed is ongoing and interactive. As organizations tend to aim at achieving their goals, knowing how to manage conflicts effectively would be beneficial for every manager and subordinates involved.

Thus, what are the effective measures to do when a problem or challenge in organization should arise? What could conflict management skills does a manager apply in examining the nature of conflict and ways to respond to conflict constructively? Finally, what is the role of change in the workplace and how should supervisors or managers do to implement it?

Exploring the Eye of Conflict
Before a manager can respond effectively to a conflict, he or she needs to understand the real nature of that conflict. Who is involved or what is the source of the conflict? In the Conflict Resolution Network’s (CRN) 12 Conflict Resolution Skills, this is called “mapping the conflict”, where defining the source of conflict is defined.

Although most role conflict occurs when an employee’s supervisor or peers send conflicting expectations to him or her, it is possible for intrapersonal role conflict to emerge from within an individual, as a result of competing roles taken. For example, an employee named Penelope may see herself as both the manager of a team responsible for protecting and enlarging its resources and as a member of the executive staff charged with the task of reducing operating costs. This is a type of intrapersonal conflict. As conflict can occur within an employee, between individuals or groups, and across organizations as they compete, Newstrom and Davis (2004) applied levels in conflict: intrapersonal, interpersonal and group conflicts.

More often, it is the interpersonal conflicts that become a serious problem to many people because they deeply affect a person’s emotions. There is a need to protect one’s self-image and self-esteem from damage by others. When self-concept is threatened, serious upset occurs and relationships deteriorate. Sometimes the temperaments of two persons are incompatible and their personalities clash. In other instances, conflicts develop from failures of communication or differences in perception. For instance, an office employee named Caleb became upset when his boss chose to promote another person, who he thinks is not as qualified as him to become the accounting supervisor. It seemed to Caleb that there was no way to resolve the conflict. However, when a counselor explained the different organizational roles of the two employees as seen from the whole organization’s point of view, the Caleb’s perceptions changed and the conflict vanished. One popular concept gaining praises in resolving interpersonal conflicts is “emotional intelligence,” or the ability to manage emotions and interpersonal relationships. Sometimes divided into the four components of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social skills, emotional intelligence is being introduced in training programs at organizations (Gupta & Jenkins 1996, p. 23–30).

On the other hand, intergroup conflicts could occur between different departments. On a major scale such conflicts are something like the wars between juvenile gangs. Each group sets out to undermine the other, gain power, and improve its image. Conflicts arise from such causes as different viewpoints, group loyalties, and competition for resources. Resources are limited in any organization—and are increasingly tight as organizations struggle to be competitive. Since most groups feel that they need more than they can secure, the seeds of intergroup conflict exist wherever there are limited resources.

As emphasized above, some conflicts are not bad because they can be constructive, and this is certainly true at the intergroup level. Here, conflict may provide a clue that a critical problem between two departments needs to be resolved rather than allowed to smolder. Unless issues are brought into the open, they cannot be fully understood or explored. Once intergroup conflict emerges, it creates a motivating force encouraging the two groups to resolve the conflict so as to move the relationship to a new equilibrium. Viewed this way, intergroup conflict is sometimes escalated —intentionally stimulated in organizations because of its constructive consequences. On other occasions it may be desirable to de-escalate it — intentionally decrease it because of its potentially destructive consequences. The managerial challenge is to keep conflict at a moderate level (where it is most likely to stimulate creative thought but not interfere with performance). Conflict should not become so intense that individual parties either hide it or escalate it to destructive levels (Newstrom & Davis, 2004).

Within these three levels of conflict, conflict resolution procedures involve multiple dimensions: procedures and diverse participant roles for handling conflict, implicit as well as explicit teaching of understandings and skills, and patterns of interpersonal and community relations that are enacted or challenged to change. Procedures, such as codes of conduct, peer mediation, restorative justice group conferencing, or bullying or harassment policies, inevitably model and practice particular approaches to conflict. In this case, all conflict resolution should enhance relationship-building initiatives, such as democratic education, antiracism, antihomophobia, and gender equity efforts, provide implicit or explicit education about social conflict, multiple perspectives, and pluralism. By virtue of being assumed and, therefore, often uncriticized, implicit conflict education can be a very powerful source of students’ knowledge, attitudes, skills, and social role expectations. The background of implicit messages in any given context will facilitate or impede any explicit initiative in conflict resolution (Bickmore, 2003, p. 6).

