Managing Conflict at Work

October 23, 2014 by nick.halley

Conflict (a form of interaction between parties who differ in interests, perceptions or preferences), is an inevitable part of organisational life and can take many forms.
Pressure to meet performance targets, lack of resources, rapid organisational change and power differences may all give rise to conflict and as a result, effective conflict handling is a critical management capability.

Conflict is significant to organisations because it impacts on organisational performance. The extent to which conflict inhibits or enhances performance is linked to the amount of conflict present.
The effects of too much conflict include decreased communication between conflicting parties, escalation of aggression and negative stereotyping which can lead to a deterioration of working relationships. On the other hand, too little conflict can mean that groups and individuals reach decisions which have failed to take into account vital pieces of information, causing apathy and complacency.Moderate levels of conflict can bring significant benefits. In fact, conflict can be a significant driver of change. Properly handled, it can help people to be more innovative, build effective teams and improve performance. Managers are likely to find themselves dealing with conflict at different levels – between organisations (inter-organisational), within organisations (intra-organisational) or on a one to onebasis (inter-personal). Effective conflict regulation is arguably a critical part of the manager’s role, requiring capabilities similar to those of a trained negotiator.
In their ‘conflict mode instrument’ Thomas and Kilmann identified five styles of conflict handling to help people understand how different approaches to managing differences may impact upon interpersonal and group dynamics:

 

  • Competing: Assertive and uncooperative – when an individual pursues their concerns at the expense of others.
  • Accommodating: Unassertive and cooperative – the individual neglects their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person.
  • Avoiding: Unassertive and uncooperative – the person neither pursues their own concerns nor those of the other individual.
  • Collaborating: Assertive and cooperative – an attempt to work with others to find a solution that satisfies the concerns of both parties.
  • Compromising: Moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. The objective is to find a solution by giving up some aspect of what one or both parties want.

Accomplished conflict handling requires sound decision making processes to accumulate knowledge about the conflict and the parties involved and the ability to utilise (and flex) the style of approach depending on the situation.

However, most of us have a preferred  way of dealing with conflict. When  under pressure – or faced with a  strong emotional reaction – we are  more likely to revert to one or two  favourite styles which may be much  less effective than utilising the full  range. This opinion was supported by  feedback from interviews conducted  with 75 senior managers working in  a variety of organisations. The most  effective managers used a wider  repertoire of skills and took more  variables into account than those who  overused their one or two favourites. For many people, there are one or  two conflict situations that will be  memorable, because of the emotions  they felt, or an undesired outcome.  Replaying incidents and reflecting  upon what happened and crucially,  what could have been done differently  will help to develop conflict handling  skills. The following reflective questions may  be useful:

  • What happened and why was the  conflict significant for you?
  • What are the possible sources of  the conflict?
  • What did you do and why?
  • What were the consequences of  the approach you adopted?
  • If you were to encounter the  same situation again, what could  you do differently to improve the  outcome?
  • What specific learning points can  you identify as a result of your  reflections?

Try and identify patterns across  situations – do you tend to adopt a  similar approach no matter what the  conflict issue? To what extent can  you stand back from the emotional  dimension? Do you take time to  evaluate some of the important  variables inherent in the situation  and how predictable is your conflict  handling behaviour? Reflective questions such as these  have been shown to help managers  think critically about their behaviours  in conflict, and over time, develop  their capability to achieve productive  outcomes. Finally, it is worth remembering  that conflict situations are dynamic  in nature. They shift and change  direction, depending on the  behaviours of the conflicting parties.  Playing out ‘what if’ scenarios is  a useful way of anticipating and  managing conflicts in order to achieve  the most productive outcome for all  concerned.

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