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Conflict Management
Management > Conflict Management
Table of Contents
Abstract
Overview
Types of Workplace Conflict
Goal Incompatibility & Differentiation
Interdependence
Scarce Resources, Ambiguity, Communication

Applications
Resolving Conflict
Collaboration
Avoidance
Competition
Accommodation
Compromise

Issue
Adapting Styles for Optimal Outcome

Conclusion
Terms & Concepts
Bibliography
Suggested Reading

Abstract
Conflict frequently arises in the workplace. Goal incompat
ibility between groups or individuals, differentiation, task
interdependence, scarce resources, ambiguity, and communica
tion problems can all lead to a situation that promotes conflict.
There are a number of conflict management styles that can be

used to effectively resolve such conflicts: competing, collabo


rating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. However,
although each individual has his/her own preferred conflict man
agement style, not every style is optimally effective in every
conflict situation. To maximize the effectiveness of conflict man
agement efforts, management and parties to the conflict need to
be aware of their short- and long-term goals and strategies for
both the task and the people involved, their personal involvement
and emotions in the conflict, their personal conflict management
style, and which styles work best in which situations.

Overview
It often seems as if whenever two or more parties attempt to
work together there are at least three opinions. Although some
times this situation can lead to synergy and a more creative final
product, in many cases it leads to conflict. Although the most
common view of conflict is that it is by its very nature dysfunc
tional and needs to be resolved, in many cases if it is properly
managed it can be both functional and help the conflicting
parties work together better or to produce a better product than
if the conflict had not arisen in the first place. Conflict between
groups may also improve team dynamics, cohesiveness, and task
orientation. However, if the conflict becomes too emotionally
charged, a win-lose mentality can arise, with negative results
such as groupthink, frustration, job dissatisfaction, and stress.
Very few people have the option to work in complete isolation
of others. Even those who telecommute or work independently
frequently find themselves in a position in which they need to
interact with others: clients, suppliers, editors, etc. In virtually
any situation in which there is more than one party with inter
ests in the outcome, conflicts are likely to arise. In this context,
conflict refers to any situation "in which one party perceives that
its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by" the
interests or actions of another party (McShane & Von Glinow,
2003). Conflict can manifest in any number of ways ranging
from a mild disagreement between individuals to an all-out war
between nations.
In the workplace, conflict typically begins with a situation that
is conducive to conflict, such as the need to share a single piece
of equipment or other scarce resource. For example, Group A

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Conflict Management

needs the copier to reproduce a proposal for a tight deadline


for a potential client and Group B needs to use the copier to
produce a deliverable to an equally tight and incompatible
deadline for a current client. As the parties come to believe
that conflict exists, the situation usually next manifests itself in
actions that outwardly demonstrate that an underlying conflict
exists (e.g., a member of Group A tries to monopolize the copier
so that it cannot be used by Group B). Conflict need not lead to
a dysfunctional workplace, however. Through appropriate con
flict management techniques either actions taken by one or
more parties to the conflict or by an objective outside party in the
attempt to de-escalate the conflict the severity and form of the
conflict can be altered to maximize its benefits and minimize its
negative consequences of the situation.
Types of Workplace Conflict
Goal Incompatibility & Differentiation
As shown in Figure 1, conflict can arise from any one or more
general sources in the workplace (McShane & Von Glinow,
2003). First, conflict can arise in the workplace due to incompat
ible goals between individuals or groups. For example, if two
individuals are competing for the same promotion, it is likely
that conflict will arise unless more than one position is available.
Goal incompatibility becomes an even stronger source for poten
tial conflict in situations in which there are financial rewards for
achieving one's goals since, in such situations, employees tend
to be more motivated to achieve their own goals at the expense
of others. A second source of conflict in organizations is differ
entiation. This occurs when individuals or groups of employees
hold divergent beliefs and attitudes as a result of their different
backgrounds, experiences, or training. For example, differentia
tion often leads to conflict situations following business mergers
and acquisitions. In such situations, the cultures, practices, and
shared experiences of the formerly separate entities lead to an
"us-them" situation.
Figure 1: Sources of Conflict in Organizations (adapted from McShane & Von Glinow, 2003)