On the basis of the source of conflict, it could arise from a variety of sources (see Figure 1).  Newstrom and Davis identified these as:

Organizational change —People hold differing views over the direction to go, the routes to take and their likely success, the resources to be used, and the probable outcomes. With the pace of technological, political, and social change increasing and the marketplace hurtling toward a global economy, organizational changes will be ever-present.
Different sets of values —People also hold different beliefs and adhere to different value systems. Their philosophies may diverge, or their ethical values may lead them in different directions. The resulting disputes can be difficult to resolve, since they are less objective than disagreements over alternative products, inventory levels, or promotional campaigns.
Threats to status —Status or the social rank of a person in a group is very important to many individuals. When one’s status is threatened, face-saving becomes a powerful driving force as a person struggles to maintain a desired image. Conflict may arise between the defensive person and whoever created a threat to status.
Contrasting perceptions —People perceive things differently as a result of their prior experiences and expectations. Since their perceptions are very real to them, and they feel that these perceptions must be equally apparent to others, they sometimes fail to realize that others may hold contrasting perceptions of the same object or event. Conflict may arise unless employees learn to see things as others see them and help others do the same.
Lack of trust — Every continuing relationship requires some degree of trust —the capacity to depend on each other’s word and actions. Trust opens up boundaries, provides opportunities in which to act, and enriches the entire social fabric of an organization. It takes time to build, but it can be destroyed in an instant. When someone has a real or perceived reason not to trust another, the potential for conflict rises.
Personality clashes — The concept of individual differences is fundamental to organizational behavior. Not everyone thinks, feels, looks, or acts alike. Some people simply rub us the wrong way, and we cannot necessarily explain why.
As conflict is one of the main features of any organization, managing this condition becomes a primary objective if the people in it want to be effective. The first task for participants, then, is to be able to identify the sources of conflict. We tend to identify conflict more with its negative effects than its benefits. Conflict is negative when it causes disunity, alters priorities, forces the unproductive consumption of scarce resources, jeopardizes the development of coalitions, and prevents change. Common sources of conflict include differing value systems (including professional training), structural concerns, data issues, relationship factors, and behavior (Lincoln, 1989; Susskind and Cruikshank, 1987).

Figure 1. Newstrom and Davis (2004) Model of the Conflict Resolution Process

Problem at Hand: Situational Analysis of Conflict Resolution
A certain marketing and sales company had grown increasingly unhappy with its internal finance team. This particular team was either off-hand or aggressive to all telephone requests for assistance and instead of concentrating on day-to-day financial matters it was always looking for new challenges, to the point that its members often complained that they were being deprived of opportunities to get high bonuses like the sales team. In fairness, this is not exactly the style people in that company would expect in a fact-based accounting and finance team and a new manager was hired to try to turn it around.

After analysis, it was found that the thinking style of the team was not detail-oriented or even client-oriented. These were guys who had no real love of finance. They had been under considerable stress all the way through their accounting and/or finance education and many of them had had to adopt extreme coping behavior during their years of study and to get through their final exams. Their big-picture style and love of challenge then led them to seek jobs with a world-famous marketing company, but once hired they spent most their time looking over the other side of the mountain, to marketing and sales, and saying to themselves that the grass was greener over there. The real Marketing and Sales people found themselves having to spend hours, days or weeks in competition and argument to get the business analysis and the financial data they needed. They would have just preferred to make a calm phone call and receive good service instead of coming across unsatisfactory colleagues.

The paradox of it all was that at first Marketing and Sales people had liked these Finance guys on a personal basis when they met up in the company restaurant or in a bar after work. They just couldn’t understand why these supposed “beancounters” just didn’t want to talk about anything to do with figures.

The situation above is an example of an intergroup or structural conflict within an organization. Most of the conflicts, like the one described above, had arose unintentionally when people and groups try to work together.  Before Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) indicated that a confrontation style was used to deal with intergroup conflict to a significantly greater degree in higher than lower-performing organizations. Likert and Likert (1976) strongly argued, and provided some evidence to suggest, that an organization that encourages participation and problem-solving behaviors attains higher level of effectiveness. Recent studies on the integrative style of handling conflict show consistent results. Use of the participatory style results in high joint benefit for the parties, better decisions, and greater satisfaction of the partner (Tutzauer ; Roloff, 1988; Wall ; Galanes, 1986). Burke (1969) suggested that, in general, a confrontation (integrating) style was related to effective management of conflict and that forcing (dominating) and withdrawing (avoiding) were related to the ineffective management of conflict.

