Managing Conflict Constructively:The Nature of Conflict! (initially published Fall 1998)

Although people may dream of complete peace and harmony amongst nations, family members and organizational departments, conflict will probably always be with us. Our earliest legends, formed before recorded history, dealt with classic conflicts – between brothers, Cain and Abel, between marriage partners, Adam and Eve, and between authorities and subordinates, God and Adam. There is no prospect that conflict will ever be removed from this world. However, that is not necessarily cause for despair or even disappointment.

Conflict has a bad name due to the sort of implication and meaning derived from the examples above. Yet, there could have been no advances in civilization without conflict. Without conflict between Martin Luther and his Church, the seeds of the Protestant Ethic might never have been sown, and the drive to innovate and achieve might not have become part of today’s culture. Without the more recent conflict between England’s George III and his overseas colonies in the New World, Canada and the United States might not exist.

Earlier in this century scholars and theorists told managers that they must strive to eliminate conflict within the organization, to create organizations where harmony reigned and in which lions coexisted peacefully with the lambs. But such advice was misguided. Conflict may be dysfunctional, even damning for an organization. However, we now know that the lack of conflict can be just as bad as too much. There are two faces to conflict. The one that usually comes to mind first is the grim visage of discord. The other, however, is not a mask of composure and harmony but the creative aspect of performance and achievement. Little in history or in modern organizations is attained without the constructive management of conflict.

Three crucial steps must betaken to manage conflict constructively:

• First is the understanding of the patterns and appearances of conflict – how it looks when it rears its ugly head – and knowing what the options and alternatives are for dealing with conflict.
• Second is assessing and understanding one’s own natural or most typical approach to dealing with conflict.
• Third and most difficult is developing the skills and methods needed to apply effectively one’s knowledge of how to make conflict work in constructive ways.

The old saying goes, “When life hands you a lemon, try making lemonade.” The idea is to turn a problem into an advantage by dealing with it directly and creativity. Conflicts present us with similar opportunities for creativity. What is more, they come with greater resources: two heads can be better than one – if both minds are directed toward solving a mutual problem rather than toward defeating one another, ignoring the problem, avoiding it, or settling for a less than satisfactory outcome.

There is no shortage of advice for dealing with conflict. The best conditions for managing conflict constructively are found in organizations characterized by trust, collaboration and an integrative cycle of mutual problem solving. Needless to say, such conditions are rare. Like most people, most organizations are less than perfect. Yet despite personal and organizational flaws, we can improve. If we cannot improve the whole organization we can start with a division or a department or perhaps just a few interpersonal relationships. Improvements count, whenever they are made. With a willingness to try some new skills and techniques, it is quite possible to alter one pattern’s of conflict management and to succeed in managing conflict constructively,

How to deal with Conflict

To handle conflict among team members:
• Ask those who disagree to paraphrase one another’s comments. This may help them learn if they really understand one another
• Work out a settlement. Agree on the underlying source of conflict, then engage in give and take and finally agree on a solution.
• Ask each member to list what the other side should do. Exchange lists, select concessions all are willing to accept, and test the settlement to see if it fits with the team goals.
• Have the sides each write 10 questions for their opponents. This will allow them to signal their major concerns about the other side’s position. And the answers may lead to an agreed upon solution.
• Convince employees they sometimes may have to admit they are wrong. Help them save face by convincing them that changing a position may well show strength.
• Respect the experts on the team. Give their opinions more weight when the conflict involves their expertise, but do not rule out conflicting opinions.

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