Conflict Management

Except in very few situations where the conflict can lead to competition and creativity so that in such situations the conflict can be encouraged, in all other cases where conflict is destructive in nature, it should be resolved as soon as it has developed and all efforts should be made to know the cause of conflict to prevent it from developing.

Preventing Conflict

Some of the preventive measures that the management can take, according to Schein  are:

Goal Structure: Goals should be clearly defined and the role and contribution of each unit towards the organizational goal must be clearly identified. All units and the individuals in these units must be aware of the importance of their role and such importance must be fully recognized.

Rewards System: The compensation system should be such that it does not create individual competition or conflict within the unit. It should be appropriate and proportionate to the group efforts and reflect the degree of interdependence among units where necessary.

Trust and Communication: The greater the trust among the members of the unit, the more honest and open the communication among them would be. Individuals and units should be encouraged to communicate openly with each other so that they can all understand each other, understand each others problems and help each other when necessary.

Coordination: Coordination is the next step to communication. Properly coordinated activities reduce conflict. Wherever there are problems in coordination, a special liaison office should be established to assist such coordination.

Resolving Behavioral Conflict

Various researchers have identified five primary strategies for dealing with and reducing the impact of behavioral conflict. Even though different authors have given different terminology to describe these strategies, the basic content and approach of these strategies remain the same.

Strategies to Resolve Behavioral Conflict are:

Ignoring the Conflict: In certain situations, it may be advisable to take a passive role and avoid it all together. From the manager’s point  of view, it may be specially necessary when getting involved in a situation would provoke further controversy or when conflict is so trivial in nature that it  would not be worth the manager’s time to get involved and try to solve it.

It could also be that the conflict is so fundamental to the position of the parties involved that it may be best either to leave it to them to solve it or to let events take their own course. The parties involved in the conflict may themselves prefer to avoid conflict, specially if they are emotionally upset by the tension it causes. Thus people may try to get away  from conflict causing situations.

Smoothing: Smoothing simply means covering up the conflict by appealing for the need for unity rather than addressing the issue of conflict itself. An individual with internal conflict may try to ‘count his blessings’ and forget about the conflict. If two parties have a conflict within the organization, the supervisor may try to calm things down by being understanding and supportive to both parties and appealing to them for cooperation.

The supervisor does not ignore or withdraw from the conflict nor does he try to address and solve the conflict but expresses hope that ‘everything will work out for the best of all.’ Since the problem is never addressed, the emotions may build up further and suddenly explode. Thus smoothing provides only a temporary solution and conflict may resurface again in the course of time.

Smoothing is a more sensitive approach than avoiding in that as long as the parties agree that not showing conflict has more benefits than showing conflict, then such conflict can be avoided.

Compromising: A compromise in the conflict is reached by balancing the demands of the conflicting parties and bargaining in a ‘give and take’ position to reach a solution. Each party gives up something and also gains something. The technique of conflict resolution is very common in negotiations between the labor unions and management.

It has become customary for the union to ask for more than what they are willing to accept and for management to offer less than what they are willing to give in the initial stages. Then through the process of negotiating and bargaining, mostly in the presence of arbitrators, they reach a solution by compromising. This type of compromise is known as integrative bargaining in which both sides win in a way.

Compromising is a useful technique, particularly when two parties have relatively equal power, thus no party can force its viewpoint on the other and the only solution is to compromise. It is also useful when there are time constraints. If the problems are complex and many faceted, and the time is limited to solve them, it might be in the interest of conflicting parties to reach a compromise.

Forcing: As Webber  puts it, ‘the simplest conceivable resolution is the elimination of the other party-to force opponents to flee and give up the fight-or slay them.’ This is a technique of domination where the dominator has the power and authority to enforce his own views over the opposing conflicting party. This technique is potentially effective in situations such as a president of a company firing a manager because he is considered to be a trouble-maker and conflict creator.

