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Organizational Conflict - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly  (Article) 
 
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Organizational Conflict - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly 

In my work with public sector managers and supervisors, the issue 
that generates the most emotion, and frustrated comments, is 
conflict within the organization.  We generally do not look at 
conflict as opportunity -- we tend to think about conflict as 
unpleasant, counter-productive and time-consuming.  Conflict that 
occurs in organizations need not be destructive, provided the 
energy associated with conflict is harnessed and directed towards 
problem-solving and organizational improvement.  However, 
managing conflict effectively requires that all parties 
understand the nature of conflict in the workplace. 

In this first part of our organizational conflict series, we are 
going to discuss several views of conflict.  In later issues of 
The Public Sector Manager we will return to the topic with more 
specific tips on how organizational conflict can be directed to 
achieve positive ends. 
 

Two Views:  The Good, The Bad 

There are two ways of looking at organizational conflict.  Each 
of these ways is linked to a different set of assumptions about 
the purpose and function of organizations. 
 

The Bad 

The dysfunctional view of organizational conflict is imbedded in 
the notion that organizations are created to achieve goals by 
creating structures that perfectly define job responsibilities, 
authorities, and other job functions.  Like a clockwork watch, 
each "cog" knows where it fits, knows what it must do and knows 
how it relates to other parts.  This traditional view of 
organizations values orderliness, stability and the repression of 
any conflict that occurs.  Using the timepiece analogy we can see 
the sense in this.  What would happen to time-telling if the 
gears in our traditional watches decided to become less 
traditional, and re-define their roles in the system? 

To the "traditional" organizational thinker, conflict implies 
that the organization is not designed or structured correctly or 
adequately.  Common remedies would be to further elaborate job 
descriptions, authorities and responsibilities, increase the use 
of central power (discipline), separate conflicting members, etc. 
 

This view of organizations and conflict causes problems. 
Unfortunately, most of us, consciously or unconsciously, value 
some of the characteristics of this "orderly" environment. 
Problems arise when we do not realize that this way of looking at 
organizations and conflict only fits organizations that work in 
routine ways where innovation and change are virtually 
eliminated.  Virtually all government organizations work within a 
very disorderly context -- one characterized by constant change 
and a need for constant adaptation.  Trying to "structure away" 
conflict and disagreement in a dynamic environment requires 
tremendous amounts of energy, and will also suppress any positive 
outcomes that may come from disagreement, such as improved 
decision-making and innovation. 
 

The Good 

The functional view of organizational conflict sees conflict as a 
productive force, one that can stimulate members of the 
organization to increase their knowledge and skills, and their 
contribution to organizational innovation and productivity. 
Unlike the position mentioned above, this more modern approach 
considers that the keys to organization success lie not in 
structure, clarity and orderliness, but in creativity, 
responsiveness and adaptability.  The successful organization, 
then, NEEDS conflict so that diverging views can be put on the 
table, and new ways of doing things can be created. 

The functional view of conflict also suggests that conflict 
provides people with feedback about how things are going.  Even 
"personality conflicts" carry information to the manager about 
what is not working in an organization, affording the opportunity 
to improve. 
 

If you subscribe to a flexible vision of effective organizations, 
and recognize that each conflict situation provides opportunity 
to improve, you then shift your view of conflict.  Rather than 
trying to eliminate conflict, or suppress its symptoms, your task 
becomes managing conflict so that it enhances people and 
organizations, rather than destroying people and organizations. 

So, the task is to manage conflict, and avoid what we call "the 
ugly"....where conflict is allowed to eat away at team 
cohesiveness and productivity. 
 

The Ugly 

We have the good (conflict is positive), the bad (conflict is to 
be avoided), and now we need to address the ugly.  Ugly occurs 
where the manager (and perhaps employees) attempt to eliminate or 
suppress conflict in situations where it is impossible to do so. 
You know you have ugly in your organization when: 

.       many conflicts run for years 
.       people have given up on resolving and addressing conflict 
problems 
.       there is a good deal of private bitching and complaining but 
little attempt to fix the problem 
.       staff show little interest in working to common goals, but 
spend more time and energy on protecting themselves 

When we get "ugly" occurring in organizations, there is a 
tendency to look to the manager or formal leader as being 
responsible for the mess.  In fact, that is how most employees 
would look at the situation.  It is true that managers and 
supervisors play critical roles in determining how conflict is 
handled in the organization, but it is also true that the 
avoidance of ugliness must be a shared responsibility. 
Management and employees must work together in a cooperative way 
to reduce the ugliness, and increase the likelihood that conflict 
can be channeled into an effective force for change. 
 

Ugly Strategies 

In future articles we will look at what you can do to proactively 
manage conflict to increase the probability that positive 
outcomes occur.  Right now, let's look at some common strategies 
that result in the increase of ugly conflict. 

Most of the ugly strategies used by managers, employees, and 
organizations as a whole are based on the repression of conflict 
in one way or another.  We need to point that, in general, you 
want to avoid these approaches like the plague. 

Ugly #1: Nonaction 

The most common repressive management strategy is nonaction -- 
doing nothing.  Now, sometimes, doing nothing is a smart thing to 
do, provided the decision to do nothing is well thought out and 
based on an analysis of the situation.  Most of the time, people 
"do nothing" about conflict situations for other reasons, such as 
fear of bringing conflict into view, or discomfort with anger. 

Unfortunately, doing nothing generally results in conflict 
escalating, and sets a tone for the organization..."we don't have 
conflict here".  Everyone knows you have conflict, and if you 
seem oblivious, you also seem dense and out of touch. 

Ugly #2: Administrative Orbiting 

Administrative orbiting means keeping appeals for change or 
redress always "under consideration".  While nonaction suggests 
obliviousness since it doesn't even acknowledge the problem, 
orbiting acknowledges the problem, but avoids dealing with it. 
The manager who uses orbiting will say things like "We are 
dealing with the problem", but the problem never gets addressed. 
Common stalls include: collecting more data, documenting 
performance, cancelling meetings, etc. 
 

Ugly #3:  Secrecy 

A common means of avoiding conflict (or repressing it) is to be 
secretive.  This can be done by employees and managers.  The 
notion is that if nobody knows what you are doing, there can be 
little conflict.  If you think about this for a moment, you will 
realize its absurdity.  By being secretive you may delay conflict 
and confrontation, but when it does surface it will have far more 
negative emotions attached to it than would have been the case if 
things were more open. 

Ugly #4:  Law and Order 

The final "ugly strategy".  Normally this strategy is used by 
managers who mistakenly think that they can order people to not 
be in conflict.  Using regulations, and power, the person using 
the approach "leans on" people to repress the outward 
manifestations of conflict. 

Of course, this doesn't make conflict go away, it just sends it 
scuttling to the underground, where it will grow and increase its 
destructive power. 
 

Conclusion 

The notion that conflict should be avoided is one of the major 
contributors to the growth of destructive conflict in the 
workplace.  The "bad" view of conflict is associated with a 
vision of organizational effectiveness that is no longer valid 
(and perhaps never was).  Conflict can be directed and managed so 
that it causes both people and organizations to grow, innovate 
and improve.  However, this requires that conflict not be 
repressed, since attempts to repress are more likely to generate 
very ugly situations.  Common repression strategies to be avoided 
are:  nonaction, administrative orbiting, secrecy and law and 
order. 
 
 
 

 
 
 
  

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