Conflict must be handled so as to result in optimal unit performance. You have already seen that when conflict level is too low, the unit performance is also likely to be low and there is a scope for a perceptive manager to stimulate conflict in order to enhance the performance of the group. Similarly, when the level of conflict is too high, conflict needs to be resolved so as to restore high performance and optimal level of conflict. So, in this section, we shall examine both the strategies of conflict management-stimulation as well as resolution.
Stimulating Productive Conflict
Most of us since childhood have been taught to avoid conflict and even disagreement. How many times have you heard the statements “Don’t Argue”, “Stop fighting” or “It’s better to turn the other cheek”? However, this tendency to avoid conflict is not always productive and there are times when there is a need to stimulate conflict. In an interesting experiment, series of groups were formed to tackle a problem. Some groups contained a planted member to challenge the majority opinion, some groups did not have. Without fail, all groups that had a planted member came up with a more perceptive solution than the other groups. However when the groups were asked to drop a member, all groups that had a planted member chose to drop the dissenting member despite clear evidence that the conflict was beneficial. Such resistance to conflict is what managers have to overcome in stimulating productive conflict.
Robbins (1978) suggested the following as signs where conflict stimulation is needed:
1 The organisation is filled with “yes men”.
2 Employees are afraid to admit ignorance.
3 Compromise is stressed in decision making.
4 Managers put too much emphasis on harmony and peace.
5 People are afraid of hurting the feelings of others.
6 Popularity is given more importance than technical competence.
7 People show great resistance to change.
8 New ideas are not forthcoming.
9 There is an unusually low rate of employee turnover
The presence of one or more of these signs is usually an indication of the need for conflict stimulation. Once the need has been identified you may adopt one or more of the following techniques:
1 Manipulate Communication Channels
a) Deviate messages from traditional channels
b) Repress information
c) Transmit too much information
d) Transmit ambiguous or threatening information
2 Alter the Organisation’s Structure
(redefine jobs, alter tasks, reform units or activities)
a) Increase a unit’s size
b) Increase specialization and standardisation
c) Add, delete or transfer organizational members
d) Increase interdependence between units
3 Alter Personal Behaviour Factors
a) Change personality characteristics of leader
b) Create role conflict
c) Develop role incongruence
These are only a few of the suggestions possible. Depending upon your values and the organization’s value-system, some of the suggestions may even sound unethical as you may feel that a desirable end-state does not always justify the questionable means (like transmitting threatening information). We leave it for you to decide. But if by stimulating your value-conflict, we become successful in helping you to understand the important option of conflict stimulation, we shall consider that such conflicts are functional.
Resolving Interparty Conflict: How and When
You have seen that stimulating conflict is a required mode of conflict management when groups are characterised by apathy, complacency, non-responsiveness to needed change, lack of enthusiasm for generating alternatives, etc. Though these symptoms are very much present in a number of work-units in Indian organisations (and hence calls for appropriate conflict stimulation interventions), the more commonplace are heightened manifest conflicts. So, for most practical purposes, you should not only possess the knowledge of different strategies of conflict-resolution but should also know when to use which strategy.
There is no dearth of literature in this area and different authors have given different taxonomies in reviewing possible conflict resolution strategies. Here we consider Feldman’s (1985) strategies of intergroup conflict-resolution.
The primary dimension along which intergroup conflict-resolution strategies vary is how openly you as a manager should address the conflict. The chief characteristic of conflict-avoidance strategies is that they attempt to keep the conflict from coming into the open. The goal of conflict-defusion strategies is to keep the conflict in abeyance and to “cool” the emotions of the parties involved. Conflict-containment strategies allow some conflict to surface, but tightly control which issues are discussed and the manner in which they are discussed. Conflict-confrontation strategies are designed to uncover all the issues of the conflict and try to find a mutually satisfactory solution.
Ignoring the Conflict
This strategy is represented by the absence of action. You, as a manager, have often avoided dealing with dysfunctional aspects of conflict. Unfortunately, when you avoid searching for the causes of the conflict, the situation usually continues or becomes worse over time. Although ignoring the conflict generally is ineffective for resolving important policy issues, there are some circumstances in which it is at least a reasonable way of dealing with problems. One such circumstance in which ignoring the conflict is a reasonable strategy is when the issue seems to be symptomatic of other, more basic conflicts. For example, two groups may experience conflict over the amount and quality of office space. Such conflicts often reflect more important issues about relative power and status. Resolving the office space problem would not address the key issues, and attention could be directed more fruitfully to the more basic concerns.
