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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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:
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 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:
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.