Table of content
2. Literature review
2.1. Defining the terms
2.2. Implementing conflict management
2.3. Empirical findings
2.4. Conflict management costs
2.6. Benefits and limits of mediation
2.7. Conflict asymmetry
The essay was aimed to explore the theoretical understanding of conflict nature in working environment, as well as conflict management concept by means of its usage for effective management strategy in achieving the results. Literature review showed that it is indeed possible to find the right balance between application of conflict management technics and keeping the healthy atmosphere within a team at optimal level. Specifically, the mediation process, its benefits, limitations and hidden obstacles expressed in conflict asymmetry, is discussed as one of the ways to cope with conflicts and stay balanced.
Keyword: conflict, conflict management, mediation, asymmetry.
Interaction with other human beings could not always be easy. Different fields of interest, priorities, goals, habits, values, personal preferences, and even the particular mood of the day often provoke tension situations, which all people have to deal with. It could happen everywhere: at the breakfast at home, in the line at the supermarket, in the train or traffic jam, in the office of your boss. The world seems to be one big conflict that only brings stress in our lives. Unless it is possible to learn how to handle these situations and make them beneficial. Especially it could be important in working environment, where people actually do not choose whom they would like to interact with. Probability of conflict situations in such conditions becomes higher. Moreover, such trends as “team empowerment” and “team diversity” bring the necessity of good skills in conflict management on high level. Skills, that people really need every day but do not intentionally develop in fact. Perceiving conflict not as an enemy, but as a friend, whose interests you are willing to meet, could push the effectiveness and creativity of the company forward, maintaining the healthy atmosphere within the team.
As conflict situations are rather natural for human beings in general and working environment particularly, it is very likely that bad coping leads to negative consequences with high level of probability, beginning from inability to focus on own responsibilities, ending with low productivity and absenteeism. That is why the need for help in resolving conflicts should not be considered as weakness and should be actively demanded and applied. Specifically, search for neutral party who is able to focus objectively on the solution-seeking process rather than on emotions could be helpful. Mediation as the way to cope with conflicts has been becoming widely-used in the past years, although there is still a place for discussion and development. Perception and human emotions could lead to conflict asymmetry that requires corrections in common mediation practices. It also creates dilemma for mediators, who has to act very carefully and find own balance for the process to resolve the conflict situation. That raises the question of mediator’s identity, professionalism and need of specific education to play the role.
Therefore, the purpose of current essay is to understand the nature of conflict in working environment and define the ways of how conflict situations could be successfully managed to bring desirable results.
2. Literature review
2.1. Defining the terms
Literature provide us with different definitions of conflict, which are quite similar in core. Conflict “begins when one party perceives that another party has negatively affected, or is about to negatively affect, something that the first party cares about” (Robbins, Campbell & Judge, 2010, p.400). Conflict is a “process, in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by other party” (Wall & Callister, 1995, p. 517). “Organizational conflict occurs when members engage in activities that are incompatible with those of colleagues within their network, members of other collectivities, or unaffiliated individuals who utilize the services or products of the organization" (Roloff, 1987, p. 496). As a perception issue, conflict could be based on incompatibility of goals, differences over interpretation of facts, failed expectations (Robbins, Campbell & Judge, 2010). In other words, almost every action happening with participation of two or more parties, could lead to a conflict, making it an essential part of any human relations and working environment particularly. Is it good or bad? The answer does not give us “black and white”; conflict is a “grey zone”.
Traditionally conflict is mostly considered as negative phenomena, which people prefer to avoid. However, this is only one opinion, stopped being popular in the 1940s. Until 1970s, they argued for conflict natural acceptance. Today, the lack of conflict is actually considered as not healthy, effective or productive atmosphere that brings teamwork to stagnation, apathy and simply do not allow the company to develop. The researches proved that without appropriate level of conflict “team meetings can lead to poor decisions, lower productivity, member dissatisfaction, and heightened frustration” (Amason, Hochwarter, Thompson & Harrison, 1995). From this point of view, it is very important for managers to be capable to handle the conflict, maintaining it at minimum level, transferring it into opportunity for improvement and a force that bring the team to great results, keep it “viable, self- critical and creative” (Robbins, Campbell & Judge, 2010). “Process of limiting the negative aspects of conflict while increasing the positive aspects of conflict” (Masood & Javed, 2016) is conflict management. It could be also defined as “behavior oriented toward the intensification, reduction, and resolution of the tension” (De Dreu, Harinck, Van Vianen, 1999, p. 371).
