Conflict is an inevitable component of working in an organisation, specifically in times of uncertainty and change, but even in the routine life of an organisation. As a manager, you are and will be confronted with conflict among individuals and groups, and you will be called upon to resolve conflict situations. This is not always easy to do, and some people may be inclined to ignore conflict or sweep it under the carpet. However, if untreated, conflict may behave like an untreated abscess: it may grow and eventually burst, poisoning the environment around it.
In this session we will analyse the symptoms and causes of conflict at the workplace, and we will discuss strategies to address and resolve conflict between individuals and groups.
By the end of this session, you should be able to:
In this session you will be referred to the following readings:
|Handy, C. (1993). Ch 10 - On politics and change. In Understanding Organisations. London: Penguin Books: 299-312.|
Encina, G. B. (n.d.). Conflict Management Skills. 1-18. Online Available http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag.labor/7labor/13.htm
What is conflict?
"Conflict is disagreement between two or more parties - for example, individuals, groups, departments, organisations, countries - who perceive that they have incompatible concerns. Conflicts exist, whenever an action by one party is perceived as preventing or interfering with the goals, needs, or actions of another party." (Cook & Hunsaker, 2001: 374)
This definition talks in the broadest sense about the causes of conflict (disagreement), which we will have to explore further. But it does not say anything about the symptoms of conflict: how do we know that conflict exists?
Sometimes it may be quite overt, such as open arguments between two individuals. But sometimes conflict is much less obvious, yet may be very serious.
TASK 1: READ ABOUT SYMPTOMS OF CONFLICT
Read pages 299-300 of Handy, C. (1993). Ch 10 - On politics and change. In Understanding Organisations. London: Penguin Books.
Handy lists a number of obvious and not-so-obvious symptoms of conflict. Can you think of others? List a few.
Recognising the symptoms of conflict is a first step. It may then be necessary to decide whether, in fact, the identified conflict needs intervention because not all conflict is unhealthy. Many authors emphasise the fact that some conflict can be creative, spurring people on to try harder. Handy would argue that we then do not talk about conflict, but about competition, but others talk about constructive conflict.
TASK 2: EXAMPLES OF CONSTRUCTIVE CONFLICT
Can you think about disagreements/conflict/competition that are of benefit for an individual or an organisation?
You may have thought of a new staff member joining the organisation, who has lots of new ideas that are foreign to old staff. This may initially create conflict, as old and new ways of doing things may clash. But eventually the new ideas may be adapted and integrated into the organisation, helping everybody to improve performance.
Another example might be two people with strong views clashing on a particular issue, but the ensuing exchange actually benefits both of them in the long term.
Whether this is called conflict or competition, the situation may or may not need some outside facilitation, but will in the end be of benefit. But other disagreements will not be counter-productive to an organisation. So how do people behave in conflictual situations?
TASK 3: THE TACTICS OF CONFLICT
Continue to read Handy, C. (1993). Ch 10 - On politics and change. In Understanding Organisations. London: Penguin Books: 299-312. Focus on pages 306 - 308, where he talks about the tactics of conflict.
Do you recognise any of these tactics? Have you maybe ever used any of them - or been the victim of them?
Jot down a memory or two of encounters with such conflict tactics.
Now that we have identified how conflicts can manifest, let's look at what some of the causes of conflict may be.
TASK 4: BRAINSTORM THE CAUSES OF CONFLICT
To start with, brainstorm what causes conflict in your organisation - conflict between individuals and conflict between groups of people.
Cook and Hunsaker (2001: 377) have a long list of they call sources of conflict:
Do you recognise any items from your brainstorm in this rather abstract list?
Handy elaborates many the concepts listed above in Chapter 10. He uses the term “role” instead of “territory”, suggesting that both terms can be used interchangeably.
TASK 5: READ A TEXT ON THE CAUSES OF CONFLICT
Read pages 303 - 306 from Handy, Chapter 10 on the causes of conflict. Compare your brainstorm and Cook & Hunsaker's list to Handy's suggestions?
You will find that most conflict has its source in roles, objectives and tasks either not being clear or being in contradiction with each other. Alternatively you may have a genuine clash of values or views of the world.
Clearly the cause of a conflict has an impact on how one tries to resolve that conflict. Let us now turn from understanding conflict to handling conflict, finding solutions that are beneficial to both individuals and organisations.
Handy believes that there are two managerial strategies to handling conflict: either turn it into fruitful competition or control it. He elaborates both suggestion on pages 309 - 312.
Other writers go into much greater detail. Again, an internet search reveals hundreds and hundreds of readings, courses and videos in conflict management.
We extracted one very practical reading, which comes from the agricultural sector, and elaborates conflict management strategies in great detail.
TASK 6a: ABOUT CONFLICT HANDLING STRATEGIES
Encina, G. B. (n.d.). Conflict Management Skills. 1-18. [Online]. Available: www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag.labor/7labor/13.htm.
Encina bases his suggestions on two principles. The first one, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”, was introduced by Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The second one, getting people to focus on their needs, rather than their positions, comes from a book by Roger Fisher and William Ury (1999), Getting to Yes.
Task 6b: Apply your knowledge
You may not be able to immediately apply Encina's suggestions in practice (unless you have a conflict situation on your hands at the moment). But you can revisit an old conflict and replay how it was or could have been handled, based on Encina's suggestions. Spend between 30 and 60 minutes on this task.
A last reading, also from the internet, summarises five conflict management techniques in very quick, easy to understand way on just over three pages.
TASK 7: REVISION
Read Conflict Management Strategies and Styles. [Online]. Available: http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert.fs/conflict.htm
Use the reading to revise what you learnt in this session.
In this last session of Unit 3, we worked towards understanding and handling conflict situations, both of which are indispensable requirements for HR managers. If, in the past, you were reluctant to tackle conflict and rather tried to avoid it, you should feel more confident now to analyse what is going on in a conflict situation and to confront it. If you believed that confrontation is always the best strategy, you should have learnt that there are other strategies of convincing conflicting parties to settle their dispute.
You have come to the end of Unit 3. In this unit we have primarily discussed themes which elaborated how people communicate with each other and relate to each other. We started with the role and importance of leadership in an organisation, how it can make the difference between stagnation and low morale amongst staff and a dynamic organisation. We then discussed group processes and the pros and cons of group and team work in Session 2. In Session 3, we discussed the crucial role of motivation in getting people to perform well and do their best, and your role as a manager in getting your staff motivated. The last session focused on the times when things do not run smoothly and you as a manager are called on to deal with conflict among staff: you explored how to analyse it and what to do about it.
From this unit focusing on communication and interpersonal relations, we will now move into a unit that discusses some of the more practical aspects of managing people in an organisation: this includes recruiting and selecting people, the importance of training, support and supervision and the role of performance management. This unit follows, rather than precedes Unit 3, because the elements of communication and interpersonal relations should inform and underlie all activities discussed in Unit 4.