The current paper argues that it is quite impractical or even impossible for conflict not to transpire in the workplace. The rationale for this idea is critically discussed as follows, with corresponding examples supporting each of the arguments put forth below.
The first argument which opposes this statement has to do with the number of people within a group. There are many reasons for joining groups and many factors that influence group performance. When individuals work together in groups, however, there is always potential for conflict.
Conflict can keep people from working together, lessen productivity, spread to other areas, and increase turnover. This does not mean that conflict is always bad, however. In fact, moderate conflict often produces higher group performance than either low or high levels of conflict (L. D. Brown, 1983). The energy resulting from moderate levels of conflict can stimulate new ideas, increase friendly competition, and increase team effectiveness (Berglas, 1997; Litterer, 1966; Rahim, Garrett, & Buntzman, 1992; Sessa, 1994). Furthermore, moderate conflict can reduce the risk of much larger conflicts.
Second, different employees within an organization will also have different motives, which are potential causes of conflict. Within an organization, employees can be in conflict with one another over many things. Two employees competing for a promotion, a new desk, or the opportunity to talk with the boss are all examples of interpersonal conflict. Although interpersonal conflict is usually the result of the factors that will soon be discussed, it can also result from an individual’s play for power or need for conflict (Berne, 1964).
The type of handling that a customer uses to handle conflict may pacify the situation or aggravate the conflict even further. When a person is in conflict with another, he can usually respond with one of five styles (Thomas, 1970). With the avoiding style, he chooses to ignore the conflict and hopes that the conflict will resolve itself. When conflicts are minor and infrequent, this style may be fine, but obviously it is not the best way to handle every type of conflict.
When a person is so intent on settling a conflict that he gives in and risks hurting himself, he has adopted the accommodating style. People who use this style when the stakes are high are usually viewed as cooperative but weak. An example of this style may be observed at a self-serve gas station. Two drivers parked their cars next to the same pump at roughly the same time. Both drivers got out of their cars and simultaneously reached for the only pump. Obviously, one person had to give in to avoid conflict and would have to wait 5 minutes longer than the other. Yet one driver quickly told the other to “go ahead.” Why did this person so quickly accede to the other? Probably because he had an accommodating reaction to potential conflict and because, in this case, the stakes were low (Bramson, 1981).
A person with a forcing style handles conflict in a win-lose fashion and does what it takes to win,
with little regard for the other person. This style can be effective in winning, but it also can damage relations so badly that other conflicts will result.
An individual with a collaborative style wants to win but also wants to see the other person win. These people seek win-win solutions-that is, ways in which both sides get what they want. This style is probably the best to use whenever possible (Burke, 1970).
The final strategy is the compromising style. The user of this type adopts give-and-take tactics that allow each side to get some of what it wants but not everything it wants. A person’s method of dealing with conflict at work can be measured by the Rahim Organizational Conflict Inventory II (Rahim & Magner, 1995) or the Cohen Conflict Response Inventory (Cohen, 1997).
There are also instances when conflict can occur between an individual and a group just as easily as between two individuals. Individual-group conflict usually occurs when the individual’s needs are different from the group’s needs, goals, or norms. For example, a Marine might want more independence than the Corps will give him, a basketball player might want to shoot when the team needs him to set picks, a faculty member might be more interested in teaching when his university wants him to publish, and a store employee might be more interested in customer relations when the store wants him to concentrate on sales (Burke, 1970).
Like individuals, groups may also have varying motives that underlie behavior, which is another argument for saying that conflict in work settings is inevitable. The third type of conflict occurs between two or more groups. In academia, such group-group conflict occurs annually as departments fight for budget allocations and space. In industry, company divisions often conflict for the same reasons.
A good example of group-group conflict occurred between two branches of the same bank located in the same town. The branches competed not only with other banks for customers but also with each other. To make matters worse, the two branches were to be consolidated, so their staffs were involved in even more conflict as they tried to establish who would be in charge of the new and unified branch.
Apart from the foregoing reasons, there are several realities that organizations and its members have to contend with as they operate within their silos. Among these are the competition for resources, task interdependence, jurisdictional ambiguity, communication barriers, and personality.