Imposing a Solution
This strategy consists of forcing the conflicting parties to accept a solution devised by a higher-level manager. Imposing a solution does not allow much conflict to surface, nor does it leave room for the participants to air their grievances, so it also generally is an ineffective conflict-resolution strategy. Any peace that it does achieve is likely to be short-lived. Because the underlying issues are not addressed, the conflict reappears in other guises and in other situations.
Forcing a solution can, however, be appropriate when quick, decisive action is needed. For instance, when there is conflict over investment decisions, and delays can be very costly, forcing a solution may be the best strategy available to top management. Likewise, it may be necessary when unpopular decisions must be made and there is very little chance that the parties involved could ever reach agreement (Thomas, 1977). An example of this is when an organisation must cut back on the funding of programs. It is unreasonable to expect that any department would agree to cut its staff and expenses for the greater good, yet some hard unpleasant decisions ultimately must be made.
One way you can deal with conflict is to try to “smooth it over” by playing down its extent or importance. You may try to persuade the groups that they are not so far apart in their viewpoints as they think they are, point out the similarities in their positions, try to “pat” group members whose feelings have been hurt, or play down the importance of the issue. By smoothing the conflict, you can hope to decrease its intensity and avoid escalation or open hostility. Like forcing a solution, smoothing generally is ineffective because it does not address the key points of conflict. However, smoothing sometimes can serve as a stop-gap measure to let people cool down and regain perspective. In the heat of the battle, people may make statements that are likely to escalate the conflict, and smoothing often can bring the disagreement back to a manageable level. Smoothing also may be appropriate when the conflict concerns non-work issues. For instance, intergroup conflict frequently occurs between older and younger employees because of their different political beliefs and moral values. Smoothing can help to defuse the tension so that the conflict does not spill over into central work issues.
Appealing to Superordinate Goals
You can defuse conflicts by focusing attention on the higher goals that the groups share or the long-range aims that they have in common. This tends to make the current problem seem insignificant beside the more important mutual goals.
Finding superordinate goals that are important to both groups is not easy. Achieving these goals requires cooperation between the groups, so the rewards for achieving the goals must be significant. The most successful, and most frequently used, superordinate goal is organisational survival, i.e., if the subunits do not cooperate sufficiently, the continued existence of the larger organisation itself will be severely jeopardised.
One of the strategies you can use to contain conflict is the use of representatives. In order to decide an issue, you can meet with representatives of the opposing groups rather than deal with the groups in their entirety. The rationale is that the representatives know the problems and can argue the groups’ points of view accurately and forcefully.
Although this seems to be a logical way of proceeding, the research on the use of representatives as a means of solving intergroup conflict is fairly negative. Representatives are not entirely free to engage in compromise; rather, they must act out of loyalty and are motivated to win (or at least avoid defeat) even though a solution to the intergroup problem may be sacrificed in the process. A representative who “gives in” is likely to face suspicion or rejection from group members, so if a representative cannot win, he or she will try to deadlock a solution or at least forestall defeat.
Although individual representatives have difficulty in negotiating an agreement because of their fear of rejection by their groups, two situational factors can increase the effectiveness of this strategy. First, the use of group representatives from each side can help to overcome individual anxiety about group rejection. The members of each team can provide mutual support when they need to make concessions in order to achieve agreement. Also, groups of negotiators may receive broader support and trust from their respective sides, since each representative may represent a different constituency or bring a different expertise to the negotiations. Most labour negotiations involve several representatives of both management and labour.
Resolving conflict through representatives is more effective before positions become fixed or are made public. After positions become fixed, representatives become even more intransigent, and “given in” is more likely to be attributed to the personal failure of the representatives than to situational factors.
Structuring the Interaction
Some managers assume that one way to decrease conflict is to increase the amount of contact between the groups (if the groups interacted more, they would like each other better and fight less). In reality, increased interaction can merely add fuel to the fire; the two groups spend their time looking for additional reasons to reinforce their negative stereotypes of each other.
However, structuring the interaction between the groups can be effective in resolving conflict. Providing a framework on how many issues are discussed and the manner in which they are discussed can facilitate conflict resolution. There are many ways to structure the interaction between groups to deal with conflict; some of the most effective strategies include:
(a) decreasing the amount of direct interaction between the groups in the early stages of conflict resolution;
(b) decreasing the amount of time between problem-solving meetings;
(c) decreasing the formality of the presentation of issues;
(d) limiting the recitation of historic events and precedents and focusing instead on current issues and goals and
(e) using third-party mediators.
All these strategies allow some conflict to surface but prevent it from getting out of hand and reduce hardening of the groups’ positions. Decreasing the amount of direct interaction between the groups early in the conflict helps to prevent the conflict from escalating. Decreasing the amount of time between problem-solving meetings helps to prevent backsliding from tentative agreements. Decreasing the formality of the presentation of issues helps to induce a problem-solving, rather than a win-lose orientation to the conflict. Limiting how far back historically and how widely precedents can be cited helps to keep the focus on finding a solution to the current conflict. Finally, a mediator can act as a go-between, who transmits offers and messages, helps the groups to clarify their positions, presents each group’s position more clearly to the other, and suggests some possible solutions that are not obvious to the opposing parties.
