Managing Workplace Conflict and Strategic Management

Introduction

photographic showing office environmentConflict is an inherent and inevitable component of Strategic Management. Because of the involvement of the many stakeholders, often with conflicting perspectives and agendas within the various stages of the strategic management process, conflict manifests itself:

Conflict is often a major issue when significant changes are made to strategic goals, objectives and plans. Such changes often require employees and other stakeholders to alter their goals, roles and attitudes as well as having flow on effects on organisational structure and culture.

Consequently conflict is something those responsible for strategic management cannot ignore. They therefore must have the skills to be able to manage workplace conflict if the organisation's strategic intent is to be achieved in an efficient and effective way.

Because strategic management is closely associated with bringing about organisational change and responding to external influences for change, one skill strategic managers must develop is the ability to stimulate conflict as a positive change inducing mechanism.   

These issues highlight the perspective that conflict is not only an inherent and inevitable component of Strategic Management but also an essential one. 

As you work through the modules in this course, try and identify situations in which you will need to apply good conflict management skills.

Workplace Conflict

The formal study of the area of organisational conflict is a relatively recent one. It is also an interesting one for two main reasons, these being:

  1. Its current high level of focus within modern organisations, and
  2. The fact that our perception of conflict has undergone significant re-evaluation within recent times.

Before reading any further on the topic of conflict, evaluate your own perception of organisational conflict by answering the following few questions:

Think

Is conflict good or bad for an organisation?

Is the presence of conflict evidence of poor management?

Should conflict be eliminated and avoided at all cost?

Conflict

Definition

Within this definition the word "perceives" is of particular importance for two reasons:

Firstly, conflict cannot occur until you are aware that someone is thwarting your goals, and 

Secondly, the concept of perception is one open to much misinterpretation. 

Many conflict situations arise through an incorrect perception that someone is deliberately preventing the achievement of particular goals etc.

Frustration occurs when conflict is not open or effective resolution does not happen.

Think

Within this definition how would you distinguish between conflict and competition?

Can you recall instances where a conflict situation arose on the basis of misperception?

Changing Perceptions of Organisational Conflict

Traditionally, workplace conflict has been perceived as an undesirable situation that needed to be avoided and eliminated at all cost. Often it was seen as the result of poor or ineffective management, so its prevention had a high priority. Within this approach, in a cohesive well managed unit where everyone shared the same common goals (ie, the achievement of the organisational objectives) conflict shouldn't occur. This traditional perspective relates to the Unity theory of organisations and conflict is seen as a cost to the organisation.

The present approach to conflict is that it can be both functional (helpful) or dysfunctional (harmful) to a workplace. This view is related to the Pluralist approach to organisations in believing that workplace conflict is inevitable. It recognises that because workplaces are made up of many different individuals, each with their own personal goals and reasons for being in the workplace, it is naive to assume all workers will always share the same common goals. At times they will differ strongly and therefore conflict is considered inevitable. 

This approach also relates to the interactionalist approach to organisations in that it views conflict as a potential source of energy that if managed properly can be used to explore a wider range of problem-solving options than the traditional approach. By bringing the issues out into the open and addressing them, rather than hiding them, the opportunity exists to assess all sides to a situation and therefore increase the probability of finding the right solution. In this approach, conflict is perceived as being a necessary component of organisational life if the organisation expects to be able to succeed in today's contemporary change oriented business environment.

In this new perspective, conflict damaging potential is not ignored. Rather the viewpoint is taken that because of its inevitability and its problem solving potential conflict needs to be managed rather than avoided. This 'real world' approach to conflict emphasises the need to develop management skills that will enable you to adopt a relevant approach to individual conflict situations.

Relationship between conflict and performance

 

Think

In evaluating conflict within your own workplace or a workplace you are familiar with, are you able to identify which is the predominant management philosophy for dealing with conflict; ie, the unitary or pluralist approach?

What happens if conflict isn't properly managed; eg, does it go away, continue to ferment or escalate into more serious conflict?


This perspective is particularly relevant for those involved in Strategic Management. Because of the large number of divergent stakeholders associated with strategic decision making and implementation processes, conflict is:

Common Sources of Workplace Conflict

Within our workplaces conflict can arise from many different sources and it is important to appreciate that personal differences (eg, personality clashes, etc) are only one source of conflict. It is critical to appreciate that each of these common sources of workplace conflict have specific relevance within Strategic Management.

   Major sources of workplace conflict include:

Think

Are you able to list other sources of workplace conflict?

From your experience how would you prioritise the above sources in terms of their frequency of occurrence and the potential to harm and benefit the organisation?

Do you think different sources of conflict may be more common, or important, at different levels in the organisational hierarchy?

