Conflict Avoidance in Leadership – Design of an Empirical Study
Abstract: Conflict avoidance can be a deliberate means of leadership, applied to enhance the leadership quality and its result. But the causality between conflict avoidance and perceived good leadership is unclear. This draft of an empirical study, aiming to support the causality between conflict avoidance and good leadership, is provided to encourage researchers to explore this field of leadership and contribute to the knowledge on this sensitive and subjective topic. It offers a general introduction on the topic, an initial literature review with substantial references, and a draft of the methodology proposed for the study.
Chapter One: Introduction
There can be many good reasons to avoid a conflict: Some of them may origin in politeness when difficult or controversial issues are not discussed to avoid humiliation or a weakening of sympathy (Holmes & Marra, 2004). Some reasons may lie in cultural aspects such as the avoidance of negative discussions in Asian cultures (Morris et al., 1998). Others can be imagined to be connected to performance (conflict discussion can harm productivity), and yet others may relate to the individual health (bad feelings or sickness triggered by negative confrontation) (De Dreu, 1997). Conflict avoidance means to react to a confrontation in a way that postpones or ignores the conflict or prevents its bringing-up or escalation. In leadership, conflict avoidance can happen as part of the personality or the behaviour of the leader: He or she is unwilling or unable to stand up to conflicts and resolve them or guide his or her subordinates to resolve them themselves (Saeed, Almas, Anis-ul-Haq, & Niazi, 2014). But conflict avoidance can also be enacted deliberately as part of a leadership style, for example to postpone the resolution of a conflict to a more appropriate time, to overcome immediate negative provisions, or to pass the solution or the solution guiding on to someone else (Gelfand, Leslie, Keller, & De Dreu, 2012).
Good leadership can be classified by multiple elements: Two of them are the satisfaction of the followers and success (Barendsen & Gardner, 2009). Along with satisfaction being a most subjective matter go characteristics that determine a good leader such as honesty, the ability to delegate, communication, confidence, creativity, integrity, decisiveness and many more; these are bound to foster the satisfaction of those being led – and ideally through this, success (Hogan & Kaiser, 2005; Skyrme, 2010; Barendsen & Gardner, 2009). The determination of success alone can be measured in figures (increased revenue etc.) but also in the achievement of goals which may or may not be connected to figures (Sendjaya, 2007).
The deliberate application of conflict avoidance as part of good leadership thus means that the leader acts avoiding in conflict situations as and if this supports his leadership; it does not mean to postpone a conflict endlessly or to avoid it at all (Thomas, 2008). One leadership style which might include deliberate conflict avoidance more than other styles maybe contingency leadership, in which different styles or manifestations of styles are applied depending on the situation (Tjosvold & Sin, 2002); another style could be transformational leadership where the leader does not particularly require his or her followers’ consent and thus could in deliberately tend to avoid conflicts (or indeed the contrary) (Darling & Earl Walker, 2001).
With the determination of conflict avoidance, good leadership, and deliberate application, the researcher raises the question in how far conflict avoidance and good leadership are causally related (Holmes & Marra, 2004; Fordham, 2005). Answering this question is expected to explain the effects of the use of conflict avoidance in leadership and the results that can be expected therefrom. This is the draft of an empirical study aiming to support the causality between conflict avoidance and good leadership.
This document will continue with a discussion of the research background, the rationales, and a research model before turning to the conceptual framework from which the research questions, aims and objectives derive. The consideration of limiting and delimiting factors will complete this introduction chapter. Chapter two will provide an initial literature review in different categories of the subject and chapter three will explain the different aspects of the methodology proposed for the study.
Background to the Research: When conflict avoidance happens, it might be unclear if this is by chance or deliberately. If done by chance, it may be considered a weakness of the leader and the lacking ability to make decisions or to deal with direct confrontations. This weakness would be bound to harm good leadership and, in consequence, success (Darling & Earl Walker, 2001). If conflict avoidance is used as a leadership tool, deliberately applied with specific positive targets in mind, the contrary might be the case: Conflict avoidance could be considered a strength of the leader and a marker of good leadership and success, as it is sometimes already regarded in politics (Tow & Hay, 2001).