As opposed to confrontation, Fisher and Ury (1991), in their book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, made a very good point that everybody is a negotiator. As one of CRN’s 12 Conflict Resolution Skills, proper negotiation is essential whenever there is a conflict with another party. Negotiation skills are essential for managing interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup conflicts. Since managers spend more than one-fifth of their time dealing with conflict, they need to learn how to negotiate effectively. Sometimes they are required to negotiate with their superiors, subordinates, and peers, and, at other times, they are required to mediate conflict between their subordinates.

Also, to manage conflict described above effectively, a negotiator should insist that results be based on some objective criteria. Brett (1984) presented the classic example of “the tale of the mother with two children and with one piece of cake. Because both children are clamoring for the entire piece, the wise mother tells one child he can cut the cake into two pieces and tells the other child she can make the first choice” (p. 673). As some of the groups above thought that the internal finance team is not “detail-oriented or even client-oriented” and the team members were “guys who had no real love of finance” and “they had been under considerable stress all the way through their accounting and/or finance education and many of them had had to adopt extreme coping behavior during their years of study and to get through their final exams” is subjective. The principled negotiation involves the use of the integrating style of handling conflict, such as objective thinking. The integrating style is appropriate to use in situations involving complex issues. Organizational members should be trained to use principled negotiation to handle these situations effectively. This type of negotiation is not effective for dealing with trivial or simple issues. “Once a standard is agreed on, there need be no further negotiations over the issue because the settlement terms are implicit in the objective standards” (Brett, 1984, p. 674).

Another useful skill is in CRN’s 12 Conflict Resolution Skills is the Win/Win Approach, which drives about in changing the conflict from adversarial attack and defense, to co-operation. By shifting attitudes, the whole course of communication is altered. Nagel (1997) promoted the “win-win” solution as arriving at super-optimum procedure in conflict resolution.  This is by thinking in terms of what is in the opposing party might like; and likewise in congruence to the alternative the other party might prefer. Then, to think whether it is possible to make a new alternative that will emphasize those two aspects. Another technique is to emphasize the opposite. It involves saying what is in the opposing party especially dislike. Then think about making a new alternative that eliminates those two aspects (Nagel 1997, p. 5).

In the mentioned case above, the mediator such as the new manager should be able to connect the internal finance team to the other groups in their company. Kaufman (1991) notes that the context of the conflict determines which resolution strategy is appropriate for organizational problems. Kaufman suggests that deliberation and consensus are important strategies for making decisions in individual, interpersonal or intergroup conflicts. However, when organizations handle conflict with external assistance, a combination of strategies is useful. Negotiation should be tried first. If discussions end in deadlock, however, parties should use arbitration. This is why proper mediation is an essential aspect in conflict resolution, as it is also part of the CRN’s 12 Conflict Resolution Skill.

What could be done in the situation described above is that they map out the source of their conflicts, have the new manager to mediate the opposing groups, have some negotiation agenda to discuss by both parties and immediately draw out a “win-win” situation that would eventually benefit both parties to have a peaceful working relationship in their organization.

Levine (1998) also suggested that socialization within the organization should be enhanced on three psychological processes: evaluation, commitment, and role transition. Evaluation, which is basically a cognitive process, involves efforts on the part of the group and the individual to assess the rewardingness of their relationship. During evaluation, the organization should seek to determine how much each team contributes to the achievement of its goals and within the group — the individual could seek to determine how much the group contributes to the satisfaction of his or her needs. In addition to evaluating the present rewardingness of their relationship, the group and the individual may also remember how rewarding it was in the past and predict how rewarding it will be in the future. Both parties may also evaluate the past, present, and future rewardingness of their alternative relationships (p. 285).

As conflict produces tension that people perceive between themselves and others, it should pass through several stages of development, from a latent hostility to outright clashing. People become more aware of the tension as it affects their lives, relationships, and productivity. People respond to conflict using several types of strategies. For example, they may avoid confrontation if they feel the outcome is unimportant to their own needs People may accommodate different opinions if doing so would build a stronger relationship—and if the relationship is important. They may choose to compromise to meet their own needs while maintaining a positive relationship. At other times, using outright competition—or satisfying one’s own needs over the other—may be critical to survival. Finally, people may wish to collaborate, thus reaching their own goals while benefiting others.

Thus, conflict resolution could use situational approaches to enable managers to tailor their styles of resolving conflict to the interests of those involved. Knowing what skills should be enhanced is also vital because organizational conflict is now considered inevitable and even a positive indicator of effective management of an organization.








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