Interpersonal conflicts in organizational settings is a favorite topic for academic study and discussion, and for good reason: in any group, particularly in a work setting where the things people have in common on a personal level are likely somewhat limited, there will inevitably be conflict. And that is not exactly a bad thing; conflict can lead to innovation and new ideas, and the organization that runs too smoothly often finds itself becoming stagnant. Too many conflicts, however, can quickly lead to chaos and cause serious harm to the organization and its people if they are not managed properly.
Managing conflict – preventing it when possible, and resolving it productively when necessary – requires an understanding of the nature of conflict, the reasons which caused this conflict and the different forms it can take. The necessary prerequisite to being able to manage conflict is understanding the people involved; positions or demands aired in a dispute or argument among team members are manifestations of different interests – the fundamental needs and perspectives that lead people to take their particular points of view. Assessing the roles of people in groups can provide helpful insights.
The type of conflict must also be correctly identified. Task or objective conflicts are conflicts about how to accomplish particular activities or goals. These kinds of conflicts can be seriously disruptive, but in general are easier to resolve than the second type of conflict, the relational conflicts, which are a clash of personalities. Conflicts between people on a personal level can be extremely difficult to manage because they introduce a number of ethical hazards for the manager, who must be careful to very clearly relate solutions of a personal nature to job objectives, procedures, and requirements.
Every person will respond to a conflict with someone else in one of five basic ways:
One thing that is misleading about much of the available literature on team dynamics and conflict management is that there is a common assumption that any person will have just one of these responses. That assumption makes it a bit easier to develop models of conflict resolution in academic research, but in the real world, people are inconsistent; the quiet technician who is quick to be accommodating to someone with a difference of opinion this time may come out swinging the next time a dispute arises. Much of an individual’s response to a conflict depends on the context, so the first objective of the manager/mediator in a dispute is to gather all the facts. Fortunately, the skills required to do this effectively – active listening and balanced communication – are the same ones that help defuse many conflicts before they even start.
Step 1. As a manager thrusts into the role as a conflict mediator, you should start by asking two basic questions of everyone involved in the conflict:
Because it is a dispute, you will likely hear several different answers to both questions. That’s okay at this point, because the goals here are first, to gather the information you need to understand what is happening, and second, to compel the parties in the conflict to think through the problem themselves to clearly and accurately describe their positions.
Step 2. The next step is to gather everyone who has a stake in the outcome of the conflict. That may mean including some who have not spoken up (i.e., those practicing the avoidance strategy), and it may mean firmly telling some who have no real part in the dispute to go mind their own business. Once the people who are important to resolving the conflict are gathered together, clearly explain what successful resolution of the conflict will be. Consensus, or common agreement among all concerned, is a good goal to aim for, but in reality a unanimous decision is probably unlikely; instead, a compromise representing the “highest common denominator” – a solution that meets as many of the group members’ interests as possible at the same time – is a more realistic objective. The important thing is to clarify what success will mean before the discussion begins; the team members will then have realistic expectations of the outcome and will be more inclined to reconsider and modify their individual positions as the conversation proceeds.
Step 3. Once this is done, the next step – notice that the discussion of the actual problem has not even begun yet – is to agree on the way in which the discussion will be conducted. This might sound a bit silly, but it serves a very good purpose and saves time in the long run. It is a natural reaction of people when given the opportunity to take part in designing a process, even one as simple as the conduct of a group discussion, to strive for the process to have a successful or expected outcome.
Step 4. In whatever manner the group decides to approach the rest of the discussion, the next stage is to define the problem. This is one part of conflict resolution where unanimity is necessary; quite often, teams will discover that they do not all have the same understanding of the issue they disagree on due to miscommunication or misinterpreted information. Simply clarifying the problem can ease tensions, and may even be a solution in itself; if not, at least it returns the team to a state of “working together” by providing a common focus.
Step 5. The final and most time-consuming phase of the conflict resolution process is gathering and assessing possible solutions. Everyone with a position in the dispute obviously has a solution in mind; otherwise, there would be no conflict. Each of these potential solutions needs to be assessed by the group to answer three basic questions:
In general, with a perhaps a few minor changes here and there, the best solution to the problem causing the group conflict will be the set of common parts between the organization- and individual-favoring solutions the group is able to develop.
Good references on conflict management and resolution:
M.A. Rahim, Managing Conflict in Organizations (3rd ed.). Westport, Connecticut: Quorum Books, 2001.
H. Fogler and S. LeBlanc, Strategies for Creative Problem Solving (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2008
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