Sources of conflict can be categorised under the headings of Communication, Structural or Personal. The following table provides common workplace examples of each:

Communication

Structural

Personal

     Selective hearing

      Lack of empathy  (not putting yourself in the other person�s position)

    Inability to listen actively

      Poor summarising skills

     Unassertiveness

     Differences in the following:

        Organisational unit�s goals

         Decision alternatives

         Performance criteria

         Resource allocations

      Management culture

      Stage of development of the organisation

      State of business and the economy

      Prejudice

      Preconceived opinions

      Differences in values

      Differences in perceptions

      Clashes in personality

      Differences in goals, wants, needs and expectations

The above listing of potential sources of workplace conflict is not exhaustive or complete. However, it does highlight that there are many sources of conflict and provide support for the pluralist view of conflict; ie, because there are so many potential sources of conflict, conflict is inevitable. Further consideration of these factors should highlight that there is often more than one cause of conflict involved in any conflict situation.


Careful reflection should confirm that each of the items that have been identified as potential sources of workplace conflict have specific relevance within strategic management. It could be stated that each of these issues represent latent conflict; ie, they already covertly exist within the organisation and its strategic management process and only need particular events, which the strategic management process may readily provide, to trigger them. 

The Conflict Process

The evaluation of conflict on the basis of potential causes belongs to the approach termed the structural model. An alternative approach is the process model. Whilst the structural model may explain the initial factors that caused the conflict, the process model extends this by showing the different stages of the conflict development after it has been initiated. In other words, the process model aims to show the progress of a conflict event.

A number of process models exist but that provided by Thomas in 1976 is a good representation of all these. This model assesses the development or progress of a conflict incident in terms of :

Frustration, conceptualisation, behaviour and outcome

In all the process theories, once the conflict is initiated it progresses through a series of stages that will either escalate or solve the conflict. In all conflict situations there is always a 'conflict aftermath'; ie, the conflict is either fully solved, partly solved or not solved. If not solved it may actually escalate.

Think

What are the likely short and longer term consequences of the three conflict aftermaths?

Conflict Handling Styles - matching the approach to the situation

In handling conflict situations, the manager has choice in the style he/she adopts to manage the conflict. Adopting a contingency approach where the style used matches the specific situation (ie, the importance of the issue, time frames, the importance of maintaining an ongoing satisfactory working relationship between the parties, etc) is suggested as the best approach to use. The conflict handling styles suggested by Thomas and Killmen (1977) are generally accepted within the literature as a comprehensive range of options.

These are:

Competing/Forcing - the desire to win at the expense of others. A "win at all costs" approach where you force the issue.

Collaborating - endeavouring to establish an outcome that meets the needs of all parties. This is an integrative win/win approach.

Compromising - endeavouring to establish an outcome that meets some of the requirements of all parties. A trade off/negotiation situation.

Avoiding - withdrawing from the conflict situation.

Accommodating - accepting the other parties perspective above your own and accommodating their position on the conflict issue.

These approaches vary in terms of their assertiveness and co-operativeness, as shown in the following model.

A two-dimensional model of conflict behaviour

Some reflection will show that all these styles are used within our workplaces and some people will have a preferred style that they use in all situations. However, each style is more suited to particular situations than others, and the chance of handling the conflict in an appropriate way is increased by matching the relevant style to the situation. This is what is meant by adopting a contingency approach. 

This means a manager must develop skills in all of the conflict handling style options and know when each is the most appropriate style to use in a given circumstance.

Five conflict-handling styles

Conflict-handling style Related term Proverb
Forcing Competing
Conflicting
Moving against the other
Put your foot down where you mean to stand
Collaborating Problem solving
Integrating
Confronting
Come let us reason together
Compromising Splitting the difference
Sharing
Horse-trading
You have to give some to get some
Avoiding Moving away from the other
Withdrawing
Losing-leaving
Let sleeping dogs lie
Accommodating Yielding-losing
Friendly-helping
Moving toward the other
It is better to give than to receive
Source: K W Thomas, 'Organizational Conflict' in S Kerr (ed.) Organizational Behaviour (Comumbus, Ohio: Grid, 1979). � Harcourt Brace & Company, Australia ACN 000 910 583

 

Think

List some conflict situations you have witnessed or experienced and identify from the above conflict handling styles the approach/s used by the various parties to the conflict.

Can you identify the types of situations each of the conflict handling styles may be most suited to?

It is important to keep in mind that conflict can be on an individual to individual basis (interpersonal conflict), or group to group (intergroup conflict) or organisation to organisation.

Each of the conflict handling styles is suited to particular situations. The following table provides examples of each of these.

Conflict Style

May be appropriate when �

May be inappropriate when �

Forcing

This style can be appropriate if you know you�re right, when quick, decisive answers must be made, or if you�re competing for scarce resources.

It is inappropriate if it suppresses, intimidates, or coerces others, if it makes others afraid to communicate with you.

Accommodation

Such a style is appropriate if maintaining harmony is important or if the issue is more important to the other person.

It is inappropriate when interpersonal relationships need to be strengthened by the process of working through the conflict.

