A manager must recognize potential sources of conflict analyze thoroughly the various causes of such conflict and devise strategies to manage it for organizational benefit. There are different strategies for managing behavioural causes of conflict and structural causes of conflict. These strategies are discussed as follows:
Managing Behavioural Conflict:
Various researchers have identified various techniques in dealing with conflict between two or more individuals. Some of the primary strategies for dealing with and reducing the impact of behavioural conflict are discussed as follows.
In certain situations, it may be advisable to take a passive role and ignore the conflict altogether. From the manager’s point of view, it may be especially necessary, when getting involved in a situation involving conflict would provoke further controversy or when the conflict is so trivial in nature that it would not be worth the manager’s time to get involved and try to solve it.
It is also possible that the conflict is so fundamental to the position of the parties involved in the conflict that it may be best either to leave it to them to solve it or to let events take their own course. The parties involved in the conflict may themselves prefer to avoid it, especially if they are emotionally upset by the tension and frustration created by such conflict.
People may intrinsically believe that conflict is fundamentally evil and its final consequences are never good. Thus people may try to avoid or get away from conflict causing situations.
Smoothing simply means covering up the conflict by appealing for the need for unity rather than addressing the issue of conflict itself. If an individual has an internal conflict, he may try to “count his blessings” and forget about such conflict.
If two parties within an organization have a conflict, the supervisor may try to calm things down by being understanding and supportive to both parties and appealing them for cooperation by presenting an image of “one big happy family” together.
The supervisor does not ignore or withdraw from the conflict nor does he try to address and solve the conflict but expresses hope that “everything will work out for the best of all”. Since the problem causing the conflict is never addressed, the emotions may build up further and suddenly explode. Thus smoothing techniques generally provide only a temporary solution and the conflict may resurface again in the course of time. Smoothing is more sensitive approach than avoidance in that as long as the parties agree that not showing conflict has more benefits than showing conflict, then such conflict can be avoided.
A compromise in the conflict is reached by balancing the demands of the conflicting parties and bargaining in a give and take position to reach a solution. Each party gives up something and also gains something. This technique of conflict resolution is very common in negotiations between the labour unions and management.
It has become customary for the unions to ask for more than what they are willing to accept and for management to offer less than what they are willing to give in the initial stages. Then, through the process of negotiating and bargaining, mostly in the presence of arbitrators, they reach a solution by compromising. This type of compromise is known as integrative bargaining in which both sides win in a way.
Compromising is a useful technique, particularly when two parties have relatively equal power so that no one party can force its viewpoints on the other and the only solution is to compromise.
It is also useful when there are time constraints. If the problems are complex and many faceted and the time is limited to solve them, then it might be in the interest of conflicting parties to reach a compromise.
As Webber puts it, “the simplest conceivable resolution is the elimination of the other party – to force opponents to flee and give up the fight – or slays them.” This is a technique of domination where the dominator has the power and authority to enforce his own views over the opposing conflicting party. This technique is potentially effective in situations such as a president of a company firing a manager because he is considered as a trouble maker and conflict creator. The outcome of using this technique is always one party being a loser and the other party being a clear winner.
Many professors in colleges and universities have lost promotions and tenured reappointments because they could not get along well with their respective chairpersons of the departments and had conflicts with them.
The negative aspect of this approach is that it causes resentment and hostility and can sometimes backfire. Accordingly, management must look for better alternatives if these become available.
This technique involves “confronting the conflict” in order to seek the best solution to the problem. This approach objectively assumes that in all organizations, no matter how well they are managed, there will be differences of opinions which must be resolved through discussions and respect for differing viewpoints.
In general, this technique is very useful in resolving conflicts arising out of semantic misunderstanding. A discussion of issues in a trusting environment can clear such misunderstandings.
Usually, this technique is not so effective in resolving non-communicative types of conflicts such as those that are based upon differing value systems, where an open discussion may even intensify differences and disagreements.
In the long run, however, it is better to manage even value-based conflicts with honest exchange of views and with respect and understanding for each other’s beliefs and values.
Managing structurally based conflicts:
The structural conflict is built around organizational environment and can be prevented or solved by redesigning organizational structure and work flow. A general strategy would be to move towards as much decentralization as possible so that most of the disputes can be settled at the lower levels of the organization, and do so faster.
Since interdependence is one of the major causes of conflict, it is necessary to identify and clarify poorly defined and poorly arranged interdependencies and make them adequately understood and reliable.
This can be achieved though unifying the work flow. This work flow can be designed either to increase the interdependencies or to eliminate them entirely. Increased interdependence can be achieved through more frequent contacts and improved coordinating mechanisms.
This would make the two interdependent units act as a single unit thus eliminating the cause of conflict. The other extreme could be to make the two units totally independent of each other.
For example, in the case of units building an automobile engine, instead of an assembly line operation in which each person or unit is involved in sequential assembly so that each unit depends upon the work of the previous unit, each major unit can work on the entire engine at the same time.
However, these extremes are not in common practice. More often, the strategy would be to reduce the interdependence between individuals or groups. A common approach to do that is by “buffering.” Buffering requires that sufficient inventories be kept on hand between inter-related units so that they always have the material to work with, thus reducing their interdependency.
Another cause of conflict, which is dysfunctional, is the undefined, unclear and ambiguous job expectation. It is important to clarify what each individual and each sub-unit is expected to accomplish.
This would include authority-responsibility relationship and a clear line of hierarchy. In addition, policies, procedures, and rules should be clearly established and all communication channels must be kept open so that each person knows exactly what role he has to play and to whom he has to report in the hierarchical structure.
This would avoid situations in which none of the two units does the job because each unit assumed that the other unit was supposed to do it or both units do the same job because of unclear instructions, thus duplicating efforts due to misunderstanding. Such problems would not occur if each subordinate is fully aware of his responsibility.
How can the management solve conflicts arising due to competition for scarce resources? Conflicts will occur whenever the wants and needs of two or more parties are greater than the sum of the resources available for allocation.
These resources may be in the form of a pay raise, promotion, office space, office equipment and so on. These conflicts can be reduced by planning ahead about the proper distribution of such resources instead of making haphazard and last minute allocations.
The conflict between different departments may be reduced by establishing liaison. Liaison officers are those who are neutral in their outlook and are sympathetic to both parties and kind of “speak the language” of both groups. They do not have a vested interest in any of these groups and hence they can be expected to make fair and equitable decisions.
According to studies conducted by Sykes and Bates, it was shown that in one company where there was evidence of conflict between sales and manufacturing, which are interdependent units, the problem was solved by establishing a demand analysis and sales order liaison office. The liaison group handled all communication for sales and resolved issues such as sales requirements, production capacity and pricing and delivery schedules and so on.
Since one of the major causes of conflict is lack of proper knowledge and facts about how other people think and act, it may be a good idea to let the individuals work with different groups so that they can get to know each other better and understand each other better. Care should be taken, however, so that these individuals are technically capable of fitting in these various groups. This mutual understanding will result in trust and respect for each other, thus reducing the likelihood of conflict.
This understanding can also be achieved by serving as members of various committees. As individuals from various work units get to know each other better through membership in the same committee, it leads to increased tolerance and understanding of different viewpoints as well as a realization that basically all units are a part of the same system and they are all pursuing similar objectives and the same overall goal.