Conflict: An Overview
We would all probably prefer to think that conflict doesn’t exist and that everything in our respective work environment is running smoothly. But that sort of ‘head-in-the-sand’ attitude does not change the fact that conflict does exist. Conflict is everywhere, ranging from a single disagreement to persistent or prolonged thoughtlessness.
Conflict can arise in any situation as the following scenario depicts:
In ABC agency, a conflict has arisen between Joe and his supervisor Elaine, resulting from a productivity issue as outlined on Joe’s performance evaluation. Joe believes that his evaluation was unfair and wants to discuss the gray issues in the measurement, but he fears creating more conflict with his supervisor. Both Joe and Elaine have been reluctant to address the matter, but Joe feels strongly about his concerns and wants to talk out the issues to achieve a better working relationship, rather than make matters worse. Both parties do not like the stressful situation surrounding them and realize that resolving their issue is important to bringing civility and harmony into their work environment. Based on their determination to restore the working relationship, a suitable course of action must be considered to deal with the conflict.
As you can see in this situation, conflict itself is not a major issue. However, it is a signal that an adjustment or understanding is needed in a relationship. It is usually thought of as a disruptive element, one that should be eliminated whenever possible. But, it is important that while resolving the conflict, an opportunity exists for individuals to clarify expectations, build cohesiveness, and create a productive, problem-solving atmosphere.
Disputes due to conflict occur in the workplace among supervisors, managers, and co-workers and may involve or affect others. Disputes can be harmful to people in the work environment and prove damaging to people, resulting in lost time, money, and other resources.
Types and Sources of Conflict
Conflict can be classified as constructive or destructive. Constructive (functional) conflict helps a group achieve its objectives. Destructive (dysfunctional) conflict hinders achievement of objectives. The supervisor's job is to eliminate destructive conflict or change it into constructive conflict.
Alternatively, conflict may be classified in terms of the people involved:
- Individual conflict when faced with contradictory priorities.
- Interpersonal conflict between two people.
- Conflict between an individual and a group when the individual breaks the group's norms.
- Conflict between groups or departments.
- Conflict between organizations in a free-enterprise system.
Reasons for Conflict
These often arise from different needs, beliefs, values, perceptions, expectations.
Arise from the use of different sources of information or different interpretations of the same same information.
Individuals and groups can have different or incompatible objectives.
Arises from competition for organizational resources.
The Impact of Conflict
When conflict in the workplace goes unchecked and is prolonged, it can be professionally disabling to all affected individuals and the organization. Productivity is lost and employees eventually may develop serious physical and emotional strains. The workplace is robbed of growth as people fail to develop and produce to their fullest potential.
Conflict is a hidden, and high, cost to employers. Its cost is hidden in salary budgets in the form of wasted, non-productive time. It is hidden in recruiting budgets in the form of unnecessary turnover. It is hidden in the consequences of poor decisions.
A user of the forcing conflict style attempts to resolve the conflict by getting his or her own way. It is an assertive, uncooperative, autocratic style that attempts to satisfy one's needs at the expense of others. It creates a win-lose situation.
Someone using this style attempts to ignore conflict rather than resolve it. It is unassertive and uncooperative and represents an attempt to satisfy needs by avoiding or postponing confrontation. A lose-lose situation is created.
Someone using this style resolves the conflict by giving in to the other party. It is unassertive and cooperative and attempts to satisfy the other party while neglecting his or her own needs. A win-lose situation is created with the other party winning.
This style is an attempt to resolve conflict through give and take and by making concessions. It involves both assertiveness and cooperation and attempts to meet a person's needs for harmonious relationships. A win-lose or lose-lose situation may result.
Someone using this style attempts to jointly resolve conflict with the best solution that is agreeable to all parties. This is called the problem-solving style. It is assertive and cooperative. The collaborator attempts to fully address the concerns of all. This is the only conflict style that creates a win-win situation.
Conflict Resolution Techniques
In an article entitled “The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution,” written by Dudley Weeks, Ph.D., Dr. Weeks recommends empowering people to build mutually beneficial relationships through eight steps. They are:
Step 1. Create an Effective Atmosphere
Select a location where everyone feels comfortable and at ease. Create an atmosphere that allows the issues to be addressed openly and honestly during a time convenient for all and no one is feeling pressured. Your opening statements should let others know you are ready and willing to approach conflict in a team-like attitude that focuses on positive results.
Step 2. Clarify Perceptions
Find out what the conflict is about while avoiding any side issues. Recognize other’s needs and wants. Listen carefully to help clear up misconceptions.
Step 3. Focus on Individual and Shared Needs
Be concerned about meeting other people’s needs besides your own. Recognize the fact that you need each other to resolve conflict.
Step 4. Build Shared Positive Power
Power is made up of people’s outlooks, ideas, convictions, and actions. Thus, a positive view of power enables people to be most effective. Positive power promotes building together and strengthening partnerships.
Step 5. Look to the Future, then Learn from the Past
Try to understand what happened with past conflicts and avoid repeating the same mistakes over.
Step 6. Generate Options
Get ideas from people having conflict. Look for common threads. Make sure options are workable for all parties
Step 7. Develop “Doables” – Stepping Stones to Action
Select the “doables” that:
- have the best chance of success,
- never promote unfair advantages on any side,
- are found on shared input and information from all parties, and
- add confidence in working together.
Step 8. Make Mutual Benefit Agreements
Focus on developing agreements and finding shared goals.
Pay attention to the needs of the other person.
Recognize the things that can’t be changed.
Clarify what is expected of you in the agreement.
Mediation – Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
Mediation is a method of settlement negotiation in which the parties to a workplace dispute meet with an impartial and neutral party, the mediator, and attempt to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of their dispute. Mediation is emerging as a favored form of ADR to resolve conflict in the work environment. It offers advantages that are important to all participants. It provides a safer atmosphere, lasting confidentiality, enhanced privacy, reduced costs, great flexibility in timing, increased focus on interests and, most important, increased opportunities for empowerment and recognition.
Even though there are differences in which a mediator may view a case, virtually all mediation processes share similar approaches. Most notably, mediation is entirely voluntary, confidential, and non-binding. Mediation is considered a natural process and can be used by people in everyday situations. Almost any type of dispute can be mediated provided the mediator is professionally trained and decides the issue(s) to be mediable, and of course when both parties have an incentive to settle the matter.
The choice to use mediation is available to any state employee and is a service provided by Human Resource Management Services. The mediator meets needs of the individuals by facilitating sound communications and negotiating principles.
If there is a good-faith interest in wanting to settle a dispute amicably, then give mediation a chance.
Supervisory Management Development Program
The Supervisory Management Development Program is a four-part program covering communicating effectively, managing conflict, developing people, and managing performance. The program was developed by Sterling Institute and Human Resource Management Services (HRMS) specifically for supervisors in state government and is conducted by HRMS staff.
HRMS also offers companion programs to Managing Conflict, Communication, and Developing People for non-supervisors. They are Handling Conflict, Capture the Power: Be a Better Communicator, and Directing Your Development.
To find out about these training programs and other training offered through HRMS, visit our training website.