Rationale for the Research: Leadership has more and more moved from singular-model systems to a set of tools to be applied by the leader depending on the situation, the context, the abilities and the desires of leader and followers alike (Stacey, 2012). Amongst the traits needed to apply these tools may be the ability to deal with conflicts. Obviously, there are different ways to address them: Conflicts can be solved, delegated, or postponed – and all of these options can be considered conflict avoidance, but for different reasons (Wolverton, Ackerman, & Holt, 2005). If it is done as part of the deliberate leadership, conflict avoidance might be considered a leadership tool and thus might support good leadership (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009; Lumby, 2013). To explore this relationship is the rationale for this research.
Research Model, Conceptual Framework, and Research Hypothesis: Adopted from Boehm (1980) a research model was developed which reflects the process from the area of investigation to the confirmation or rejection of the hypothesis. The hypothesis starts the actual process, followed by a literature review of previous researches; a study is designed and conducted, and results are collected and analysed (Boehm, 1980). It these confirm the hypothesis they are reported; if they reject the hypotheses, alternative explanations need to be found and the process may start anew with the consideration of the previous findings (Skov & Sherman, 1986).
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Figure 1: Research model adopted from Boehm (1980) and modified (Filthuth, 2019)
Based on the area of investigation, the application of conflict avoidance in leadership, the research hypothesis is formulated: Conflict avoidance is positively related to good leadership. For this hypothesis, an empirical study is designed, whose methodology is introduced and discussed in chapter three of this document.
Research Questions: Two consecutive research questions are developed based on the background and the rationale of this research and considering the conceptual aspects and the set research hypothesis:
Research question one: How do you judged the leadership of your direct supervisor?
Research question two: If in conflict with your supervisor, how does he or she act?
Aims and Objectives: If conflict avoidance is a marker of good leadership, it might be added to the set of leadership tools and might become an area of training for its application (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009). Ultimately it might be practiced fostering corporate or organisational success. To determine the relationship between conflict avoidance and good leadership, the judgement on the leadership is a vital parameter. Thus, research question one How do you judged the leadership of your direct supervisor? addresses this topic. Answering this question will give an insight on how the leadership is recognised by the subordinates. Along with the research question go the objectives of (1) understanding how good leadership is determined and reflected in academic literature, (2) collecting the subordinates’ judgement on the quality of leadership of their supervisors, (3) drawing conclusions on how the participants judge the leadership which is applied to them.
Research question two, If in conflict with your supervisor, how does he or she act?, collects information on the behaviour of the supervisors as recognised by their subordinates. Answering this research question will provide a set of behaviours which can be iteratively categorised in those that express conflict avoidance and those that do not. Along with this research question go the objectives of (1) understanding the background and reasons for conflict avoidance, the process of conflict avoidance, and the results from conflict avoidance; (2) collecting the behaviours subordinates see on their managers in times of conflict; (3) drawing conclusions on management behaviour in times of conflicts (Deutsch, Coleman, & Marcus, 2011).
Together, the answers to research questions one and two are expected to confirm the research hypothesis that conflict avoidance is positively related to good leadership.
Delimiting and Limiting Factors: For the research, three delimitations are set: (1) The research is conducted in one company only with a minimum of 200 participants to be sufficiently representative; this delimitation is set to maintain a hand able size of data and to avoid additional influences which might occur if more than one organisational system is involved. (2) The research is conducted at a fixed point in time with a short timespan to answer in order to reduce internal-organisational discussions on the research and other effects which might change over a longer period and thus would add influences the research. And (3) the research is conducted electronically only, using anonymous online questionnaires; the researcher is aware that this might exclude individual participants who have no regular access to electronic systems but prefers this over the inability to control the return of the questionnaires.
