Conflict is present in every office and home environment. In some cases, it is minimal and causes low doses of stress. In other cases, it may cause some individuals physical ailments. Understanding the nature of conflict, and how to deal with it properly, could serve to improve those relationships that are affected by it.
What is Conflict?
First, a definition of conflict is in order. Stephen Robbins, in the University of Phoenix textbook on Organizational Behavior (Organizational Behavior, Ninth Edition, 2001), defines conflict as “a process in which an effort is purposely made by A to offset the efforts of B by some form of blocking that will result in frustrating B in attaining his or her goals or furthering his or her interest.”
Theorists have identified three basic types of conflict—traditional, human relations, and interactionist. These three types of conflict have evolved over time.
The traditional view of conflict saw conflict in a negative light. The traditional view felt that conflict was a result of a malfunction as was to be avoided. Conflict is a word commonly used in the military when referring to a battle or a war. Conflict in this context stimulates competition and the notion of a win/lose outcome. This type of view results in negative reactions and stifles innovation and change.
As defined by the University of Bradford’s website dedicated to conflict resolution (http://www.brad.ac.uk/acad/confres/dislearn/unit1.html), this type of conflict can be broken down into two additional categories–armed conflict and violent conflict or deadly conflict.
The human relations view argues that conflict is inevitable. Thus, conflict should be accepted. It has also been viewed as a stimulus for group improvement. With this in mind, conflict was no longer considered an enemy, but more like a stray cat that would not leave but instead became a family conversation piece.
The interactionist view sees conflict as a more positive member of the group. The interactionist view welcomes conflict. Here, the stray cat has become an accepted member of the family and has gained a name and a meal or two. Conflict is seen as a means to keep the group lively and less boring. It can be seen as a stimulus for innovation and positive change. The interactionist view is more likely to resolve the issue than judge the presenter of the conflict situation.
Functional Versus Dysfunctional Conflict
Just as the interactionist view sees conflict as a positive addition to a group and the traditional view portrays conflict as an enemy, conflict actually can be a functional part of the group dynamics or it may hinder the group’s performance. According to Daniel Hunter in his article on “Conflict Transformation and Diversity: Lesson from Mainstreams and Margins” (http://www.cs.earlham.edu), “the two characters which make up the single word ‘conflict’ when written in Chinese: danger and opportunity. Conflict has the danger of violence and destructiveness. At the same time, conflict is opportunity. It offers an opportunity for growth within the relationship of the participants that would otherwise not be present.”
The example business model is based on a cost-recovery system. Each business unit is given a yearly budget to acquire goods and services necessary to fulfill their needs. Each of the service organizations within the company must bill the business units to be able to pay back the expenses incurred during the year. Billing is processed on a monthly basis and the information gathered is examined for efficiencies and for how well the group recovers their costs.
One conflict that has arisen, in respect to the monthly billing, pertains to the supervisor’s request that billing time must be reported at the end of each day. Any employee that does not maintain this strict standard is subjected to questions and comments from the supervisor during the weekly staff meetings. The staff meetings are often centered around how well or how poorly the group has performed in regards to their billing each week. Names may be called aloud and hourly totals recited in from of the group. All time must be reported, regardless if it is billable or not.
The group has been told that the “embarrassment tactic” is being used to force individuals to stay current on their reports. This tactic has reduced morale and causes some employees to arrive conveniently late for meetings to avoid the ridicule.
During slower work periods, non-billable time must be reported in one of several ways—training, archiving, or administrative duties. The administrative category has come under a greater amount of scrutiny lately due to increased use. In the past, the employees would not report un-billable time at all. The administrative category is the only category open to report down time.
Due to the increased use of the category, details are being requested in the comments section of the system to explain the increased usages.
The employees have becoming increasingly frustrated and have openly questioned the ritual during several staff meetings. The answers have been less than adequate for some of the employees who have seen the scrutiny as a lack of trust and the insinuation that the designers do not know how to perform their daily duties.
Due to the increased questioning from the employees, the supervisor has been forced to explain in detail the needs of upper management and why they desire a more frequent report. While this has helped the situation, it has not completely solved the dilemma. Explaining the needs to a group has not been easy for the supervisor. The information is foreign to the employees because they do not fully understand how such numbers are used.
This predicament has caused the supervisor to examine the requests to find a way to explain the needs to the employees. Periodically, management asks for additional data. This causes stress within the department because the notion of cutbacks is raised and additional questions are presented to the supervisor during the staff meetings. Greater effort is needed on both sides of the table to ease the tension.
Individuals do not have to give up assertiveness to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution. Cooperativeness does not mean that an individual must forsake his or her competitive drive to reach a personally fulfilling solution. When parties are given the freedom to arrive at a mutually satisfying solution, both parties win and they are both more susceptible to adhere to the tenants agreed upon in the solution. This can not be done with some degree of cooperative and open communication. The dialogue must be thorough and nonthreatening.