Differentiation
Goal
Incompatibility

Task
Interdependence

Potential
Conflict
Communication
Problems

Scarce
Resources
Ambiguity

Interdependence
A third source of potential conflict in organizations is task inter
dependence. This is the degree to which individuals or groups
must share common inputs, interact during the course of per
forming their separate tasks, or receive outcomes that are partly
determined by the mutual performance of both parties. There are
three basic types of task independence:

Pooled interdependence,
Sequential interdependence, and
Reciprocal interdependence
The lowest level of interdependence is pooled interdependence.
Under this condition, individuals or teams work independently
of each other except for their common reliance on a resource or
authority. An example of pooled interdependence is the common
reliance on a single copy machine, cited above. Sequential inter
dependence is a situation in which the output of one person or
group becomes the direct input for another person or group. This
situation frequently arises in assembly-line situations where
the output of one process becomes the input to another process
(McShane & Von Glinow, 2003). For example, the packing
department cannot complete its task unless the department that
makes the boxes or packing materials first completes its task.
The third type of interdependence in organizations is recipro
cal interdependence. This is the highest level of interdependence
and occurs in situations in which work outputs are exchanged
back and forth among individuals or groups. An example of
this type of interdependence would be the relationship between
bus drivers and maintenance crews. The drivers cannot drive
the buses unless the maintenance crews maintain them, and the
maintenance crews cannot maintain the buses unless the drivers
bring them into the depot.
Scarce Resources, Ambiguity, Communication
A fourth type of situation that can lead to conflict in the work
place occurs when there are scarce resources. For example, if
multiple technicians need the same laboratory equipment and
there is insufficient equipment for each to have his or her own,
conflict is likely to arise. Ambiguity in the workplace can also
lead to conflict because such a situation increases the risk that
one party may interfere with the achievement of the other par
ty's goals. Situations of ambiguity in the workplace often lead
to increased office politics. Another problem that can lead to
conflict in the workplace is the lack of opportunity, ability, or
motivation to communicate effectively. When effective com
munication does not exist, the likelihood that stereotypes will
develop and conflict escalates. Good communication skills are
necessary in order to communicate with other parties in a diplo
matic, nonconfrontational manner. The lack of necessary skills
for diplomatic communication can escalate a conflict situation
and result in less motivation for effective communication in the
future. Lack of communication skills is a common problem that
occurs in cross-cultural conflicts.

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Conflict Management

Applications
Resolving Conflict
As shown in Figure 2, there are a number of ways to deal with con
flict (Ruble & Thomas, 1976). Although sometimes it is assumed
that there is only one best way to manage conflict, research has
show that one conflict management style is best modified to fit
the needs of the specific situation. These approaches to conflict
management vary on the degree the party is cooperative or
motivated to satisfy the interests of the other party in the conflict
(e.g., allow the other group to use the copier) and assertive
or motivated to satisfy its own interests (e.g., make sure that it is
able to use the copier whenever it needs it).
Figure 2: Interpersonal Conflict Management Styles (Ruble &
Thomas, 1976)

ment in which the parties attempt to manage their differences by


smoothing them over or avoiding or minimizing the situations
in which conflict might arise. Although avoidance is not a func
tional long-term solution to conflict situations, it can be useful in
the short-term as a way to temporarily cool down heated disputes
or for situations where the issue causing conflict is trivial. For
example, sometimes it is better to leave the room and cool off
rather than to continue to unproductively try to resolve conflict.
In such situations, avoidance can not only prevent a conflict situ
ation from escalating, but may actually help it de-escalate.
Competition
A third approach to conflict management is competition. In this
approach to conflict management, one party attempts to "win"
at the other party's expense. Competition tends to be a win-lose
situation characterized by high assertiveness and low coopera
tiveness. The underlying assumption in such an approach is that
there is a fixed pool of resources from which to draw (e.g., hours
during which the copier can be used) and that a gain on one side
means a loss on the other side. Competitive solutions to conflict
situations can be appropriate if the party knows that its solution
is correct and a quick solution is needed or where the other party
would take advantage of a more cooperative approach.
Accommodation
On the opposite side of the grid is the accommodation style of
conflict management, which is low on assertiveness and high on
cooperativeness. In this approach, one party completely gives in
to the position of the party or acts with little or no attention to its
own interests. Accommodation can be a functional conflict man
agement approach if the opposing party has substantially more
power or if the issue is not as important to the first party as it is
to the opposing party.

