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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
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
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,
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
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
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
remedies would be to further elaborate job
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
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 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
carry information to the manager about
what is not working in
an organization, affording the opportunity
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
than destroying people and organizations.
So, the task is to manage
conflict, and avoid what we call "the
is allowed to eat away at team
cohesiveness and productivity.
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
there is a good deal of private bitching and complaining but
little attempt to fix
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.
In future articles we
will look at what you can do to proactively
manage conflict to increase
the probability that positive
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 --
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
Everyone knows you have conflict, and if you
seem oblivious, you also
seem dense and out of touch.
Ugly #2: Administrative
means keeping appeals for change or
redress always "under
consideration". While nonaction suggests
obliviousness since it
doesn't even acknowledge the problem,
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
Ugly #3: Secrecy
A common means of avoiding
conflict (or repressing it) is to be
can be done by employees and managers. The
notion is that if nobody
knows what you are doing, there can be
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
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
The notion that conflict
should be avoided is one of the major
contributors to the growth
of destructive conflict in 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
administrative orbiting, secrecy and law and