Tony Alessandra and Phil Hunsaker (Citation: 2005)
By allowing you to identify sources of conflict, this report will help you understand how to encourage healthy disagreement without spiraling down into a negative conflict.
EN: In all, I'm undecided about the value of the material that follows. I don't think the author has done quite enough development or consideration and, in some instances, is not contributing anything that is no self-evident. While I accept his intentions are to provide advice for effectively but gently managing conflict, sometimes it borders on (or outright advocates) passive-aggressive and manipulative patterns of behavior, and as such should be regarded with some discretion.
EN: For better treatment of the same topic, see Mastering Business Negotiation.
The Nature of Conflict
The term "conflict" has a negative connotation, and most people seek to avoid it in both their professional and personal lives. However, conflict is a natural element of human interaction - there are few instances in which all involved are in complete agreement - and the most productive goal is not one of avoidance, but of seeking resolution. The author also mentions the emotional component, in which an individual becomes locked into a position from which they refuse to budge.
EN: the author suggests conflict would not occur only in an "Orwellian world where all of our minds and emotions work in perfect unison." That's not an accurate interpretation on Orwell, who depicts a world in which people are motivated out of fear to accept the demands of central authority without question or objection. But it occurs to me he is unintentionally correct: people who are made to accept the will of a dominant authority (a totalitarian government, an abusive parent, a corrupt bureaucrat) generally have no conflict among themselves ... which is something to be acutely aware of in any action where everyone seems to be in agreement.
The negative side of conflict results from a failure of cooperation: the parties cannot come to an agreement, tension ignites. This destroys the working relationship and ensures that the decision made does not reflect consensus. The positive side of conflict is a careful consideration of alternatives, arriving at a solution that has been considered by a number of individuals and concluded to be the most productive (or acceptable) outcome.
Conflict is central to organizations, which depend on a group of people working together to achieve a common purpose that capitalizes on their combined expertise. It is not necessarily a competitive event in which some parties "win" at the expense of others, but a process by which people collaborate toward a common end that benefits the organization as a whole.
The get more concrete, the author provides a working definition of a conflict: a situation in which two or more people have a disagreement driven by a clash of goals, perceptions, and/or values and seek to .arrive at a conclusion acceptable to all involved.
The author lists a handful of common sources of conflict within organization:
- Areas of Authority - Instances in which the authority to make a decision is unclear (or when one party attempts to encroach upon the area of another).
- Resources - Instances in which multiple parties require use of limited resources (such as budget) and each considers its needs to be greatest.
- Interests - An instance in which a decision or course of action that serves the interests of one party is counterproductive or harmful to the interests of others.
- Communication - The inability of one party to communicate with others, most commonly due either to lack of skill, lack of interest, or the presence of obstacles to communication
- Interdependency - To accomplish a goal requires the participation and assistance of others who may not be interested in pursuing the goal
- Increased Interaction - Workers in one department or division come into contact with those in another (which is an increasing trend) discover sources of conflict
- Competition - As with resources, there may be a limited supply of rewards (such as promotions or recognition) and individuals and departments must vie for them
The Four Phases of Conflict
The author refers to another source (Loius Pondy), who identifies four "phases" of conflict:
- Latent - In any instances where multiple parties work cooperatively, there is a potential for conflict to arise, especially when any change to the environment or their work occurs
- Perceived - When a potential conflict is identified by one or more members of the group. This is where tension begins
- Felt - The parties identify their differences and are preparing for the conflict, often becoming emotionally entrenched in their positions
- Manifest - When the conflict begins, and parties act upon their plans to achieve for themselves and discomfit others.
As a conflict proceeds through the stages, people become more locked into their positions and a win-lose mentality, making the conflict harder to resolve. Hence, the need to recognize and address conflict early.
Strategies for Managing Conflict
The author lists some strategies for managing conflict, suggesting that each has advantages and disadvantages, and deciding on a course largely depends on the conflict, the players, and their environment.
- Avoidance - A refusal to confront the problem. The author suggests that the problem remains unsolved and frustration grows among the parties.
- Accommodation - One of the parties simply "gives in" to the other without working through the conflict. This is generally the position taken by a "loser" in a competitive situation, though it implies they have chosen not to compete and, instead, capitulate to the other party. The "winner" gets what they want, the resolution happens quickly, but this does not mean that the outcome is the best possible, and generally the relationship has been harmed.. Also, the latent conflict remains and could resurface.
- Domination - This is roughly the same as accommodation, though from the perception of the "winner" who has forced others to accommodate him as a result of his power over them.
- Compromise - The parties discuss the situation and arrive at a position that both can accept, generally be separating the conflict according to its components and agreeing to acquiesce on certain facets in exchange for acquiescence on others
- Collaboration - The parties work together to arrive at a resolution that accomplishes the goals and serves the interests of each. This generally requires a great deal of discussion and thought to "discover" a solution that is mutually acceptable.