In order to proceed with implementation of conflict management, the typology of conflict should be described. Generally being functional (that is, leading to the support of the goals and improving the quality of decisions, stimulating innovation and encouraging interest) and dysfunctional (hindering the performance, reducing effectiveness, being destructive to communication and cohesion of a group) there are two main types of conflict: C-conflict and A-conflict. C-conflict, also known as cognitive conflict, is related to task, process or production. It reflects the natural process of exchanging opinions finding the best solution and leads to improvement of team’s effectiveness. “C-type conflict encourages innovative thinking and promotes creative solutions to problems that otherwise might seem insurmountable. As a consequence, C-type conflict improves the quality of team decisions. In fact, without C-type conflict, team decisions are little more than the decisions of a team’s most vocal or influential member.” (Amason, Hochwarter, Thompson & Harrison, 1995). Affective conflict - A-conflict - focuses on interpersonal relationships. It is almost always dysfunctional and harmful. “A-type conflict fosters cynicism, distrust, and avoidance, thereby obstructing open communication and integration. When that happens, not only does the quality of solutions decline, but commitment to the team itself erodes because team members no longer associate themselves with the team’s actions” (Amason, Hochwarter, Thompson & Harrison, 1995).
2.2. Implementing conflict management
In order to maintain nearly perfect conflict conditions, managers should develop efficient conflict management strategy. Normally it focuses on minimizing the quantity and intense of affective conflicts on the one hand; and creating the appropriate minimal level of task conflict on the other hand. This moderation generally could be directed at conflict stimulation (in case there is a lack of conflict and therefore stagnation within the group), and conflict resolution (in case it is necessary to step in to prevent the transformation of task conflict into affective). Many researchers have studied technics or styles of managing conflicts. Three-ways model, included domination, compromise, and integration was proposed almost 100 years ago (Follett, 1926 as cited in Rahim, 2002). First scheme included five styles of handling the conflict offered forcing, withdrawing, smoothing, compromising, and problem solving (Blake & Mouton, 1964 as cited in Rahim, 2002). On this basis one of the most relevant models was developed by Thomas (1976), who included the following styles in his model: competing, compromising, avoiding, collaborating and accommodating (Figure 1).
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Figure 1. Conflict-handling styles (Thomas, 2006)
The style should be chosen according to desirable level of cooperativeness in order to satisfy other’s party’s concerns, and certain level of assertiveness, reflecting intention to satisfy own concerns. It also highly depends on situation and specific goals that manager or team has at the moment. Thus, competition would be preferable when situation requires immediate actions or unpopular decisions. Collaboration would be beneficial in case when parties are aimed to satisfy both sets of concerns; when learning and commitment are important. Avoidance should be used for non-complicated issues; or when the potential results worth less than required efforts. If others are able to resolve the issues more effectively, it would be better to let them do that. To minimize losses, to develop employees by own mistakes, for future social benefits or in case of wrong decision being made, accommodation would be a good strategy. Finally, compromising should be used for partly important goals, in the conditions of time pressure, for building relationships with powerful partners and also as a backup plan. A number of researches (Rahim, 2001; Rahim & Bonoma, 1979; Thomas, 1977 as cited in Rahim, 2002) has confirmed situational approach.
The full process of managing conflict is broader than just using a specific style of handling one. Process involves four main parts: diagnosis, intervention, conflict, learning and effectiveness (Rahim, 2002). At the diagnosis stage, the real problem should be detected, measured and analyzed. Often, conflict management process could be unsuccessful and ineffective because of wrong interpretation of the main reasons (French & Bell, 1999). Intervention should take place in case intensive affective conflict, little task conflict or not successful tries to handle the conflict by parties without external influence were diagnosed. In case intervention is needed, the best style of handling a conflict in particular situation should be chosen. At the last stage, by means of organizational learning the following methods could be used for effective conflict management: transactional analysis, management of differences, team building, intergroup problem solving, and organizational mirroring (Rahim, 2001). Successfully completed process should enhance group relationships, group performance, group satisfaction, overall result of the company in short-term and long-term perspective.
