Conflict Management

Indirect Conflict Management Strategies

Most managers will tell you that not all conflict in teams and organizations can be resolved by getting the people involved to adopt new attitudes, behaviors, and stances toward one another. Truth is there are likely to be times when personalities and emotions prove irreconcilable.

In such cases an indirect or structural approach to conflict management can often help. This involves using such strategies as reduced interdependence, appeals to common goals, hierarchical referral, and alterations in the use of mythology and scripts to deal with the conflict situation. These strategies are discussed in detail below.

Managed Interdependence

When workflow conflicts exist, managers can adjust the level of interdependency among teams or individuals. One simple option is decoupling, or taking action to eliminate or reduce the required contact between conflicting parties. In some cases team tasks can be adjusted to reduce the number of required points of coordination. The conflicting parties are separated as much as possible from one another.

Buffering is another approach that can be used when the inputs of one team are the outputs of another. The classic buffering technique is to build an inventory, or buffer, between the teams so that any output slowdown or excess is absorbed by the inventory and does not directly pressure the target group. Although it reduces conflict, this technique is increasingly out of favor because it increases inventory costs.

Conflict can sometimes be reduced by assigning people to serve as liaisons between groups that are prone to conflict. Persons in these linking-pin roles are expected to understand the operations, members, needs, and norms of their host teams. They are supposed to use this knowledge to help the team work better with others in order to accomplish mutual tasks.

Appeals to Common Goals

An appeal to common goals can focus the attention of conflicting individuals and teams on one mutually desirable conclusions. This elevates any dispute to the level of common ground where disagreements can be put in perspective.

In a course team where members are arguing over content choices for a PowerPoint presentation, for example, it might help to remind everyone that the goal is to impress the instructor and get an “A” for the presentation and that this is only possible if everyone contributes their best.

Upward Referral

Upward referral uses the chain of command for conflict resolution. Problems are moved up from the level of conflicting individuals or teams for more senior managers to address. Although tempting, it has limitations. If conflict is severe and recurring, the continual use of upward referral may not result in true conflict resolution.

Higher managers removed from day-to-day affairs may fail to see the real causes of a conflict, and attempts at resolution may be superficial. And, busy managers may tend to blame the people involved and even act quickly to replace them.

Altering Scripts and Myths

In some situations, conflict is superficially managed by scripts, or behavioral routines, that are part of the organization’s culture. The scripts become rituals that allow the conflicting parties to vent their frustrations and to recognize that they are mutually dependent on one another. An example is monthly meeting of “department heads,” which is held presumably for purposes of coordination and problem solving but actually becomes just a polite forum for agreement.

Managers in such cases know their scripts and accept the difficulty of truly resolving any major conflicts. By sticking with the script, expressing only low-key disagreement, and then quickly acting as if everything has been taken care of, for instance, the managers can leave the meeting with everyone feeling a superficial sense of accomplishment.

Direct Conflict Management Strategies

In addition to the indirect conflict management strategies just discussed, it is also very important to understand how conflict management plays out in face-to-face fashion.

The Figure below, shows five direct conflict management strategies that vary in their emphasis on cooperativeness and assertiveness in the interpersonal dynamics of the situation. Although true conflict resolution can occur only when a conflict is dealt with through a solution that allows all conflicting parties to “win,” the reality is that direct conflict management may also pursue lose-lose and win-lose outcomes.

Lose-Lose Strategies

Lose-lose conflict occurs when nobody really gets what he or she wants in a conflict situation. The underlying reasons for the conflict remain unaffected, and a similar conflict is likely to occur in the future. Lose-lose outcomes are likely when the conflict management strategies involve little or no assertiveness.

  • Avoidance is an extreme case where no one acts assertively and everyone simply pretends the conflict does not exist and hopes it will go away.
  • Accommodation, or smoothing as it’s sometimes called, involves playing down differences among the conflicting parties and highlighting similarities to find areas of agreement. This peaceful coexistence ignores the real essence of a conflict and often creates frustration and resentment.
  • Compromise occurs when each party shows moderate assertiveness and cooperation, and is ultimately willing to give up something of value to the other. But because no one gets what they really wanted, the antecedent conditions for future conflicts are established.
Five Direct Conflict Management Strategies
Figure Showing Five Direct Conflict Management Strategies
Win-Lose Strategies

In win-lose conflict, one party achieves its desires at the expense and to the exclusion of the other party’s desires. This is a high-assertiveness and low-cooperativeness situation. It may occur as a result of:

  • Competition, which consists when one party seeks victory at all cost and achieves it through force, superior skill, or domination.
  • Authoritative command— When one party tend to use authority to end conflict. A situation whereby a formal authority such as manager or team leader simply dictates a solution and specifies what is gained and what is lost by whom.

Win-lose strategies fail to address the root causes of the conflict and tend to suppress the desires of at least one of the conflicting parties. As a result, future conflicts over the same issues are likely to occur.

Win-Win Strategies

Win-win conflict is achieved by a blend of both high cooperativeness and high assertiveness. This approach uses the strategy of Collaboration and Problem Solving.

Collaboration and problem solving involve recognition by all conflicting parties that something is wrong and needs attention. It stresses gathering and evaluating information in solving disputes and making choices. All relevant issues are raised and openly discussed. Win-win outcomes eliminate the reasons for continuing or resurrecting the conflict because nothing has been avoided or suppressed.

The ultimate test for collaboration and problem solving is whether or not the conflicting parties see that the solution to the conflict:

  1. achieves each party’s goals,
  2. is acceptable to both parties, and
  3. establishes a process whereby all parties involved see a responsibility to be open and honest about facts and feelings.

When success in each of these areas is achieved, the likelihood of true conflict resolution is greatly increased. However, this process often takes time and consumes lots of energy, things to which the parties must be willing to commit.

Collaboration and problem solving may not be feasible if the firm’s dominant culture rewards competition too highly and fails to place a value on cooperation. And, as the visual sidebar points out, each of the conflict management strategies may have advantages under certain conditions.

When to Use Alternative Conflict Management Strategies
  • Avoidance may be used when an issue is trivial, when more important issues are pressing, or when people need to cool down temporarily and regain perspective.
  • Accommodation may be used when issues are more important to others than to yourself or when you want to build “credits” for use in later disagreements.
  • Compromise may be used to arrive at temporary settlements of complex issues or to arrive at expedient solutions when time is limited
  • Authoritative command may be used when quick and decisive action is vital or when unpopular actions must be taken.
  • Collaboration and problem solving are used to gain true conflict resolution when time and cost permit.