How do you manage conflict?

The ability to manage conflict is undoubtedly one of the most important skills a manager needs to possess. A Study of middle and top level executives by the American Management Association revealed that the average manager spends approximately 20 percent of his or her time dealing with conflict. The importance of conflict management is reinforced by a survey of the topics managers consider most important in management development programs; conflict management was rated as more important than decision making leadership or communication skills.

Conflict: Perceived differences resulting in interference or opposition.

What is conflict management?

When we use the term conflict, we are referring to perceived differences resulting in some form of interference or opposition. Whether the differences are real is irrelevant. If people perceive differences then a conflict sate exists. In addition, our definition includes the extremes from subtle indirect and highly controlled forms of interference to overt acts such as strikes riots and wars.

Over the years three differing views have evolved toward conflict organizations.

Traditional view: The early approach assumed that conflict was bad and would always have a negative impact on an organization. Conflict became synonymous with violence destruction and irrationality. Because conflict as harmful, it was to be avoided. Management had a responsibility to rid the organization of conflict. This traditional view dominated management literature during the late nineteenth century and continued until the mid 1940s.

Human relations view: the human relations position argued that conflict was a natural an inevitable occurrence in all organizations. Because conflict was inevitable the human relations approach advocated acceptance of conflict. This approach rationalized the existence of conflict: conflict cannot be eliminated and at times it may even benefit the organization. The human relations view dominated conflict thinking from the late 1940s though the mid 1970s..

Integrationist view: The current theoretical perspective on conflict is the integrationist approach. Although the human relations approach accepts conflict, the integrationist approach encourages conflict on the grounds that a harmonious, peaceful tranquil and cooperative organization is prone to become static, apathetic and non-responsive to needs for change and innovation. The major contribution of the integrationist approach, therefore is that it encourages managers to maintain an ongoing minimum level of conflict enough to keep units viable, self critical and creative.

Can conflict be positive and negative?

The integrationist’s view does not propose that all conflicts is good. Rather, some conflicts support the goals of the organization; these functional conflicts are constructive in form. Dysfunctional conflicts are destructive in form and prevent an organization form achieving its goals.

Of course, it is one thing to argue that conflict can be valuable but how does a manger tell whether a conflict is functional or dysfunctional? Unfortunately the demarcation is neither clear nor precise. No one level of conflict can be adopted as acceptable or unacceptable under all conditions. The type and level of conflict that promote a healthy and positive involvement toward one department’s
Goal may, in another department or in the same department at another time, be highly dysfunctional. Functionality or dys-functionality therefore is a matter of judgment. Exhibit illustrates the challenge facing managers. They want to create an environment within their organization or organizational unit in which conflict is healthy but not allowed to run to pathological extremes. Neither too little nor too much conflict is desirable. Managers should stimulate conflict to gain the full benefits of its functional properties yet reduce its level when it becomes a disruptive force. Because we have yet to devise a sophisticated measuring instrument for assessing whether a given conflict level is functional or dysfunctional it remains for managers to make intelligent concerning whether conflict levels in their units are optimal too high or too low.

If conflict is dysfunctional what can a manager do? In the following sections, we review conflict resolutions skills. Essentially you need to know your basic conflict handling style as well as those of the conflicting parties to understand situation that has created the conflict and to be aware of your options.