2.3. Empirical findings
Research in conflict management generally focuses on two questions: measurement of the conflict level and studying effects from applying different styles of handling conflict, as well as their relations with other important aspects of organizational life. For example, a number of studies detected that the level of trust between team members is higher with prevalence of cooperative conflict management styles (Wong, Tjosvold, Wong & Liu, 1999).
Challenge for conflict management is actual measurement the amount of conflict. Therefore, a certain instruments have been developed, although almost all of them are not perfect as experience concerns regarding proper identification of psychometric qualities. Conflict Measurement Survey (Killmann & Thomas, 1977) was criticized and replaced by Rahim Organizational Conflict Inventory (ROCI-2), also not perfectly reflecting required issues. Dutch Test for Conflict Handling (DUTCH) was presented by Van de Vliert (1997) and had more improved characteristics. Although it is argued to be poor as well, it is used by means of defining the style according the scale of five: yielding, problem-solving, avoiding, forcing and compromising. Results of DUTCH are supposed not only to identify but also to predict conflict situations, therefore to prepare the optimal conflict management strategy.
One of the most relevant questions in organizational management today - the question of gender by means of diversity – has been studied in conflict management context. Thus, the significant correlation between gender orientation connected to biological sex and different conflict management styles was detected (Brewer, Mitchell & Weber, 2002). The study showed that dominating conflict styles are more common for masculine gender role orientation while feminine gender role is more characterized by avoiding conflict management style. Androgynous orientation would prefer integrating. Interesting that no significant correlation between gender orientation and compromising conflict style was found. The same study also determined that individuals with lower organizational status tend to use obliging conflict management style while individuals with high status more likely use integrating. It could be explained with idea that upper-level roles should use collaboration and problem-solving strategies in order to achieve better results (Portello & Long, 1994).
Moreover, the number of studies were focused on relationships between conflict management and organizational learning. It was found that effective conflict management strategy within learning organization “involves change at the macro-level in the organization so that substantive conflict is encouraged and affective conflict is minimized at the individual, group, intergroup, and organizational levels. To do this there must be changes in leadership, culture, and design of an organization” (Rahim, 2002). Additionally to that idea, it is important to mention that learning process requires significant support from top management and collaborative organizational culture (French & Bell, 1999). In this context, the strong interconnection between conflict management strategies, effective leadership and relevant organizational culture should be considered.
2.4. Conflict management costs
Conflict management is seen not only as a tool to stimulate creative, innovative and effective working process, but it is also a useful mechanism to save important assets of the company: time and money. A number of researches showed that employees spend up to 26% of their time for resolving conflicts. That makes millions of extra costs and a quarter of overall budget for personnel. Moreover, there is a significant effect on retention and turnover. “Poorly managed task-related conflicts can easily become personal-generating resentment, antagonism, and hostility. These “emotional” conflicts interfere with work relationships, create stress, polarize teams, and are a major factor in absenteeism and voluntary turnover. Occasionally, they lead to grievances and legal actions” (Thomas, 2006). Financial savings that could be done because of applying smart conflict management strategies may exceed the costs of conflict management program. The program is supposed to include five elements: developing conflict literacy, measuring conflict styles, building conflict management skills, involving top management, and using conflict-focused team building and interventions. During training and coaching, the program provides managers with understanding and certain skills, which at the end transform to the ability to choose the appropriate and productive conflict management style depending on given situation. However, it is important not to go too far, keep the balance using the certain style and see the point when it becomes an abuse and manipulation. “Avoiders may miss meetings, not return e-mails or phone calls, withhold information, procrastinate, or engage in foot-dragging. Competitors may monopolize a discussion, not listen to others, exaggerate, attack others, or actively block a decision that is going against them. Collaborators may overanalyze problems that do not require it” (Thomas, 2006). Resistance to these traps in the context of conflict management costs is of a great matter.