Conflict frequently arises in the workplace. Goal incompatibility between groups or individuals, differentiation, task interdependence, scarce resources, ambiguity, and communication problems can all lead to a situation that promotes conflict. There are a number of conflict management styles that can be used to effectively resolve such conflicts: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. However, although each individual has his/her own preferred conflict management style, not every style is optimally effective in every conflict situation. To maximize the effectiveness of conflict management efforts, management and parties to the conflict need to be aware of their short- and long-term goals and strategies for both the task and the people involved, their personal involvement and emotions in the conflict, their personal conflict management style, and which styles work best in which situations.
It often seems as if whenever two or more parties attempt to work together there are at least three opinions. Although sometimes this situation can lead to synergy and a more creative final product, in many cases it leads to conflict. Although the most common view of conflict is that it is by its very nature dysfunctional and needs to be resolved, in many cases -- if it is properly managed -- it can be both functional and help the conflicting parties work together better or to produce a better product than if the conflict had not arisen in the first place. Conflict between groups may also improve team dynamics, cohesiveness, and task orientation. However, if the conflict becomes too emotionally charged, a win-lose mentality can arise, with negative results such as groupthink, frustration, job dissatisfaction, and stress.
Very few people have the option to work in complete isolation of others. Even those who telecommute or work independently frequently find themselves in a position in which they need to interact with others: clients, suppliers, editors, etc. In virtually any situation in which there is more than one party with interests in the outcome, conflicts are likely to arise. In this context, conflict refers to any situation "in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by" the interests or actions of another party (McShane & Von Glinow, 2003). Conflict can manifest in any number of ways ranging from a mild disagreement between individuals to an all-out war between nations.
In the workplace, conflict typically begins with a situation that is conducive to conflict, such as the need to share a single piece of equipment or other scarce resource. For example, Group A needs the copier to reproduce a proposal for a tight deadline for a potential client and Group B needs to use the copier to produce a deliverable to an equally tight -- and incompatible -- deadline for a current client. As the parties come to believe that conflict exists, the situation usually next manifests itself in actions that outwardly demonstrate that an underlying conflict exists (e.g., a member of Group A tries to monopolize the copier so that it cannot be used by Group B). Conflict need not lead to a dysfunctional workplace, however. Through appropriate conflict management techniques -- either actions taken by one or more parties to the conflict or by an objective outside party in the attempt to de-escalate the conflict -- the severity and form of the conflict can be altered to maximize its benefits and minimize its negative consequences of the situation.
Types of Workplace Conflict Goal Incompatibility
As shown in Figure 1, conflict can arise from any one or more general sources in the workplace (McShane & Von Glinow, 2003). First, conflict can arise in the workplace due to incompatible goals between individuals or groups. For example, if two individuals are competing for the same promotion, it is likely that conflict will arise unless more than one position is available. Goal incompatibility becomes an even stronger source for potential conflict in situations in which there are financial rewards for achieving one's goals since, in such situations, employees tend to be more motivated to achieve their own goals at the expense of others. A second source of conflict in organizations is differentiation. This occurs when individuals or groups of employees hold divergent beliefs and attitudes as a result of their different backgrounds, experiences, or training. For example, differentiation often leads to conflict situations following business mergers and acquisitions. In such situations, the cultures, practices, and shared experiences of the formerly separate entities lead to an "us-them" situation.
A third source of potential conflict in organizations is task interdependence. This is the degree to which individuals or groups must share common inputs, interact during the course of performing their separate tasks, or receive outcomes that are partly determined by the mutual performance of both parties. There are three basic types of task independence:
- Pooled interdependence,
- Sequential interdependence, and
- Reciprocal interdependence
The lowest level of interdependence is pooled interdependence. Under this condition, individuals or teams work independently of each other except for their common reliance on a resource or authority. An example of pooled interdependence is the common reliance on a single copy machine, cited above. Sequential interdependence is a situation in which the output of one person or group becomes the direct input for another person or group. This situation frequently arises in assembly-line situations where the output of one process becomes the input to another process (McShane & Von Glinow, 2003). For example, the packing department cannot complete its task unless the department that makes the boxes or packing materials first completes its task. The third type of interdependence in organizations is reciprocal interdependence. This is the highest level of interdependence and occurs in situations in which work outputs are exchanged back and forth among individuals or groups. An example of this type of interdependence would be the relationship between bus drivers and maintenance crews. The drivers cannot drive the buses unless the maintenance crews maintain them, and the maintenance crews cannot maintain the buses unless the drivers bring them into the depot.
Scarce Resources, Ambiguity, Communication
A fourth type of situation that can lead to conflict in the workplace occurs when there are scarce resources. For example, if multiple technicians need the same laboratory equipment and there is insufficient equipment for each to have his or her own, conflict is likely to arise. Ambiguity in the workplace can also lead to conflict because such...
