Conflict & Cooperation In The
One topic that is of interest to
most people in the workplace is conflict; how it works,
how to avoid it, and how to deal with it when it occurs.
It is indeed the rare organization that doesn't have to
face the issue of conflict, and how to harness it
so that it produces positive results rather than destruction.
In this article, we are going to
look at some important elements of conflict, how it escalates
over time, and suggest a few general strategies for dealing
Two Types of Conflict
In the workplace (and almost any setting), you are likely
to find two forms of conflict. The first is conflict about
decisions, ideas, directions and actions. We will call this
"substantive conflict" since it deals with disagreements
about the substance of issues. The second form, "personalized
conflict" is often called a personality conflict.
In this form, the two parties simply "don't like each
Substantive conflict can occur on just about any
issue, but its moving force is that the two parties simply
disagree about an issue. This can be a good thing or a bad
thing. Handled correctly parties in conflict can create,
for themselves and those around them, the ability to resolve
an issue with something creative, something better than
either party's original position. Let's look at an example.
A branch manager and a staff member
are in conflict over work hours. The branch manager expects
all staff to work standard hours, beginning at 8:00 am so
that the public will receive service startingfirst thing
in the morning. The staff member wants to begin work at
9:00 am, because he has child careresponsibilities. On several
occasions the staff member has arrived late, which makes
it appear to the manager that the employee is being deliberately
unwilling to follow the rules.
Rather than the situation deteriorating,
the parties approach the situation, not as one that should
be won, but with an eye on solving a problem. After discussing
the situation, (and understanding each other's needs), they
realize that a) almost no customers call in the early morning
b) the few that do can be handled by other staff who like
to be in at 8:00, and b) there are more customers calling
in between 4:00 and 5:00 pm. The parties agree that it makes
sense to modify work hours. The result: a happier employee
and better service.
The benefits would never have occurred
if this conflict hadn't occurred, or if either party played
the situation as if it was a game to be one by one person
or the other. (Did anybody really lose in this situation?).
While substantive conflict, if handled correctly, can be
very productive, personalized conflict is almost never a
good thing. There are several reasons. First personalized
conflict is fuelled primarily by emotion (usually anger,
frustration) and perceptions about someone else's
personality, character or motives. When conflict is personalized
and extreme each party acts as if the other is suspect as
a person. Second, because personalized conflict is
about emotion and not issues, problem solving almost never
works, because neither party is really interested in solving
a problem...in fact, in extreme cases, the parties go out
of their ways to create new ones, imagined or real. Third,
personalized conflicts almost always get worse over time,
if they cannot be converted to substantive conflict. That
is because each person expects problems, looks for them,
finds them, and gets angrier.
Let's look at the previous example
but change the way the situation was handled.
When the branch manager approached
the staff member about the tardiness, he showed his irritation
plainly. The staff member, already feeling under the gun,
felt that the manager was being unfair, and accusatory,
and became defensive. This, in turn, resulted in the manager
"laying down the law", andthat was how the situation
was left. After the discussion, the manager felt the employee
was lazy and making excuses, while the employee felt the
boss was out to get him.
Not surprisingly, the situation got
worse. Even when the staff member was a few minutes late,
for good reason, the boss jumped on him like a "ton
of bricks". The employee, angered and frustrated, started
taking longer coffee breaks and was away "sick"
more frequently. The situation became increasingly polarized,
with other people being sucked in, and taking sides, privately.
Oddly enough, the initial perceptions
of both bossand employee became the truth. After a while
the boss acted as if he was out to get the employee, and
the employee acted as if he was lazy and uncaring. The original
issue was all but forgotten, as the parties developed an
intense dislike of each other.
When involved in a conflict situation, it is important that
you are aware of whether you and the other party are dealing
with a substantive conflict or a personalized one. It isn't
always easy to tell them apart, and it is difficult to look
honestly at oneself. Ask yourself the following questions:
Do I dislike the other person or
get frustrated with him/her?
Do I see the other person as untrustworthy,
and undeserving of respect?
Is my emotional reaction to the conflict
appropriate to it's seriousness or lack thereof?
Do I really want to "win"?
If the answer to any of these question
is yes, you may be setting yourself up for a personalized
conflict that nobody can win in the long term.
With respect to the other person,
one good indicator of a personalized conflict situation
is that the person will try to counter your substantive
point on the issue with a series of DIFFERENT reasons why
you are wrong. For example, let's look at the following
Manager: We can't have you come in
at 9:00 am because we need to answer the phones.
Employee: That makes sense, but I
checked and we get only one or two calls between 8:00 and
9:00 but we get between ten and twenty calls in the later
Manager: Well, maybe, but if you
come in later, then soon everyone else will want to...
Note that in this case, the manager
isn't really problem solving, but trying to find reasons
to refuse the request, either because he doesn't "like"
the other person, or for some other emotional reason we
don't know about.
Move To Substantive Issues
Even in situations where both you and the other party have
personalized the conflict, you can work to focus on specific
issues. You have not direct control over another person,
but you have control over yourself. By moving to the issues,
and staying there, you will also encourage the other person
to do so.
It isn't easy, of course. The trick
is to try to put aside your negative perceptions about the
other person, and not to dwell on them. That's an internal
thing. Every time you think to yourself "what an idiot"(or
all the other negative things), you make it that more difficult
to stay focused on problem- solving, rather than winning,
or getting your own way.
Work To Prevent Personalization
It is rare that personalization occurs just on the basis
of two incompatible personalities. Usually, personalization
occurs because conflict on substantive issues is handled
badly. That is, one or both parties behaves in non-cooperative