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by Dr. Terry Stimson
Conflict is like water: too much causes damage to people; too little creates a dry, barren landscape devoid of life and color. We need water to survive; we need an appropriate level of conflict to thrive and grow as well. How we manage our natural resources of water through dams, reservoirs, and sluices determines whether we achieve the balance necessary for life. So too with conflict management: a balance must be struck between opposing forces and competing interests. (Costantino & Merchant, 1996, p.xiii)
Typically, organizational leaders do not view the management of conflict as systemically as they do information, human resource, and financial management systems. Rather, conflict in organizations is viewed and managed in a piecemeal, ad hoc fashion as isolated events instead of looking for patterns and systemic issues.
People frequently use the terms dispute and conflict interchangeably but they are not synonymous. Conflict is a process; a dispute may be one of several products of conflict. Conflict is the process of expressing dissatisfaction, disagreement, or unmet expectations with any organizational interchange; a dispute is one of the products of conflict.
Whereas conflict is often ongoing, amorphous, and intangible, a dispute is tangible and concrete - it has issues, positions, and expectations for relief. Collections or clusters of disputes are simply one of the many ways that conflict manifests itself in an organization. Conflict in an organization shows up in several ways:
Disputes - Grievances, disciplinary actions, complaints, lawsuits, strikes, threatened legal action, and disagreements (whether with internal parties or outside disputants) are all signs of dissatisfaction and unresolved conflict. Disputes are usually the most visible evidence of conflict; they are the by-product of conflict.
Competition - Some organizational conflict manifests itself more subtly than as outright disputes. Competition, particularly within an organization or between and among individuals within the organization may also be a sign of emerging conflict.
Sabotage - This not so subtle manifestation of conflict can be seen in "turf" battles when competence and integrity issues surface. Inefficiency/Lack of Productivity - Slow work, deliberate delay or decreased output can be evidence of conflict. Hidden conflict can lead a disgruntled yet vital employee to refuse to participate efficiently and meaningfully as part of a team effort.
Low Morale - Similar to inefficiency or lack of productivity, low morale is often a reaction to hidden conflict. Often, it is the result of attempting to avoid or deny conflict or of frustration with attempts to protest organizational action or inaction. Employees get weary of being treated poorly. With no mechanisms for dealing with their frustration, they often lose energy, morale, and motivation.
Withholding Knowledge - Within many organizational cultures knowledge is power, and withholding information is practiced as a form of control. Such behavior is often a sign of distrust, status hierarchies, and an "information caste system". Only certain people are entitled to know certain information; information is shared according to status (title, seniority, or office size and location).
A conflict develops with the interaction of interdependent people who perceive themselves as having goals that are incongruent with each other. Often one individual perceives another as blocking the attainment of his or her goal. Conflict management is a technique which attempts to realign the incongruity between the two positions to allow opposing forces to be less damaging and to work on a problem situation. Disputes arise from the interpersonal conflict that surfaces.
Dispute resolution is a process to create solutions for conflict situations. There are a variety of dispute resolution processes available from litigation on one end of the continuum to mediation on the other end. In our society, in the last few decades, we have become quick to litigate when conflicts arise. When we go to court to resolve our dispute the judge serves as a final arbitrator and adjudicates our conflict by making a final decision by which both parties are bound and only one party wins. This is clearly the win-lose scenario. There are conflicts which require a win-lose decision so there will always be a place for the court system but in this class we are going to explore alternative dispute resolution processes which allow us to avoid litigation.
I have been an arbitrator for the Better Business Bureau for the last 12 years. The BBB Autoline program is an excellent example of a process which allows an unhappy consumer to request an arbitrator make a binding decision on an automaker without requiring litigation. Auto manufactures, such as GM, sign an agreement with the National Better Business Bureau and agree to honor, as binding, any final decision that a BBB volunteer arbitrator makes after a hearing. The consumer is not bound by the decision but the auto manufacturer is according to the terms of their agreeement with BBB. In this way, the auto manufacturer avoids costly litigation each time a consumer is unhappy with their car. The arbitrator's role, similar to the judge, is to listen to each side and make a binding decision based on predetermined criteria.
Negotiation is an important form of conflict resolution which can be done by the parties themselves, in an informal manner, or with attorneys or other representatives such as those involved in union negotiations. The negotitation process requires a thorough fact gathering process, which includes orientation and positioning so the parties fully understand the positions of all sides in the dispute. The negotiation process will result in a bargained settlement or an impasse.
Problem solving is an important process in the conflict resolution continuum. The problem solving process can be done individually, with a manager or with a designated official. The problem solving process allows the parties to identfy the problem, communicate with the appropriate people, explore alternatives to resolve the dispute. When this process works well you are able to decide on the desired alternative, carry out the action, and have the decision monitored and evaluated.
Counseling is an approach to dispute resolution which may prove helpful, especially in the workplace. The counselor gains rapport, assesses the real problem and facilitates an intervention.
Mediation is proving to be one of the most effective approaches to conflict resolution. A mediator is designated to introduce and explain the mediation process. The mediator gains rapport, finds out the facts of the case, isolates the issues and helps create alternatives. The mediator is a neutral guide whose intervention guides the process and allows the parties involved to make their own decisions about the most appealing way to resolve the conflict. The mediator clarifies the process and writes an agreement or plan for resolving the conflict. Often, the mediator, is available for follow up, if necessary, and will review and revise.
I have had the good fortune of serving as a volunteer mediator in the court systems in Arizona and Alaska. In fact, I was trained in mediation in Arizona so that I could become a mediator with the Maricopa County Conflict Resolution Program. In many of the courts in Maricopa County the judges require parties to participate in the mediation process before they are allowed to bring their case to court. The fascinating part of this process is that even though mediation is mandatory over 85% of the cases are resolved through the mediation process.
In addition, in Alaska the small claims court has recently started experimenting with the mediation process. Volunteer mediators show up on Thursday morning and are available for any diputants willing to participate in the mediation process. Though the program is informal it is proving to be quite successful and the Alaska judicial system is exploring ways to institutionalize a mediation program similar to Maricopa County's program. The concept of mediation is still relatively new, particularly in court systems.
Those who fail to understand the entire "system" when solving organizational problems can be said to be"linear thinkers", seeing only that which appears obvious. Systems thinkers, on the other hand, recognize the organization to be a total system of interrelated parts. A fix of one part will impact on other parts. Systems Thinking offers a much better problem solving process for organizations. Linear thinking results in beliefs that lead to impasse such as the following:
1. "If we can just figure out who to blame this problem will be fixed."
2. " It is impossible to solve anything. Life and its difficulties are too complex and beyond the capacity of humankind to deal with."
3. "I feel helpless , so let's argue"
4. "This is my territory/property. I own this"
5. "Stand fast. Don't give up."
6. "Things just never work out"
7. "You really can't expect too much"
8. "Someone has to suffer"
9. "You just can't get anywhere with certain people"
10. "There will always be winners and losers"
11. "You really can't trust anyone"
12. "This is just the way it is. There is no way to change it"
13. "There is not enough time. I just can't make it"
If we are going to have an organization which handles conflict effectively it is important to have some operating assumptions for approaching conflict. The values of the organization need to accept that all needs are legitimate and there are enough resources to meet all the needs within the organization. Within every individual there lies untapped power and capacities for resolving conflicts if the proper process is available. The process is as important as content. Improving situations is different from solving problems since solutions and resolutions are temporary states of balance. Everyone is right from his or her own perspective.