Managing Conflict In The Workplace

Managing Conflict In The Workplace

Managing workplace conflict to optimize organizational performance is not easy. Conflict is ephemeral and dynamic, and ad hoc actions and imposed solutions won’t do the job. They might settle the immediate dispute, but they won’t do anything to minimize future conflict. Optimizing organizational performance requires more. Conflict is inevitable, and managers must plan for it.

Types of Conflict

There are two types of workplace conflict. They are:

  • Substantive or Cognitive Conflict: This involves interpretation of company strategy, disagreements over the use of resources, and what policies should be implemented. Conflicts involving substantive issues can create productive synergy, producing a whole that is better than the sum of its parts as employees work together to solve problems or exploit opportunities they could not handle as individuals. Unresolved substantive disagreement often escalates, leading to more conflict and organizational paralysis or warfare among factions that support differing approaches to doing business.

  • Personal Conflict: Often called affective conflict, this form revolves around personal relationships. Typical conflicts arise from different belief systems, views on social issues, and personal concerns. Personal discord can have two sources. It can arise when functional strife is not resolved or is resolved in a way that is perceived as unfair. Personal discord can also arise from the personalities of the people in the organization. People are not the same, and their differences can cause conflict. Race, gender, religion, ethnic background as well as stress and other environmental factors can lead to conflict. In some cases, personal strife can erupt into personal warfare. For example, what started as a dispute over a pay increase escalates into a lawsuit for constructive discharge.

What Causes Counter-Productive Conflict? To get to the heart of conflict, you must examine the entire system. For example, work assignment processes, pay policies, retirement programs, and grievance procedures are all subsystems of the larger system. Each has its own purpose. But each also affects other parts. Pay policies affect retirement income, and work assignment policies affect pay. Feedback loops appear; changes in one part of the system influence another and loop back to the original. This happens, for example, when management chooses to address high absenteeism by assigning more overtime. The increase in overtime can loop back to make absenteeism worse because employees are overworked or can afford to be absent.

Managing conflict can be a little like herding cats. If you focus on one, others break out. The cats seem more influenced by things that you don’t understand than by those that you do. You try something, and it does more harm than good. Fixing one problem causes another.

Effective conflict management is more than just solving problems. It is a complex management undertaking that requires holistic and systematic thinking. In fact, one important management paradox is that resolving conflict often does more harm than good. Aggressive managers might find it difficult to allow any counterproductive situation to exist without their intervention. They want to fix whatever is broken.

In many cases when the conflict is between two employees, managers who intervene may solve the immediate problem, but create an entirely different one. The workers might decide that they can’t be trusted to resolve their own problems, and lose confidence, and an escalating cycle of dependence ensues. The manager will find himself or herself having to resolve more and more conflicts as the workers conclude they can’t resolve them without help.

When should management intervene? It should intervene when management itself is a party to the conflict, when the conflict is between workers who can’t or won’t resolve it, and when circumstances make it clear that resolution without management intervention is unlikely. This does not mean that management should go boldly in and impose a solution. The workers who are part of the problem must help resolve it. Management must also consider the system implications and all possible causes, rather than just the symptoms. Ultimately, the fastest way to resolve conflict is to go slow.

Resolving a conflict is a reactive, backward-looking effort to address a particular event. Managing conflict, on the other hand, is a purposeful, holistic journey that considers both the past and the future and attempts to minimize conflict and its negative effects. Managing conflict requires that managers:

  • Clarify Expectations: Most workers want to do a good job, but often don’t know what management really expects.

  • Provide a Role Model: Knowing what to do is one thing, and knowing how to do it is another. Employees may need to be taught how to do their jobs, and there is no greater teaching method than role modeling.

Management can’t be expected to simply ignore workplace conflict and hope it will go away. Despite the risk that taking action will breed more or different conflict, there are actions that management can take to manage conflict effectively and limit its counterproductive effects. Managers must manage conflict using a broad strategy that includes:

  • Minimizing the overall level of counterproductive conflict.

  • Causing suppressed conflict to come to the surface.

  • Ensuring effective resolution of counterproductive conflict.

  • Learning from dispute resolution and applying that learning to further minimize conflict.

When the time comes for management to step into a conflict, it must provide a process that is designed to resolve that conflict. This process must correct negative behavior and provide a satisfactory solution that all parties can accept; provide a framework for preventing similar conflicts from surfacing later; let the parties work effectively together in the future; and be cost effective.

When management resolves conflict effectively, workers learn that the environment is safe to discuss conflicts in the open. If the company also provides ongoing training in appropriate conflict resolution for everyone, not just those who are involved in conflict, future conflicts will be more amenable to appropriate solutions

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