Compromising

Compromise is a common approach to resolving conflict and is appropriate when two equally strong and persuasive people need to reach a solution.

It is inappropriate if it undermines trust or prevents discussion of the real issues in the conflict.

Collaborating

This approach is not an easy one, but is generally considered the ideal approach.

It is inappropriate when the issue does not warrant the time and effort required, when trust and openness are absent, or when the persons involved do not have the necessary problem-solving abilities or skills.

Avoiding

Avoidance may be appropriate when there is little chance of winning, when tensions need to be reduced, or when more information needs to be gathered.

It is inappropriate when confrontation would be beneficial to the conflict situation.

 

mouse activity What is your conflict managing style? Click here to undertake a self-evaluation.

 

Strategy Options for Reducing Conflict

Once a general conflict handling style that meets the particular situation is decided upon, specific strategies to reduce unproductive conflict need to be determined. As with the conflict handling style, the strategies adopted need to be matched to the specific situation.

Strategy options commonly used include:

Superordinate goals - the focusing on goals considered more important than individual concerns.

Geographical Separation - transferring employees to other units or rearranging seating arrangements.

Buffer Reporting Position - rather than having each party dealing directly with each other have them each report to the same intermediary.

Appoint a Mediator - to act as a facilitator between conflicting parties.

Appeals Procedure - a formal procedure to follow to endeavour to solve the conflict.

Dominance/Forcing - the use of legitimate power to intervene and dictate an outcome.

Conflict Mapping - mapping out the perceptions and likely strategies of all interested parties. This approach enables you to test the validity of your own stance and determine strategies knowing how the other parties are likely to react.

Counselling - is particularly relevant when having to deal with interpersonal conflicts based on personal differences. Counselling is a problem solving technique in which one person helps another identify the cause behind the problem and explore and choose options to solve the problem.

It generally follows a process such as the following counselling model:

Counselling Model

Counselling may also be a critical tool to use in situations where it is essential the parties must collaborate and maintain an effective workplace relationship.

Negotiating is often the technique used in a compromise situation and in the allocation of corporate resources. In a compromise negotiation each side trades off, or agrees to give up, something to gain something of greater importance.

Negotiation processes for resource allocation tend to fall into one of two models of negotiating, these being :

Whilst the integrative approach is idealistically the preferred outcome it is often extremely difficult to achieve.

A model of conflict to assit third party negotiation


The Consequences of Leaving Conflict Unmanaged

Managers/supervisors/team leaders who ignore dysfunctional conflict do so at their peril.  Conflict that goes unresolved usually deepens.  It may move through stages from discomfort, incidents, misunderstandings, tension and crisis.  Conflict may gain momentum and become more difficult to deal with as it progresses through these stages.  That is why it is important to recognise and address conflict early as delay only makes it more difficult to solve.

The discomforts stage of conflicts is when things don�t feel right, but nothing may have been said.  The next stage, incidents, is where a sharp exchange may take place leaving you feeling irritated or upset.  Then follows the misunderstandings stage which is more serious, where motives and facts are often confused, and your thoughts keep returning to the problem.  If not dealt with, the next stage is tensions, where the relationships are weighed down by negative attitudes, and we feel worried about the situation and uncomfortable when we see the other party.  This leads to the final stage, crisis, where normal functioning between the parties is very difficult and extreme gestures are often made or contemplated (eg, quitting your job), or a major scene occurs where things are said in the heat of the moment.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Think Think of the stages of conflict as a hillside and the conflict as a ball, gaining momentum and speed as it moves down, eventually getting out of control.  It is important for a manager to analyse the stages of conflict and address it as soon as you become aware of it. 

The consequences of unresolved conflict may include the following:

All of these are likely to mean loss of productivity and an uncomfortable workplace.

Conflict Stimulation

The current perspective of conflict proposes there are times when it will be necessary to initiate or stimulate conflict within our workplaces. Such a statement is a clear indication of the changing perspective of organisational conflict.

Many management theorists and practitioners believe that in modern dynamic business environments unless an organisation exhibits conflict it is likely stagnating and in threat of failure.

The positive benefits of conflict may include:

In some situations a manager needs to consider stimulating conflict through actions such as redesigning jobs/work units, changing lines of communication, bringing in change oriented employees, etc.

something to think about

Are you able to identify from your personal experience situations/decisions that may have resulted in better outcomes if conflict initiation techniques had been applied?

Summary

Conflict  within organisations can be extremely destructive and time wasting. However, within the modern business environment associated with high level competition, scarcity of resources and diversity of stakeholders, recognition is given to the fact that workplace conflict is inevitable and at times beneficial. 

From a management perspective conflict must be managed to minimise its potentially harmful influence and wherever possible be used for its creative potential for the benefit of the organisation.  

In dealing with conflict, managers need to adopt a contingency approach and match their actions and strategies to the individual situation.

These issues are all critical within the strategic management process where conflict management skills are essential because within strategic management we recognise that conflict is inherent, inevitable and essential.

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