Because resources are limited, such as time, money and physical resource, it is but natural for different parties to vie for them, causing conflict. It is also quite impossible not to have conflict within an organizational setting because there are many units which are interdependent. In cases where the output of one is input to another department, conflict ensues, especially if the former does not deliver prompltly and with high quality output.
Yet another argument against the foregoing statement is the fact that not all roles are set out clearly in such settings. This uncertainty – which is not unusual – also causes conflict. Finally, difficulties in communicating a message across and diffferences in personality between parties relating to one another likewise causes conflict. The following sections discuss these in greater detail, and provides examples for each.
Competition for resources. In the marketplace, when customer demand exceeds product supply, prices increase. Similarly, in groups, when demand for a resource exceeds its supply, conflict occurs. This often occurs in organizations, especially when there is not enough money, space, personnel, or equipment to satisfy the needs of every person or every group (E. R. Smith & Mackie, 1995).
A good example of this cause of conflict, competition for resources, occurs annually when Congress decides on the nation’s budget. With only limited tax revenues and many worthy programs, tough choices must be made. But often, instead of working together to solve the country’s problems, political representatives come into conflict over whose favorite programs will be funded. Another example of this competition occurs in colleges and universities across the country. There are probably few universities where parking and office spaces are not a problem. Faculty and students argue about who gets the parking places, and once that argument is settled, seniors and juniors argue over what is left (E. R. Smith & Mackie, 1995).
There was an organization that initially had no conflict over resources because there were none to fight over. There were no extra offices, no equipment, and no supplies. Organization members even had to supply their own paper! After several years, however, the organization received a large amount of money and a new building with plenty of space. But as expected, conflict increased. All the employees wanted more space, their own computers, and so on. What had once been a very cohesive group was now one characterized by conflict because of competition for new resources (E. R. Smith & Mackie, 1995). .
Task Interdependence. Another cause of conflict, task interdependence, comes when the performance of some group members depends on the performance of other group members (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978). For example, a group is assigned to present a research report. The person who is assigned to type the report cannot do her job unless she can read what others have written, the person assigned to write the conclusion cannot do so until others have written their sections, and no member of the group is finished until every member has completed her assignment.
Conflict caused by task interdependence is especially likely when two groups who rely on each other have conflicting goals. For example, the production department in a factory wants to turn out a high volume of goods, while the quality control department wants the goods to be of high quality. Neither department can do its job without the help of the other, yet a production department with high quantity goals probably will have lower quality standards than those desired by quality control. By insisting on high quality, the quality control department is forcing the production department to slow down. When this happens, conflict is likely to occur (citation).
Jurisdictional ambiguity. A third cause of conflict, jurisdictional ambiguity, is found when geographical boundaries or lines of authority are unclear. When lines of authority are not clear, conflict is most likely to result when new situations and relationships develop (Deutsch, 1973).
A good example was seen in an organization that was changing from typewriters to computers that could use word-processing software. Before the change, the head of the secretarial department was in charge of selecting and purchasing all the secretarial equipment, and the head of the data-processing department was responsible for selecting and purchasing all of the organization’s computer equipment.
Conflict developed when the new machines being used by the secretaries were considered computer equipment and thus came under the purview of the data-processing department. The two department heads waged a “turf battle” to determine who would have authority for the word-processing equipment (Deutsch, 1973)
On an international level, jurisdictional ambiguity is a cause for many wars and conflicts. For example, in the early 1990s, Iraq invaded Kuwait under the pretense that Kuwait actually belonged to Iraq, and in the 1980s, England and Argentina fought over who had the right to the Falkland Islands (Brinkman & Kirschner, 1994).
Communication barriers. Communication barriers are the fourth cause of conflict. The barriers to interpersonal communication can be physical, such as separate locations on different floors or in different buildings; cultural, such as different languages or different customs; or psychological, such as different styles or personalities.
Personality. A fifth cause of conflict is the personalities of people involved in conflict. Such conflict is often the result of two incompatible personalities who must work together. For example, a person who is very quality oriented will probably have conflicts with a person who is very quantity oriented. Likewise, a “big picture” person is likely to have conflicts with a “nuts and bolts” person (Bramson, 1981).
