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The Management of Conflict: Playing with Fire?

23 Sep 2016

WRITTEN BY Voliotis Seraphim
Assistant Professor of Strategy
Mediator, Barrister

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Nearly every fire could have been put out simply with a glass of water had it been detected early enough, and the same holds for conflict within organizations. Like fire, moreover, when managed correctly, conflict may be beneficial for the organization, although if mismanaged it may escalate out of proportion and, occasionally, beyond recovery.

Conflict need not be negative: it may be positive, misjudged, or misperceived. When, for instance, two project managers within an organization compete for restricted organizational resources, the ensuing conflict, stressful as it is for the competing managers, is likely to benefit the organization (and by implication all its units) by improving the projects’ efficiency and quality.

On the other hand, when two team members within a unit engage in heated interactions concerning the unit’s subsequent course of action, the outcome may well be toxic for the managers as well as for their unit. Even in such cases, however, the conflict may be unrelated to the debated course of action. For instance, it could be a misunderstanding caused by lack of emotional intelligence, the artifact of persistent prejudice, the transplantation of past unrelated conflicts or the projection of future fears into the current situation, or, simply, a bad day that turned worse.

Finally, conflict may be misperceived due to a number of psychological biases. According to the “fixed-pie” bias, for instance, we tend to assume that in interactions with others gains are negatively correlated. This may be accurate when the interaction concerns a fixed allocation, but it is invariably wrong in organizations whose very purpose is to utilize the synergistic effects of the coordination and cooperation of its members. Conflict may also be misperceived due to attribution errors. For instance, the conflict about the allocation of credit between two organizational departments may be erroneously experienced as interpersonal conflict between the departments’ heads. Conversely, interpersonal acrimony between the leaders of two organizations that are in the process of merging may be misconstrued by members as conflict between the organizations per se.

Conflict arises out of interaction and is magnified by interdependence, both of which are inherent characteristics of organizational life. Consequently, the organization cannot afford to either turn a blind eye to it or to universally reject it. Rather, it needs to diffuse unnecessary tension when the conflict is misperceived or to explore the conflict’s constructive potential, minimize its negative effects, and diagnose its generating underlying pathologies when the conflict is real.

Conflict management methods serve precisely such a purpose. Negotiation is the best-known method particularly because its main objective is to generate agreement. Despite popular belief, however, most of us do not know when and how to negotiate effectively, which suggests that efforts to negotiate may fail, albeit for the wrong reasons. In such cases, one alternative approach is to seek assistance in negotiation, before conflict escalates further. Such assistance usually takes the form of mediation, which is nothing more (or less) than a facilitated negotiation by a third party whose objective is to enable the parties to resolve their conflict in a conciliatory fashion. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, mediation is not only suitable to external conflict; the aim of workplace mediation is, precisely, to assist organizations address internal conflicts effectively and efficiently. Ultimately, however, the most effective way for organizations to address conflict is to enable its managers to develop conflict management, negotiation, and mediation skills, in order to detect, contain, and utilize conflict as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Like fire, conflict in organizations is not to be played with; rather, it should be managed professionally.