Conflict Management in the Workplace
Conflict management in the workplace is an issue that every leader, manager, or employee has to deal with at one time or another. The basics of conflict management include improving communication, teamwork, and a systematic approach to solving the disagreement. This paper explores various techniques that can be utilized to manage conflict in the workplace.
Workplace Conflict Management
Conflict is defined by Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman as “the process in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another party” (p. 362). Sometimes conflict that be a positive force within an organization, while at other times it is a negative force.
An example of conflict as a positive force is that the creation and resolution of conflict may lead the company to constructive problem solving. It may also lead people to search for ways of changing how they do things. The conflict resolution process can ultimately be a stimulus for positive change within an organization (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 364).
However, conflict may also have serious negative effects on an organization. For example, conflict may divert efforts from goal attainment or it may deplete resources (particularly time and money) (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 364). Conflict also may negatively affect the psychological well-being of employees and cause stress (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 364). Indeed, conflicting workplace ideas may lead to anger, tension, and anxiety. Deep and lasting conflicts that continue without conflict management may even lead to violence between employees and others (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 365). Therefore, it would be fair to say that conflict may sometimes be advantageous and at other times destructive.
Workplace managers must be sensitive to the consequences of conflict. These consequences range from negative outcomes (such as loss of skilled employees, sabotage, low quality of work, stress and even violence) to positive outcomes (such as creative alternatives, increased motivation and commitment, high quality of work, and personal satisfaction) (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 365).
Conflicts (whether they are negative or positive) will arise in organizations whenever interests collide -- and when these differences affect the relationship between interdependent people, they must be constructively managed (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 365). According to Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, some ways to manage conflict include: the “forcing style”, the “accommodating style”, the “compromising style”, and the “collaborating style”.
The forcing style refers to “assertive and uncooperative behaviors and reflects a win-lose approach to interpersonal conflict” (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 374). This forcing style relies on coercive power and dominance to resolve the conflict. In the forcing style, the person who is trying to resolve the conflict feels that one side must win and that one side must lose (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 374).
The accommodating style, according to Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, refers to “cooperative and unassertive behaviors” (p. 376). The accommodation style manifests itself as a long-term strategy to encourage cooperation by others, or as a submission to the wishes of others. The accommodator tries to reduce tensions and stresses by reassurance and support (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 376). This style shows concern about the emotional aspects of conflict, but does not deal with substantive issues -- this style simply results in covering up or glossing over the issue (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman p. 376).
According to Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, the compromising style refers to “behaviors at an intermediate level of cooperation and assertiveness” (p. 377). This style is based on give and take, which usually involves a series of concessions. This technique is commonly used and widely accepted as a means of resolving conflict.
A collaborating style refers to “strong cooperative and assertive behaviors. It is the win-win approach to interpersonal conflict handling” (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 376). In this stylistic approach to workplace conflict management, it is sharing, examining and assessing the reasons for the conflict that leads to the development of an alternative that is fully acceptable to everyone involved. This effectively resolves the conflict (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 377).
Studies on the use of these different interpersonal conflict handling styles indicate that collaboration is the best approach to managing workplace conflict (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 378). The collaboration style tends to be characteristic of (1) More successful individuals and (2) High-performing, rather than medium- and low-performing organizations (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 378). Furthermore, the use of the collaboration style of conflict management appears to result in positive feelings from employees (Hellriegel, Slocum and Woodman, p. 378). So, it appears that the best style to resolve conflict is the collaborative style.
Another suggestion for workplace conflict management is to take a step-by-step approach no matter what style the manager is employing. Author Rudy M. Yandrick's article, “Integrating Behavioral Strategies: A Solution to Workplace Problems”, suggests that a systemic approach to workplace issues by management is essential in today's workplace environment. For example, a step-by-step process can be taken to resolve any workplace conflict. This enables the leader to follow a systematic approach to resolving a conflict.
A detailed example of a step-by-step systemic approach is the following: First, the employee reports an issue to his supervisor. Second, the supervisor gathers information in order to gain the best understanding possible of the potential hurdle. Third, the supervisor identifies possible causes of the conflict by collecting information from the team members and from anyone else impacted by it. Fourth, the supervisor meets with a Human Resources specialist who will build a list of potential solutions to the conflict. Fifth, the Human Resources specialist, in conjunction with the supervisor, decides on an appropriate solution to the problem. Sixth, the Human Resources specialist and the supervisor present the solution to the workers. And, finally, the solution must be administered.
Additionally, there are exercises that can be done to resolve conflict and tensions in the workplace. For example, in the article by Boss and McConkie, the authors suggest an exercise for situations of conflict where there are contradictory personalities. They suggest a writing exercise where the people in conflict write answers to three questions:
- What does he or she do well?
- What do I think I do that bugs him or her?
- What does he or she do that bugs me? (p. 50)
This exercise, according to the authors, gives those in conflict time to get used to an explicitly confrontational situation before either of them has a chance to “pop off” at the other. It forces some rationality into an emotionally charged situation. Also, those in conflict are forced to look at their own behavior before making any accusations against the other. Completing this exercise will create a non-contentious atmosphere for continuing the conflict resolution. Frequently, after doing an exercise such as the aforementioned, it will become clear that neither person involved in the conflict is intentionally causing problems for the other.
Each of the foregoing systemic techniques and styles regarding workplace conflict management can be utilized either separately, or in conjunction with each other, in order to promote a more cohesive work environment.
"Conflicts are part of individual relationships and organizational development, and no…organization can hope to mature to productivity and be successful without being able to resolve conflicts effectively" (Cottringer, p. 6). Thus, conflict resolution is an integral part of maintaining a thriving workplace and the techniques and systemic approaches discussed in this paper should be utilized to resolve differences in the workplace.
- Boss, Wayne R. and Mark L. McConkie. “Conflict Management in Surgery:
- Third-Party Intervention”. 5/1/2000. Public Administration & Management: An Interactive Journal. Available at:<http://www. pamij.com/5_1/v5n1_boss.pdf>. Retrieved May 22, 2003.
- Cottringer, William. “Conflict Management.” Executive Excellence
- Magazine, 14.8 (1997):6.
- Hellriegel, Don, John W. Slocum, Jr. and Richard W. Woodman.
- Organizational Behavior, 8th Edition. Cincinnati, OH: South-Western College Publishing, 1998.
- Yandrick, Rudy M. “Integrating Behavioral Strategies: A Solution to
- Workplace Problems.” Competere Consulting Group. Available at: <http://www.competere.com/rudyarticle.html>. Retrieved May 22, 2003.