Though it is probably true that most of the conflict that can be attributed to personality is the result of incompatible personalities, it is also very true that certain people are generally more difficult to work with than others. For example, it has been suggested that people who are dogmatic and authoritarian and who have low self-esteem are involved in conflict more often than open-minded people who feel good about themselves (Bramson, 1981; Brinkman & Kirschner, 1994).
Though there has been little research investigating “difficult people” who are most likely to cause conflict, there has been a fair amount written about the topic in the popular press. For example, Bernstein and Rozen (1992) described in great detail three types of Neanderthals at Work-rebels, believers, and competitors-and how conflict with each can be managed.
The most commonly referred to classification of difficult people was developed by Bramson (1981) and enhanced by Brinkman and Kirschner (1994). Brinkman and Kirschner (1994) postulated that abnormally high needs for control, perfection, approval, and/or attention form the basis for the difficult personality.
People with high needs for control are obsessed with completing a task and take great pride in getting a job done quickly. The Tank gets things done quickly by giving orders, being pushy, yelling, and at times being too aggressive. The Sniper controls people by using sarcasm, embarrassment, and humiliation. The Know-It-All controls others by dominating conversations, not listening to others’ ideas, and rejecting arguments counter to her position.
People with high needs for perfection are obsessed with completing a task correctly. They seldom seem satisfied with anyone or any idea. Whiners constantly complain about the situation but never try to change it. The No Person believes that nothing will ever work and thus disagrees with every suggestion or idea. The Nothing Person responds to difficult situations by doing and saying nothing; she simply gives up or retreats.
People with high needs for approval are obsessed with being liked. Their behavior is often centered on gaining approval rather than completing a task correctly or quickly. The Yes Person agrees to everything and, as a result, often agrees to do so much that she cannot keep her commitments. The Yes Person seldom provides others feedback because she is afraid of getting someone mad at her. The Maybe Person avoids conflicts by never taking a stand on any issue. She delays making decisions, seldom offers opinions, and seldom commits to any course of action.
People with high needs for attention are obsessed with being appreciated. They behave in a manner that will get them noticed. When she doesn’t feel appreciated, the Grenade throws a tantrum; she yells, swears, rants, and raves. The Friendly Sniper gets attention by poking fun at others. Unlike the Sniper, the Friendly Sniper aims to get attention rather than control. The Think-They-Know-It-All exaggerates, lies, and gives unwanted advice to gain attention (Brinkman & Kirschner, 1994).
Though early writings on difficult people suggested that their behavior was due to low self-esteem and/or a high need for control, a study by Raynes (1997) indicated that the cause is much more complicated. For example, Raynes found that high self-esteem and confidence were correlated with behaviors associated with the Think-They-Know-It-All and the No Person, the personality variable of extroversion was correlated with gossiping, and a high level of work interest was positively correlated with behaviors associated with the Yes Person and negatively correlated with whining.
Finally, conflict between management and employees may also be unavoidable. It may be best to view it in the context of the Class Theory of Marx that states, from the moment human society emerged from its primitive and relatively undifferentiated state, it has remained fundamentally divided between classes who clash for the pursuit of class interest (Coser, 1977). Classes are everywhere.
Each of us belongs to a certain class, in every category of life, and these classes can be described, maybe primarily, by the interests governing it. Interests are what drive people to do things, to move, to see things, to perceive happenings, to live. Unifying every class’ interest is no longer a question. It is far beyond reality. In dealing with social relationship conflicts, it is not an aim for every human being to have the same set of interests.
As difficult, if not really impossible, as it may seem, the approach left to be explored is the possibility of trying to understand each other’s differences and coming up in a way of meeting people half way. This is, of course, a scenario in a perfect world.
In this perspective, employer or management is one class and employee is another. Every profit-oriented organisation has its primary goal of making profits, so to speak. Here comes the business strategies these firms resort into with the goal of coming up with grater productivity to drive the organisation to reach its financial goals. These organisations invest into business strategy planning and trainings and dedicate a team to focus in this cause.
