Many people see conflict as a negative experience, but in reality we deal with conflict in varying degrees every day, and it is a necessary part of our personal growth and development. Conflict can become an issue when the people involved are not able to work through it. They become engaged in a struggle that does not result in growth. When this type of conflict arises, negative energy can result, causing hurt feelings and damaged relationships.
We can define conflict as a result of a disagreement through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. Conflict is pretty normal in the workplace, where people with different values, goals, and perspectives manage complex and stress-provoking projects. As a result, conflict can often be predicted. Think of an accounting office at tax time; seasonal increases in workload will surely increase the potential for conflicts among co-workers. If we develop procedures for identifying, defining, and managing conflict, then we can constructively manage conflict and take advantage of its opportunities.
Although some conflicts result from inappropriate behaviours such as harassment and bullying, not all conflict is negative. Conflicts of a less harmful nature can result in positive outcomes and build stronger employee relationships, if handled correctly. We may be able to discover new opportunities and transform conflict into a productive learning experience. When a difference of opinion is related to a task or job function, brainstorming can generate creative and innovative solutions that result in improved processes or procedures.
In order to effectively deal with conflict, it is important to understand the main styles of dealing with conflict. People typically have a preferred conflict resolution style, and different styles are more useful than others depending on the situation at hand.
People who tend towards a competitive or authoritative style take a firm stand and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power, drawn from position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability. This style can be useful when there is an emergency and a decision needs to be made fast, or when the decision is unpopular. However, it can leave people feeling wounded, unsatisfied and resentful when used in less urgent situations.
Collaborative/ Problem Solving:
People tending towards a collaborative, problem solving style try to meet the needs of all people involved. These people can be highly assertive but, unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone is important. This style is useful when there is a need to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution, when there have been previous conflicts in the group, or when the situation is too important for a simple trade-off.
People who prefer a compromising style try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. Everyone is expected to give up something and the compromiser also expects to relinquish something. Compromise is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill, and when there is a deadline looming.
This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person’s own needs. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others, but can be persuaded to surrender a position even when it is not warranted. This person is not assertive but is highly cooperative. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party, when peace is more valuable than winning, or when you want to be in a position to collect on this “favour” you gave.
People tending towards this style seek to evade the conflict entirely. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be appropriate when victory is impossible, when the controversy is trivial, or when someone else is in a better position to solve the problem. However, in many situations this is a weak and ineffective approach to take. Ignoring the problem very rarely makes it go away.
The culture within an organization can significantly impact the types and sources of conflict. For example, performance expectations that are not clearly aligned with corporate objectives can lead to issues in the workplace. If performance objectives reward employees for individual contributions but require teamwork to accomplish a goal, conflict will surely arise as some employees will feel their efforts are not rewarded and those of others should not be.
An organization’s culture also often dictates how conflicts will be resolved. In order to demonstrate an employer’s intent to respond to employee concerns and resolve issues fairly, policies and procedures for handling conflicts, grievances and harassment should be developed. In some cases these policies are legally mandated, such as the case with Bill 168, with respect to violence prevention. Conflict resolution procedures generally include formal and informal steps for employees to take when they are unable to resolve conflicts on their own. Policies should also reassure employees that their complaints will be handled in a confidential manner, and that they will not suffer any retaliation as a result of taking action against inappropriate behaviours.
Regardless of the source or type of conflict, situations that impact productivity in the workplace need to be addressed promptly. When conflicts are left unresolved, they can lead to diminished employee morale, decreased customer satisfaction, reduced productivity and increased turnover. Conflict resolution is the process of listening to different viewpoints and settling on an acceptable outcome. Some people focus on a win-win orientation in which a mutually beneficial solution is sought. Others will expect a win-lose outcome where any resolution will provide more benefit to one party than the other. A lose-lose outcome wherein neither party benefits, generally does not resolve the conflict. Depending on the situation, resolution may also include disciplinary action or even termination.
Although often viewed negatively, conflict can lead to change, process improvements, greater efficiencies, and stronger interpersonal relationships. In a team without conflict, you will have conformists and things will continue status quo. Healthy conflict presents an opportunity for individuals to learn and grow, as well as identify new ways of doing things more efficiently.
A conflict resolution process can encourage open communication and teamwork. This will ultimately lead to lower absenteeism, greater job satisfaction and higher productivity. A well-designed conflict resolution process can provide a positive link to the bottom line in any organization.
If your organization is interested in providing conflict resolution training, please contact us! We have a four-hour module and a one-day module that can benefit your organization.