EN: This seems a bit omissive, and seems to be loaded to drive the conclusion that collaboration is always the best solution, and that collaboration is always possible, which is naive.
Four Basic Components of Collaboration
The author suggests that there are four "components" or requirements for collaboration:
- Understanding and respect. Each of the parties must attempt to understand the position and interests of the others and be willing to accept it as a priority
- Assertiveness - Each party must be willing to put its own interests on the table, and expect them to be valued by the other.
- Problem-Solving. The parties must engage in a problem-solving approach that seeks an innovative solution that will enable all goals and interests to be served.
- Confrontation - Each party must be willing to confront the conflict
EN: This likewise seems in need of further development: the topics seem to overlap and the descriptions are hazy at best. The author suggests a need for the two parties to present their interests, accept the interests of the other, and work together for a common solution, in a manner both honest and earnest.
The Confrontation Continuum
A bit more on "confrontation" - the author means an open discussion of the interests of both parties and the process of identifying where they can work together for a common solution, in a non-competitive way. The author provides a number of "strategies" to make confrontation a positive experience.
- Exposition - Each party expresses its own needs and objectives to the other (EN: The author uses the "I-Statement" model from pop psychology, which is a bit hokey)
- Reflection - A stage in which each party attempts to understands the needs and interests of the other, generally by gathering information from them.
- Diplomacy - A stage in which the parties attempt to address the matters on which they disagree
- Confrontation - Each party attempts to convince the other to change its position to accommodate their needs (EN: the author provides some examples, but it smells a lot like passive-aggressive competition and domination tactics to me)
When it comes to making changes, it's an important note that people generally are willing to change behaviors when they perceive a benefit to themselves, so attempt to express the benefit of a change or an action in terms of the benefit to the other party rather than yourself (EN: this seems a bit manipulative and disingenuous).
The author also provides a few random tips: ensuring that the other party is open to discussion (an example is given of "bad timing"), focusing on the present and the future (rather than the past), and being open to discussing the emotional portent (the example, again, seems a bit like passive-aggressive behavior: your behavior makes me "feel" a certain way, and therefore you should change it).
Of importance is to face confrontations. Some reasons cited for avoidance are uncertainty over outcome, the emotional reaction of others, a refusal to compromise on one's own position, or social rejection by the individual or others.
A danger area is in the assumptions we make based on our beliefs about the values and interests of others. In many instances, a statement about another person's character (that they are lazy, ignorant, dishonest, etc.) is the result of a person's neglect to consider what the interests and motivations of others might be. Beyond the problem of professionalism, adopting such a mindset prevents more productive consideration and negotiation.
Strategies to Avoid
The author lists a number of strategies (more like tactics, or behaviors) to avoid, as they tend to escalate rather than resolve conflict:
Minimization is the dismissal of a concern as being unimportant. It can take the form of a sarcastic remark to dismiss it or simply a statement that the concern is not important, most commonly with the substitution of another concern that is more important (e.g., ignore quality, we need to hit our deadline).
Blame is common in organizational politics, either to escape blame for the situation or to mitigate the blame if the outcome of the present action is unsatisfactory. Blame focuses on the past, which is never productive.
"Unloading" is a common behavior when people have worked together repeatedly - issues that are not germane to the current conflict are dragged onto the table. This may be a tactic to win a concession or muddle the issue at hand with unrelated ones.
The "low blow" is a tactic to elicit an emotional response to cloud another party's judgment, generally done to provoke an emotional reaction that will damage their credibility. IT generally takes the form of a personal attack.
Manipulation is the use of threats or concessions that are not germane to the issue at hand in order to control the behavior of others (a manager mentioning an upcoming personnel review when trying to convince an employee to work late).
Force is a demand that is stated with conviction, and the other party is meant to concede without argument or discussion. It is commonly done by those in positions of authority, but can often be pulled off by anyone who can speak with conviction.
Conflict Resolution Behaviors
The author lists a number of behaviors that will help resolve conflict "in almost any situation you encounter"
- Openness - Being direct and honest in expressing yourself to others, and making no attempt to conceal or misrepresent your intentions
- Empathy - Making a genuine effort to understand what the other party is "feeling" so that you can understand their position and demonstrating this sincerity
- Supportiveness - Being supportive of the goals of others rather than merely focusing on your own objectives
- Positivity - Looking primarily for areas of agreements and focusing on what is possible rather than dwelling on the disagreements and issues that cannot be resolved
- Equality - Treating the other parties, their ideas, and their opinions as being of equal weight as your own and getting beyond the mine/yours division of priorities
The author merely restates his thesis: that a conflict is a form of "healthy disagreement" that, if handled appropriately, can lead to a positive outcome and a better relationship with the parties involved. It is worth considering even when the conflict is "small," because that lays a foundation for greater cooperation when a more serious conflict arises.