Miles and Snow (1984) and Schuler (1989) stressed the importance of considering the human resources management issues. To study the relationship between business strategy and human resources management strategy is just as important. Embracing the concept of human resources management is not always the easiest thing to do for the management (Beardwell, 1996). More often than not, the human resources interests do not coincide with the objective plotted in the business strategic planning done by the management, for the organisation itself.
As the cited instance goes, the management may opt to pursue feudal business strategies such as cost-minimization, having short-term employee contract for the almost total flexibility of the business itself, or resort to having hire-and-fire policy. By so doing, organisation’s financial, business needs may be addressed but workforce commitment is never within the reach. It is often the case that employees have this notion that management is in for themselves. On the lighter note, however, there are also shared interests between employees and management. If this is otherwise the case, the workforce would simply break down (Edwards, 1986).
Capping all these arguments, we say that the statement”There is no reason at all for conflict to exist at the workplace and, as such, its occurrence is very hard to understand” is clearly impractical. Conflict occurs within the workplace on a day-to-day basis, but these are resolved through effective management. The degree of effectiveness of these approaches to conflict determines the speed with which it is resolved.
When conflict does occur, people respond in several common ways (Blake, Shepard, & Mouton, 1964). While some are better responses than others, each of the following is appropriate in certain situations: withdrawal, winning at all costs, persuasion, smoothing and conciliation, negotiation and bargaining, cooperative problem solving, and third party intervention.
Withdrawal. When conflict occurs, withdrawal from the situation is one of the easiest ways to handle it. A person can leave a difficult marriage by divorce, an employee can avoid a work conflict by quitting the organization, or a manager can avoid a turf battle by letting another manager win. Common withdrawal behaviors include avoiding the source of conflict, quitting, talking behind the other person’s back, and forming alliances with others (G. E. Martin & Bergmann, 1996). Even though withdrawal can make one feel better, often it only postpones conflict rather than preventing it.
Winning at all costs. A second reaction to conflict is adopting what has been called a win-lose mentality in which the goal is to win a conflict and cause another person to lose (D. W. Johnson & Johnson, 1975). This strategy of winning at all costs occurs especially when a person regards his side as correct and the other person as the enemy whose side is incorrect.
This reaction often occurs when each side needs a victory to gain or retain status. Union-management conflicts provide good examples of this need for status. For a union to survive, its members must perceive it as being useful. Thus, during contract negotiations, union leadership must force management to “give in” or run the risk of losing status with its membership.
But the problem with putting status on the line is that it makes backing down to resolve a conflict very difficult. As a conflict escalates, each side “digs in” and becomes less willing to compromise. Unless one side has the resources to clearly win, the win-at-all-costs reaction is likely to prolong conflict. Thus, this strategy is only appropriate if the position holder is actually correct and if winning the conflict is more important than the probable damage to future relationships (D. W. Johnson & Johnson, 1975).
Persuasion. It is possible to resolve conflict without taking a win-at-all-costs strategy. If one side in a conflict is convinced that it is right, it can seek to “win” by solving the conflict through techniques of persuasion. This can be done by providing the other side with factual evidence on a position’s correctness, discrediting the opponent’s position, and pointing out how the proposal will benefit the other side (D.W. Johnson & Johnson, 1975).
Smoothing and conciliation. An effective way to end conflict, or to at least limit its damage, is by using tactics of smoothing and conciliation. These tactics involve expressing a desire for cooperation, offering compliments, avoiding negative interaction, emphasizing the similarities of two groups, and pointing out common philosophies (D.W. Johnson & Johnson, 1966).
Osgood (1966) believed that one key to resolving conflict is to reduce tension and increase trust between two parties. This can be accomplished by stating an intention to reduce tension, publicly announcing what steps will be taken to reduce tension, inviting the other side also to take action to reduce tension, and making sure that each initiative offered is unambiguous. By taking these steps early on, minor conflict can be resolved quickly, and serious conflict can be resolved through negotiation.
ConclusionIn conclusion, the foregoing discussion suggests that conflict is an inevitable reality in the workplace. The challenge for managers is for them to be able to turn a conflict around and leverage on it as an opportunity to improve. Ultimately, this shall spell greater competitive advantage for the organization and increased contribution the company’s coffers.
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