Identifying conflict in our lives and overcoming it can be highly beneficial to our happiness and well being. There are many different areas of conflict that we encounter throughout the course of an average day. We might experience conflict with our friends and family members or we may see conflict situations arise in our work environment. At work, the conflict may be in a small group or it may be a conflict issue with the company as a whole. Often times, our areas of conflict might overlap and we allow personal issues to influence our work environment and vice-versa. Once we have identified our areas of conflict, it becomes vital that we challenge them and are able to overcome them in a constructive way.
Usually within a company, there is an inner-circle or small group of people that we work with day in and day out. These individuals might become our closest friends and most trusted confidants, as we depend on them to help and assist us throughout the day. It is always nice having someone supporting you in your work duties. When there is a rather challenging task at hand, it helps to have the support of our co-workers. When an individual has little or no conflicts with their peers and co-workers, everyone benefits, the individual, the group, and the company. The company will benefit thanks to the employees being happy in their jobs and generating a more productive atmosphere for everyone. But what if a conflict situation arises within the group? What if there are suddenly two different ways of thought on a particular issue? How can this issue be identified and, hopefully, resolved?
During a normal business meeting, two employees see a solution to a problem and feel that their way is the only way for the company to proceed. They are passionate to prove their point and they set forth on explaining to everyone their ideas. This conflict has arisen because two individuals see things differently and both are trying to present their case in the best possible way. When a conflict situation like this is discovered, it is important to identify it and see what positive actions may be taken from each individual’s ideas. Clearly list out the possible outcomes of each plan and see if there is a way to compromise and join the two ideas together into a single, beneficial result. There might very well be no way to see that both issues get resolved, but it is important that the group feels comfortable to bring up different perspectives and ideas for everyone.
If everyone went along with the norm, there might be stagnation within the group and people would not feel the desire to change anything. The company might not be able to ‘grow’ financially. If an individual feels they can contribute a new idea in a better way, it can only lead to good things. Imagine a group where two ideas were not identified and no new issues were discussed. There would not be any conflicts, but at the same time, no new, and possibly better ideas would be uncovered.
Identifying conflicts within a group is relatively easy and can be dealt with in various productive ways. However, what does someone do when they experience personal conflict with someone else? If someone is allowing personal opinions and feelings to influence their job performance, that is something which must be identified and handled immediately. Maybe an individual does not like the way someone dresses, the kind of car they drive, the kinds of hobbies they enjoy or other non-work related issues. These personal differences can become great conflicts throughout the company, if they are not identified and handled properly.
Interpersonal conflicts are probably the number one issue within society. They can influence our lives both professionally and personally. This type of conflict can be identified in all aspects that we experience. One can let a personal grudge contribute to their workspace and this type of negativity can lead to a non-beneficial work process for the entire company, if it is not properly identified.
Identifying conflict among organizations can lead to even greater disaster in the work environment. This type of conflict may sometimes influence millions of dollars and may even lead to the downfall of a company, if it is not identified. Once both sides have presented their issues, how can it be resolved? This is a question many companies must deal with.
An important source of advertising revenue might also be lost for a company, if there is a stigma of conflict attached to a company. There might not be a market for them to make money, if people have negative issues associated with a company and they have allowed these issues to blossom into media problems. The possibilities for these large issues affecting a company are endless, which is why it is important to identify conflict right away and begin to work on a positive solution.
Identifying issues can take on a wide variety of forms. Personal issues, work group related issues and even interorganizational issues are all able to be both beneficial and harmful to a company. Properly identifying them in a clarifying format is the first step. Once theses issues are identified and one can see how they impede productivity, then they may be resolved in a way that is satisfactory for everyone involved.
Most people feel uncomfortable about conflict. Some people may think that all conflict is non-productive. However, research has shown that the certain forms of conflict can stimulate thinking and viewpoints and is often an important part of the teaming process. There are two main categories of conflict, constructive and destructive. Within each category, there are four identified issues that usually cause conflict: facts or data – which is a communication problem; process or methods – a disagreement of methods; goals or purposes – disagreement of goals; values – these are the most subjective and personal disagreements, usually necessitating a professional mediator. The higher the level of conflict, the more personal it becomes and non-productive it can be (Leigh Thompson, et al. 240). Even the most innocent forms of conflict, if not checked, can quickly escalate to higher levels causing a negative impact to a team’s performance and success.
Destructive conflict; also known as Affective or A-type conflict (Leigh Thompson, et al. 218), is personal, defensive, and resentful in nature. A-type conflict causes the person to lose focus of team goals and issues while closing the mind to new ideas and opinions. It’s negative personal nature, causes emotions to run high and anger to swell leaving no room for seeing other viewpoints, open-mindedness, compromise or reconciliation. Other effects of A-type conflict may cause witnesses to the negative behavior to limit their future views, ideas, and suggestions. This will further reduce the team’s effectiveness in the future.
