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  • Managing people

When Is Conflict at Work a Good Thing?

How it can be a great driving force for change



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Insights from Dr Veronica Burke, Director of the Cranfield General Management Programme

Conflict is an inevitable part of organizational life – just as it plays out inevitably all around us in the natural world. And just as in the natural world, it’s not altogether a negative thing – rather it can be a great driving force for change.

In organizations, a good manager can have the opportunity to measure and moderate conflict, to make sure it is a driver for positive change - with significant benefits up for grabs if the right balance is achieved.

As Dr Veronica Burke says, “The effects of too much conflict include decreased communication between conflicting parties, escalation of aggression and negative stereotyping which can lead to a deterioration of working relationships. On the other hand, too little conflict can mean that groups and individuals reach decisions which have failed to take into account vital pieces of information, causing apathy and complacency.”

She adds, “Moderate levels of conflict can bring significant benefits. In fact, conflict can be a significant driver of change. Properly handled, it can help people to be more innovative, build effective teams and improve performance.”

Burke says the modern manager now requires “capabilities similar to those of a trained negotiator.”

Burke cites Thomas and Kilmann’s ‘five styles of conflict handling’, that can help people understand how different approaches to managing differences may impact upon interpersonal and group dynamics:

Competing: Assertive and uncooperative - when an individual pursues their concerns at the expense of others.
Accommodating: Unassertive and cooperative - the individual neglects their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person.
Avoiding: Unassertive and uncooperative – the person neither pursues their own concerns nor those of the other individual.
Collaborating: Assertive and cooperative - an attempt to work with others to find a solution that satisfies the concerns of both parties.
Compromising: Moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. The objective is to find a solution by giving up some aspect of what one or both parties want.

As Burke says, “Accomplished conflict handling requires sound decision making processes to accumulate knowledge about the conflict and the parties involved and the ability to utilise (and flex) the style of approach depending on the situation.

However, most of us have a preferred way of dealing with conflict. When under pressure – or faced with a strong emotional reaction – we are more likely to revert to one or two favourite styles which may be much less effective than utilising the full range.

It is worth remembering that conflict situations are dynamic in nature. They shift and change direction, depending on the behaviours of the conflicting parties. Playing out ‘what if’ scenarios is a useful way of anticipating and managing conflicts in order to achieve the most productive outcome for all concerned.”

Burke has developed the following set of reflective questions that are shown to help managers think critically about their behaviours in conflict, and over time, develop their capability to achieve productive outcomes:

1) What happened and why was the conflict significant for you?
2) What are the possible sources of the conflict?
3) What did you do and why?
4) What were the consequences of the approach you adopted?
5) If you were to encounter the same situation again, what could you do differently to improve the outcome?

“Try and identify patterns across situations”, Burke suggests – “do you tend to adopt a similar approach no matter what the conflict issue? To what extent can you stand back from the emotional dimension? Do you take time to evaluate some of the important variables inherent in the situation and how predictable is your conflict handling behaviour?”

By reflecting on past conflicts, and learning from them – managers can gain the capabilities of Burke’s “skilled negotiator”, and moderate conflict types and levels to improve organizational performance.

Dr Veronica Burke is Director of the Cranfield General Management Programme.

The programme is designed around the following outcomes:

• Greater ability to understand the strategic issues facing your business
• The capability to ensure your role and function adds maximum value to the strategy of the business
• A clear picture of your leadership profile and how you can support strategic change across the business
• Skills to help you to be more influential, up and across the business

Transforming knowledge into action through the unique Cranfield Experience





 
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