Conflict is a natural part of every relationship between human beings. In fact, it would be quite odd to have a relationship with someone and never get into conflict situation. Conflicts are often unpleasant because they involve strong emotions which sometimes may reduce the ability of rational thinking and may lead to some sort of escalation. But, with different approach and quality communication, conflicts can offer the valuable opportunity to truly hear what opposite side has to say.
Organizations are a very fertile environment for developing and growing conflicts. Not only does it consists of people, but also integrates other factors that may serve as catalysts for conflicts: stress, pressure, unclear situations, quick decision making, responsibility etc. When there are poor communication and bad strategies for solving conflicts, an escalation may easily occur and from tiny flame of disagreement overgrow to fierce fire that treats to expand and create a great damage. Off course the articles use of illustrations are somewhat exaggerated, but behavior like this has happened.
Conflict can be defined as disagreement between two or more members of organization who shares resources and/or working tasks, but have different goals, attitudes and perception. Conflict may be present between two or more groups of people with different interests, especially when there is a belief that it cannot be resolved with no damage for one side. There are many feasible reactions to conflict situations which are not quite appropriate for working environment such as aggression, rage outbursts, soreness, threats, crying, anxiety, depression and many others. Those unpleasant emotions and behaviours usually create discomfort for everyone involved, which can further lead to avoiding conflict at any costs.
Sources and ways of resolving conflicts
Besides two or more opposed sides, every conflict has its source. Knowing the source may be the key for resolving it in a constructive way. Thus, their causes may be situated in one of these two most common sources:
- Interpersonal differences between employees – which can be the consequence of poor communication, a lack of tolerance or trust, personality traits, different perception of the same problem etc. Those conflicts are expected in almost every human relationship, at certain point.
- Organizational sources – which include many factors and the most common ones are: sharing limited resources by two or more individuals or groups, co-dependence in performing work activities, high differentiation between organizational units, different criteria for performance assessment and reward management and organizational uncertainties and flaws.
There are numerous ways for solving conflict: it may be solved between opposed sides by themselves or by intervention of a third party. Those interventions may be arbitration – when third party is someone positioned higher in organizational ladder and he or she decides about a solution and mediation – when a third party is someone who only assists in problem formulation and solution; mediator does not come up with a solution, he or she only encourages and guides opposed sides to find it.
Is conflict always a bad thing?
The fact is – conflicts are often uncomfortable. As stated before, they can bring up loads of intense emotions and create unsettling atmosphere. So, a logical approach to them would be – let’s avoid them! However, modern theories of conflict strongly disagree with that approach. Furthermore, those theories imply that conflicts can be seen in a positive way and they can make significant contribution to higher organizational productivity. Conflicts, in certain way, bring motion and dynamics in organization and they are seen as natural and unavoidable part of organizational culture. They affect creativity and allow shedding different light on perceiving events and situations. Their resolution requires time, patience and skilfulness. When properly resolved, conflicts can bring satisfaction to everyone involved.
Such creative approach to conflicts is based on the assumptions that conflict almost always exists and represents a natural part of life. It offers an opportunity for growth and further development. When there is a problem which generates a conflict, there is no only one solution for it. The variety of those solutions is a chance for being creative and for developing skills for finding and implementing them. The entire process should take into account needs and feelings of involved sides, because they are often an epicentre of conflicts – they are their fuel. Only acknowledging them offer a space for constructive solution. The definition of a problem is a key for its resolving and solution might be acceptable for all sides involved in conflict.
The role of broader context
Aforementioned creative approach has certain requirements, which are firmly embedded in organizational culture. If that is not the case, that requirements are changeable and might serve as goals in developing productive and conflict-friendly environment. Those requirements are:
- Self-respect and respect for others.
- Willingness to hear what others have to say and understanding their points of view.
- Recognition and satisfaction of one’s own needs, without jeopardizing needs of others.
- Openness and readiness to explore alternative options.
- Readiness for self-questioning one’s own behaviour and attitudes and willingness to work on it.
- Perseverance throughout the entire process.
- Imagination, creativity and flexibility.
Most organizations already have its own ways for dealing with conflicts. If they are directed towards the “All conflicts are bad and we should avoid them” philosophy, it may be pretty challenging to switch to another approach. But, that “switch” is a process which requires both change and time. And the catch with changes is that they are often hard. They cannot survive without effort, dedication and patience.
Conducting a transition from one philosophy to another is, in the first place, a task for managers. They can serve as agents of change and role models for all the others employees. Lead by example, all the others may become aware that having a conflict does not mean a war or endless passive-aggressive games. Also, providing a setup for showing emotions, with acknowledging that they are acceptable and normal part of everyone’s life may lead to seeing a conflict as natural, normal and mundane phenomenon.
Such a transition requires huge investments, but not in money. It demands time, effort, patience and willingness to make a change and maintain its effects, once when it has been accomplished.
Tim has background as is business psychologist and work sociologist with expertise in building organisations and teams to solve problems for the future. Tim has expertise in technology and the symbiosis between human interaction and technology in operational processes.