First Things First
The workplace of the emerging century is a place of great complexity, high expectations and emotional demands. People are engaged in efforts to be more productive with fewer staff resources, squeezing all they can from their tools and themselves. In this context, it is reasonable that people have conflicts. What is unreasonable is that businesses and public agencies tend to respond to such situations by avoiding them, allowing them to fester for months or years, only to lose valuable productivity from workers at all levels of the organization.
Our work here focuses on such organizations, and on the people who staff them. Our effort is to help identify factors that may be most useful in easing the pain of conflict, finding effective responses so those involved in disputes can resolve their issues, build more successful working relationships and accomplish their shared tasks together. Our effort also focuses on how the organization or company itself may enhance or inhibit effective responses, through its structures, disputes settlement systems and commitment to staff hiring and training practices. In total, this is a look at how people may resolve their differences in the workplace, working it out together.
There are several insights that serve as foundations to our work. They are important to understand at the beginning of this discussion, for they serve as foundational concepts for the skills and strategies developed in this book.
1. Conflict is a normal element of organization life. Disputes are (generally) not caused by "bad" people who are trying to be "difficult." Rather, they result from people with good intentions having differing ideas about how to accomplish shared goals, disagreements over which goals are worth attaining, and threats to livelihood, productivity, resources, power and dignity that result from such disagreements.
2. Conflicts occur because people perceive threats to their needs, interests or concerns. If the impacts of conflicts are to be minimized or managed, such threats must be understood. Involved parties must be given opportunities to air their concerns and know they are heard and respected. Strategies for effectively meeting these needs must be explored, within honest, yet realistic parameters of organization life, so problems can be genuinely solved.
3. Conflicts are, to a great extent, predictable within the conditions of organization life. Certain times of year, project cycles, stress factors, mixes of project groups, personalities, etc. help create conditions that often result in conflictive situations. These types of issues arise with great regularity, through no fault of the individuals involved. Therefore, the more we can understand such conditions, the better we may predict conflicts likely to arise.
4. In order to effectively manage conflict, all parties must be treated with respect by the organization and by those who seek to resolve the conflict. When respect for the concerns of the other person, or empathy, is offered, the other person's response is to reduce some of the defensiveness and hostility that typically occurs in conflict. Conversely, if attacks are personalized, voices raised, threats escalated, the response of the other person is to mirror this escalation. If conflicts are to be managed, opportunities for all parties to behave in a more respectful manner must be fostered by leadership throughout the organization and by those most directly involved in the dispute.
5. In developing solutions to workplace conflicts, there should be a focus on the future, rather than the past. However, there is frequently a need to understand the past, especially its emotional elements, before proceeding to finding solutions that meet future needs. Finding the balance between clarifying how we got here and developing strategies for where we must go is central to the art of conflict management. While there may be differing perceptions of the events leading to this moment, if we can agree on where we want to go, this can be constructive in the process of letting go of past "gunk."
6. The needs of the conflict, usually defined within work contexts as "substantive" issues, are always defined more broadly by the parties. Frequently, procedural and psychological issues are crucial, and must be negotiated as components of the problem at hand. Indeed, emotional resistance to offers to "sit down and work out the problem" are often dismissed as issues that "cloud the real issue." In fact, the psychological and procedural needs of the parties are the issue, for many people. Therefore, we must remain flexible regarding our definition of the problem to be solved.
Adapted from workship materials developed by Harry Webne-Behrman, ©2004, added to this site in March 2008.
We define conflict as a disagreement through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. Within this simple definition there are several important understandings that emerge:
Disagreement - Generally, we are aware there is some level of difference in the positions of the two (or more) parties involved in the conflict. But the true disagreement versus the perceived disagreement may be quite different from one another. In fact, conflict tends to be accompanied by significant levels of misunderstanding that exaggerate the perceived disagreement considerably. If we can understand the true areas of disagreement, this will help us solve the right problems and manage the true needs of the parties.
Parties involved - There are often disparities in our sense of who is involved in the conflict. Sometimes, people are surprised to learn they are parties to the conflict, while other times they are shocked to learn they are not included in the disagreement. On many occasions, people who are seen as part of the social system (e.g., work team, family, company) are influenced to participate in the dispute, whether they would personally define the situation in that way or not. In many offices and work teams, people very readily "take sides" based upon current perceptions of the issues, past issues and relationships, roles within the organization, and other factors. The parties involved can become an elusive concept to define.
Perceived threat - People respond to the perceived threat, rather than the true threat facing them. Thus, while perception doesn't become reality per se, people's behaviors, feelings and ongoing responses become modified by that evolving sense of the threat they confront. If we can work to understand the true threat (issues) and develop strategies (solutions) that manage it (agreement), we are acting constructively to manage the conflict.
Needs, interests or concerns - There is a tendency to narrowly define "the problem" as one of substance, task, and near-term viability. However, workplace conflicts tend to be far more complex than that, for they involve ongoing relationships with complex, emotional components. Simply stated, there are always procedural needs and psychological needs to be addressed within the conflict, in addition to the substantive needs that are generally presented. The durability of the interests and concerns of the parties transcends the immediate presenting situation. Any efforts to resolve conflicts effectively must take these points into account.
So, is it still a simple definition of conflict? We think so, but we must respect that within its elegant simplicity lies a complex set of issues to address. Therefore, it is not surprising that satisfactory resolution of most conflicts can prove so challenging and time consuming to address.
Conflicts occur when people (or other parties) perceive that, as a consequence of a disagreement, there is a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. Although conflict is a normal part of organization life, providing numerous opportunities for growth through improved understanding and insight, there is a tendency to view conflict as a negative experience caused by abnormally difficult circumstances. Disputants tend to perceive limited options and finite resources available in seeking solutions, rather than multiple possibilities that may exist 'outside the box' in which we are problem-solving.
A few points are worth reiterating before proceeding:
A conflict is more than a mere disagreement - it is a situation in which people perceive a threat (physical, emotional, power, status, etc.) to their well-being. As such, it is a meaningful experience in people's lives, not to be shrugged off by a mere, "it will pass…"
Participants in conflicts tend to respond on the basis of their perceptions of the situation, rather than an objective review of it. As such, people filter their perceptions (and reactions) through their values, culture, beliefs, information, experience, gender, and other variables. Conflict responses are both filled with ideas and feelings that can be very strong and powerful guides to our sense of possible solutions.
As in any problem, conflicts contain substantive, procedural, and psychological dimensions to be negotiated. In order to best understand the threat perceived by those engaged in a conflict, we need to consider all of these dimensions.
Conflicts are normal experiences within the work environment. They are also, to a large degree, predictable and expectable situations that naturally arise as we go about managing complex and stressful projects in which we are significantly invested. As such, if we develop procedures for identifying conflicts likely to arise, as well as systems through which we can constructively manage conflicts, we may be able to discover new opportunities to transform conflict into a productive learning experience.
Creative problem-solving strategies are essential to positive approaches to conflict management. We need to transform the situation from one in which it is 'my way or the highway' into one in which we entertain new possibilities that have been otherwise elusive.
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