Structuring the interaction is especially useful in two situations: (a) when previous attempts to discuss conflict issues openly led to conflict escalation rather than to problem solution; and (b) when a respected third party is available to provide and enforce some structure in the interactions between the groups.
Bargaining is the process of exchanging concessions until a compromise solution is reached. Bargaining can lead to the resolution of a conflict, but usually without much openness on the part of the groups involved and without much real problem solving.
Typically, in bargaining each side begins by demanding more than it really expects to get. Both sides realise that concessions will be necessary in order to reach a solution, but neither side wants to make the first concession because it may be perceived as a sign of weakness. Thus, each party signals a willingness to be flexible in exchanging concessions without actually making an explicit offer; a tacit proposal can be denied later if it fails to elicit a positive response from the other party. Bargaining continues until a mutually satisfactory agreement is reached, although such a solution can be reached without much open discussion of the conflict issues and without much effort to solve the underlying problems. Therefore, bargaining often results in a compromise agreement that fails to deal with the problem in a rational manner and is not in the long-term interests of either group.
For bargaining to be feasible at all as a conflict-resolution strategy, both parties must be of relatively equal power. Otherwise, one group simply will impose its will on the other, and the weaker group will have no means of obtaining concessions from the stronger one. Bargaining also is more likely to work if there are several acceptable alternatives that both groups are willing to consider. Otherwise, bargaining is likely to end in a deadlock.
Problem solving is an attempt to find a solution that reconciles or integrates the needs of both parties who work together to define the problem and to identify mutually satisfactory solutions. In problem solving, there is open expression of feelings as well as exchange of task-related information. Alderfer (1977) summarises the most critical ingredients in successful problem solving:
1 Definition of the problem should be a joint effort based on shared fact finding rather than on the biased perceptions of the individual groups.
2 Problems should be stated in terms of specifics rather than as abstract principles.
3 Points of initial agreement in the goals and beliefs of both groups should be identified along with the differences.
4 Discussions between the groups should consist of specific, non-evaluative comments. Questions should be asked to elicit information, not to belittle the opposition.
5 The groups should work together in developing alternative solutions. If this is not feasible, each group should present a range of acceptable solutions rather than promoting the solution that is best for it while concealing other possibilities.
6 Solutions should be evaluated objectively in terms of quality and acceptability to the two groups. When a solution maximises joint benefits but favours one party, some way should be found to provide special benefits to the other party to make the solution equitable.
7 All agreements about separate issues should be considered tentative until every issue is dealt with, because issues that are inter-related cannot be settled independently in an optimal manner.
There are two preconditions for successful, integrative problem solving. The first is a minimal level of trust between the groups. Without trust, each group will fear manipulation and may not reveal its true preferences. Secondly, integrative problem solving takes a lot of time and can succeed only in the absence of pressure for a quick settlement. However, when the organisation can benefit from merging the differing perspectives and insights of the two groups in making key decisions, integrative problem solving is especially needed.
Redesigning or restructuring the organisation can be an effective, inter-group conflict-resolution strategy. This is especially true when the sources of conflict result from the coordination of work among different departments or divisions. Unlike the other strategies discussed so far, you may note, organisational redesign can be used both to resolve the conflict or to stimulate it.
One way of redesigning organisations is to reduce task inter-dependence between groups and to assign each group clear work responsibilities (i.e., create self-contained work-groups) to reduce conflict. This is most appropriate when the work can be divided easily into distinct projects. Each group is provided with clear project responsibilities and the resources needed to reach its goals. A potential cost of this strategy is duplication and waste of resources, particularly when one group cannot fully utilise equipment or personnel. Innovation and growth also may be restricted to existing project areas, with no group having the incentive or responsibility to create new ideas.
The other way to deal with conflict through organisational redesign is to develop over-lapping or joint work responsibilities (e.g.. integrator roles). This helps in Management of maximising the use of the different perspectives and abilities of the different departments. But as you have already seen, it also tends to create conflict. On the other hand, there may be tasks (e.g., developing new products) that do not fall clearly into any one department’s responsibilities but require the contributions, expertise, and coordination of several. Assigning new-product development to one department could decrease potential conflict but at a high cost to the quality of the product. In this case, you might try to sustain task-based conflict but develop better mechanisms for managing the conflict. For example, providing “intergrating teams” can facilitate communication and coordination between the members of interdependent departments.