Amongst the limitations recognised by the researcher are: (1) All answers are subjective and will require interpretation; this is addressed for research question one by using a simple scale on which participants will judge their satisfaction; for research question two an iterative analysis on the prose answers is required and will be conducted most thoroughly. (2) Data is collected from all employees of the company with computer access; there is no control on how many responses refer to a single manager; this effect is regulated partly because the span of the number of subordinates per manager is not immensely high. (3) The research does not consider financial figures or performance indicators; this bears the risk that managers are judged positively but their commercial success is negative; this aspect is recognised by the researcher but cannot be controlled by him.
The researcher is aware that there are many more minor limitations all of whom he cannot feature and discuss in this brief document.
Chapter Two: Literature Review
The literature review for this study covers those areas of interest mentioned as objectives in the introduction: (1) The determination and (2) the reflection of good leadership; (3) the background and reasons for conflict avoidance; and (4) results from conflict avoidance. For this proposal, only an initial review is conducted.
Determining Good Leadership: The definition and determination if a leadership is good or bad depends, among others, on the culture of its performance and on the ethical values of those involved in it as managers or subordinates (Aronson, 2001). The same leadership style may be judged good in one culture and bad in another with a shift of cultural background. If a leadership is determined good (in the respective culture) it is seen as morally correct, ethical, authentic, and desirable (Khan, 2003). From an operative view, good leadership is seen to apply appropriate and current leadership tools such as involvement, listening and communicating, delegating, and many more; depending on the specific leadership toolset the leader needs to lead by example and live up to his or her own standards to be recognised as a good leader (Kickul & Neumann, 2000). Also, good leadership is an emotional leadership in two senses: first, the leader must be recognised as a feeling individual who is able to express emotions as and if appropriate; second, he or she is required to be emotionally intelligent, i.e. look for and recognise others’ emotions and react on them appropriately (Bachrach, 2004). And a good leadership is able to create a good climate of well feeling and consequential high performance (Ozcelik, Langton, & Aldrich, 2008).
Reflecting Good Leadership: When good leadership is reflected, authenticity is amongst the key words associated with it; only a leader who is seen to live up to what he says, who is perceived honest in what he does, and who is integer against attacks is reflected a good leader (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007). Other reflections of good leadership are sociality and sustainability: The social aspect has the broad range of the term from protective behaviour to equal pay (Lorenzi, 2004). Sustainability is linked to some aspects of sociality but with a focus on long-term development and a stance on environment: It includes the decision making with the future in mind as well as the consideration of environmental issues and the providing of training opportunities to apprentices and students (Hargreaves & Fink, 2004). And good leadership is reflected as differential: It recognises what type of leadership, what sort of addressing, what need is required by the individual follower and acts accordingly (Wu, Tsui, & Kinicki, 2010).
Backgrounds and Reasons of Conflict Avoidance: Amongst the earliest mentions of reasons for conflict avoidance in leadership is Leung’s (1988) recognition of individualism: The individual with its traits and properties is to be protected and his or her integrity is not to be harmed; thus, conflicts, particularly those in organisations, are to be avoided. A similar concept applies to the leader whose individuality is not bound to be harmed by conflicts (Leung, 1988). Another much recognised background of conflict avoidance it that of keeping up politeness and comity; in several cultures it is regarded unpolite to engage in open conflicts, thus conflict avoidance is the act of choice; comity also reflects on the wellbeing of those involved in a conflict and its protection is given a high priority (Watts, Ide & Ehlich, 2008). Not only in recent years, the fear of escalation is another reason to avoid (open) conflicts: Mayer, in 2010 already, found the risk of escalation not only harmful to the individuals involved in the conflict, up to a level of physical and psychological harm, but also to the organisation who is considered to suffer if conflicts escalate. The influence on corporate performance and the wellbeing of individuals was already recognised two years earlies by De Dreu & Gelfand (2008) but with a stronger focus on the actual influence on the output of goods and services and the overall harm to the organisation.
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- Heiko Filthuth (Author), 2019, Conflict Avoidance in Leadership. Design of an Empirical Study, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/541347