Believe it or not, conflict in the workplace can be a good thing, it can also be a very bad thing. In simple terms, conflict is a form of interaction between parties who differ in interests, perceptions or preferences. It 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 (interorganisational), within organisations (intraorganisational) or on a one-to-one basis (interpersonal). Effective conflict regulation is arguably a critical part of the manager’s role, requiring capabilities similar to those of a trained negotiator.
Five styles of conflict handling – to help people understand how different approaches to managing differences may impact upon interpersonal and group dynamics (as identified by Thomas and Kilmann in their ‘conflict mode instrument’) – are:
- 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.
You need to ask yourself:
- 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.
Many thanks to Dr Veronica Burke, Programme Director of the Business Growth Programme, Cranfield School of Management for this blog content.