This technique always ends up in one party being a loser and the other party being a clear winner. Many professors in colleges and universities have lost promotions and tenured re-appointments because they could not get along well with their respective chairpersons of the departments and had conflicts with them. This approach causes resentment and hostility and can backfire. Accordingly, management must look for better alternatives, if these become available.

Problem Solving: This technique involves ‘confronting the conflict’ in order to seek the best solution to the problem. This approach objectively assumes that in all organizations, no matter how well they are managed, there will be difference of opinions that must be resolved through discussions and respect for differing viewpoints.

In general, this technique is very useful in resolving conflicts arising out of semantic misunderstandings. It is not so effective in resolving non-communicative types of conflicts such as those that are based on differing value systems, where it may even intensify differences and disagreements. In the long run, however, it is better to solve conflicts and take such preventive measures that would reduce the likelihood of such conflicts surfacing again.

Resolving Structural Based Conflicts

Structural based conflicts are built around organizational environments and can be resolved or prevented by redesigning organizational structure and work-flow. A general strategy would be to move towards as much decentralization as possible so that  most of the disputes can be settled at the lower levels in the organization, and faster too.

Since interdependency is one of the major causes of conflict, it is necessary to identify and clarify poorly defined and poorly arranged inter-dependencies or to make these adequately understood and reliable. This can be achieved through unifying the work-flow. This work-flow can be designed either to increase the inter-dependencies or to eliminate them entirely. Increased inter-dependencies can be achieved through more frequent contacts and improved coordinating mechanisms.

This would make the two interdependent units act as a single unit thus eliminating the cause of conflict. The other extreme could be to make the two units totally independent of one another. For example, in the case of units building an automobile engine, instead of an assembly line operation in which each person or unit is involved in sequential assembly so that each unit depends upon the work of the previous units, each major unit can work on the entire engine at the same time.

However these extremes are not in common practice. More often, the strategy would be to reduce the interdependence between individuals or groups. A common approach to do that is by ‘buffering’. Buffering requires that sufficient inventories be kept on hand between interrelated units so that they always have the materials to work with thus reducing their interdependency.

Another cause of conflict, is the undefined, unclear and ambiguous  job expectation. It is important to clarify what each individual and each subunit is expected to accomplish. This would include authority-responsibility relationship and a clear line of hierarchy. In addition, policies, procedures and rules should be clearly established and all communication channels must be kept open so that each person knows exactly what role he has to play in the hierarchical structure.

This would avoid situations in which none of the two units does the job because each thought the other was supposed to do or both units do the same job thus duplicating efforts due to misunderstanding. Thus, if each subordinate is fully aware of his responsibility, then such problems would not occur.

How to solve conflict arising due to competition for scarce resources? Conflicts will occur whenever the wants and needs of two or more parties are greater than the sum of the firm’s resources available for allocation. These resources may be in the form of a pay raise, promotion, office space, office equipment and so on. This conflict can be reduced by planning ahead about the proper distribution of such resources, instead of making haphazard and last minute allocations.

The conflict between different departments may be managed by establishing liaison. Liaison officers are those who are neutral in their outlook and are sympathetic to both parties and kind of ‘speak the language’ of both groups. They do not have a vested interest in any of these groups.

According to studies conducted by Sykes and Bates, it was shown that in one company where there was evident conflict between sales and manufacturing, which are interdependent units, the problem was solved by establishing a demand analysis and sales order liaison office. The liaison group handled all communication for sales and resolved issues such as sales requirements, production capacity, pricing and delivery schedules.

Since one of the major causes of conflict is lack of proper knowledge and facts about how other people think and act, it may be a good idea to let the individuals work with different groups so that they know each other better and understand each other better. Care should be taken however that these individuals are technically capable of fitting in these various groups.

This mutual understanding will result in trust and respect thus reducing the likelihood of conflict. This understanding can also be achieved by serving as members of the various committees.

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