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Conflict Situations

In the course of a week, we are all involved in numerous situations that need to be dealt with through negotiation. Such situations occur at work and at home, on vacation and on a trip. A conflict or negotiation situation is one in which there is a conflict of interests or what one wants is not necessarily what the other wants and where both sides prefer to search for solutions, rather than giving in or breaking-off contact.

Few of us enjoy dealing with conflicts-either with bosses, peers, subordinates, friends, or strangers. This is particularly true when the conflict becomes hostile and when strong feelings become involved. Resolving conflict can be mentally exhausting and emotionally draining.

However, it is important to realize that conflict that requires resolution is neither good nor bad. There can be positive and negative outcomes as seen in the box below. It can be destructive but can also play a productive role for you personally and for your relationships-both personal and professional. The important point is to manage the conflict, not to suppress conflict and not to let conflict escalate out of control. Many of us seek to avoid conflict when it arises but there are many times when we should use conflict as a critical aspect of creativity and motivation.

Potential positive outcomes of conflict
  • Motivates to try and work harder;
  • Increases commitment, enhances group loyalty;
  • Increases clarity about the problem;
  • Leads to innovative breakthroughs and new approaches;
  • Clarifies underlying problems, facilitates change;
  • Focuses attention on main issues and leads to solutions;
  • Increases energy level; making visible key values;
  • Sharpens our approaches to bargaining, influencing and competing.
Potential negative outcomes of conflict
  • Leads to anger, avoidance, sniping, shouting, frustration, fear of failure,
  • sense of personal inadequacy;
  • Withholding of critical information;
  • Lowers productivity if conflict is wasteful:
  • Careers can be sidetracked;
  • Ruins relationships;
  • Disrupts patterns of work;
    Consumes huge amounts of time- leading to loss of productivity.

People constantly negotiate and resolve conflicts throughout all of their professional and personal lives. Given that organizations are becoming less hierarchical, less based on positional authority, less based on clear boundaries of responsibility and authority; it is likely that conflict will be an even greater component of organizations in the future. Studies have shown that negotiation skills are among the most significant determinants of career success. While negotiation is an art form to some degree, there are specific techniques that anyone can learn. Understanding these techniques and developing your skills will be a critical component of your career success and personal success.

Major Causes of Conflict
Opposing interests (or what we think are opposing interests) are at the core of most conflicts. In a modern complex society, we confront these situations many times a day. The modern organization adds a whole new group of potential causes of conflict that are already present:

  • Competition over scarce resources and time;
  • Ambiguity over responsibility and authority;
  • Differences in perceptions, work styles, attitudes, communication problems, individual differences;
  • Increasing interdependence as boundaries between individuals and groups become increasingly blurred;
  • Reward systems: we work in situations with complex and often contradictory incentive systems;
  • Differentiation: division of labor which is the basis for any organization causes people and groups to see situations differently and have different goals;
  • Equity vs. equality: continuous tension exists between equity (the belief that we should be rewarded relative to our relative contributions) and equality (the belief that
    everyone should receive the same or similar outcomes).

The Five Modes of Responding to Conflict

It is useful to categorize the various responses we have to conflict in terms of two dimensions:

  1. How important or unimportant it is to satisfy our needs.
  2. How important or unimportant it is to satisfy the other person's needs.
Answering these questions result in the following five modes of conflict resolution. None is these is "right" or "wrong". There are situations where any would be appropriate. For example, if we are cut off driving to work, we may decide "avoidance" is the best option. Other times "avoidance" may be a poor alternative. Similarly, collaboration may be appropriate sometimes but not at other times.

Reducing conflict that already exists

Organizations also take steps to reduce conflict. The following list suggests some of the ways that this can be done:

  • Physical separation;
  • Hierarchy (the boss decides);
  • Bureaucratic approaches (rules, procedures);
  • Integrators and third-party intervention;
  • Negotiation;
  • Rotating members;
  • Interdependent tasks and super-ordinate goals ("We are all in this together...");
  • Intergroup and interpersonal training.

  June 23, 2018
© Copyright 1996-2018 Gregory Kersten & The InterNeg Group
InterNeg Research Centre, Concordia University (Montreal)