Productive conflict; also known as Cognitive or C-type conflict (Leigh Thompson, et al. 218), originates from differences of opinion and is largely depersonalized. If team members are educated on how to recognize and handle this type of conflict, C-type conflict can help stimulate creative thinking, causing people to think in different ways and arrive at different solutions while not being afraid to express those viewpoints and opinions to team members. To get the best result often means looking at a situation from several different points of view. Making an atmosphere that is conducive to “out of the box thinking”, and the sharing of those ideas is the problem and the answer. The key to C-type conflict is to keeping it impersonal.
Nothing good can come from A-conflict and there is much to be gained from C-type conflict. How do you discourage one and encourage the other is the question. Key factors for promoting an atmosphere where C-type conflict prospers and A-type conflict is stunted, lies with the teams understanding of conflict to begin with. Early conflict education and “smart” chartering is essential.
Key elements of any charter must include the handling of conflicts combined with early education of team members as to how to handle conflict situations. Conflict education is an effective way to reducing A-type conflict while encouraging team members to express varying viewpoints and opinions.
There are many misconceptions about conflict. The first being, conflict is abnormal. Whenever there are multiple individuals striving to solve a problem or interpret a message, or define a goal, there is going to be a difference of opinions that will lead to conflict. When people understand that conflict exists and resolution is perused, then unity can replace conflict (Leigh Thompson, et al. 239).
Another misconception is that conflicts and difference of opinions are the same. A difference of opinion is usually temporary and usually a result of misunderstandings, which can be resolved by clarification. Conflict is more severe and not as easily defined or clarified (Leigh Thompson, et al. 239).
Many people think conflict is a result of differences in personality. Personality differences themselves do not cause conflict. People with different types of personalities tend to bring different perspectives and points of views. If team members can recognize this as a positive attribute for the team, these differences can stimulate thinking and possible solutions. It is when those differences are played out through behavior and emotion that conflict can occur (Leigh Thompson, et al. 239).
Anger is often mistaken for conflict. Because conflict and emotions are involved in most conflict situations, people tent to associated all anger with conflict. However, Anger is just one type of emotion and people have a choice as which type of emotion they will use. This is where team chartering and training can have their greatest positive impact (Leigh Thompson, et al. 239).
Effective chartering can drastically reduce Affective conflict. The charter should always include operational ground rules that will dictate how the team will come to an agreement when conflict arises. It should also include rules of engagement for presenting opposite points of views, disagreements, and constructive criticisms. The charter should also recognize that emotions will be impacted and as a result the should be time reserved, on a frequent and regular interval, where team members can vent there issues before their emotions get out of hand.
Team education is also an important tool for reducing Affective conflict. Conflict education should be given when a team is formed and at periodic intervals as needed. It is always a good idea for the team to get a refresher course on conflict management when given new assignments, new members are assigned, or when any team member feels that it is appropriate.
Ideally, the only conflict in a team/group would be constructive conflict. If this were the case, there would be no need for a solution process. A well-constructed, functioning team should try to avoid destructive conflict. If it should arise anyway, and there is a good chance it will, the conflict needs to be first identified and then dealt with before total destruction occurs.
To identify a conflict you first determine whether it is an individual, intergroup, or interorganizational conflict. The solution process to be utilized is determined from this. Also, one conflict may have started a second conflict. These would have to be handled at the same time but using different solutions.
The two kinds of conflict are constructive and destructive. Constructive conflict should be encouraged as it allows growth through creative thinking. By encouraging constructive conflict, a group or team becomes more unified and productivity increases. Destructive conflict is negative and stems from a lack of agreement, which results in a division of the group or team. Constructive conflict is necessary in accomplishing team goals but negative conflict needs to be resolved or, better yet, avoided. There are many levels of conflict and the entire team/group should be aware of the signs. Of course, it is always easier to solve other people’s problems than be insightful and objective about our own.
When conflict resolution is considered necessary, there are phases (Johnson and Johnson, 1994), which can help in resolving conflict. These phases are: collect data, probe, save face, discover common interests, reinforce, negotiate, and solidify adjustments. Then there are strategies (Johnson and Johnson, 1994), which can help in resolving conflicts. A strategy that best suits the situation should be used. These strategies are: avoidance, accommodation, compromise, competition, and collaboration.
Negative conflict will always arise where people are working together. Some of these conflicts might require outside mediation. This does not necessarily mean that the team or group is doomed. People who work together every day, even if they’re not part of the conflict, may still be too close to the persons involved to objectively mediate the situation. There is a lot more to conflict resolution than reading a chapter, or even an entire book on the subject. Insight and empathy are absolutely necessary, along with a good sense of humor.
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