Collaboration
In collaboration, the parties attempt to resolve their conflict by
finding a mutually beneficial solution through problem solving.
Collaborative solutions are high in both cooperativeness and
assertiveness. In the collaborative style of conflict management,
information is shared among the parties to the conflict so that all
parties can help identify solutions that will potentially satisfy the
needs or interests of all parties. Collaboration is the preferred
method for conflict management when the parties do not have
perfectly opposing interests and when there is sufficient trust and
openness between the parties so that information can be shared.
Avoidance
On the opposite side of the conflict management style grid is
avoidance, an approach that is low in both assertiveness and
cooperativeness. Avoidance is an approach to conflict manage

Compromise
Finally, compromise is an approach to conflict management in
which one party attempts to reach a middle ground with the
opposing party. Compromise positions tend to have moderate
levels of assertiveness and cooperativeness. When attempting to
compromise, parties typically look for solutions in which losses
are offset by equally valued gains. Compromise tends to work
best in situations in which there is little possibility of mutual gain
through problem solving, both parties have equal power, and
there are time pressures to settle the conflict (Ruble & Thomas,
1976).

Issue
Adapting Styles for Optimal Outcome
Although most people have a preferred conflict manage
ment style, it can be useful to apply a different approach to
managing conflict to better meet the needs of each situation.
Shetach (2009) expanded on the two-dimensional model of
interpersonal conflict management styles and developed a four
dimensions model (see Figure 3). The model considers four

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Conflict Management

critical factors that need to be taken into account in managerial


attempts to increase the effectiveness of their conflict manage
ment skills:
1. "Northern star,"

Conclusion

2. "Conflict evolvement map,"


3. Awareness of available response options (see Figure 2),
and
4. Awareness of one's preferred personal conflict manage
ment style from among these options.
"Northern star" is Shetach's metaphor for strategy or long-term
goal. This term is used to articulate that a manager must be aware
of both the main goal for communication in the current situation
as well as the long-term, future objectives regarding the work
ing relationship. By being aware of both the task at hand and the
people involved, Shetach posits that it is possible to increase the
likelihood that conflict can be constructively managed in order
not only to meet a specific goal, but also to better manage the
situation to advance one's long-term strategy. Further, by defin
ing clear goals both for the task at hand and the people involved
in the situation, one can better prioritize the variables, leading to
a more constructive outcome. In addition to understanding the
desired outcome for the situation, the four dimensions model also
aims to help managers recognize their level of personal involve
ment in the conflict as well as any emotional responses so that
these may be controlled and the conflict management approach
be kept on a professional, not personal, level.
Figure 3: The Four Dimensions Model (adapted from Shetach,
2009)
Awareness of conflict
management style
options
(see Figure 2)

Clean
northern star

Awareness of ego
needs as reflected in
dominant personal
conflict styles

personal styles, and be flexible enough to change their preferred


style in order to resolve the conflict.

Effective Conflict
Mangement
Conflict evolvement
map

The four dimensions model also takes into account the various
conflict management strategies discussed above and shown in
Figure 2. Effective conflict management is often situational, and
a manager needs to be aware of what options are available for
resolving issues. In addition, it is helpful to know one's preferred
personal conflict management style from among the five avail
able options. Each approach to conflict management can lead
to either a constructive or destructive conclusion, depending on
the specifics of the situation. In order to maximize the effective
ness of conflict management efforts and help arrive at a win-win
resolution, managers and others involved in conflict situations
need to be aware of the specifics of the situation and their own

Wherever two or more people need to work together, share


resources, or compete for scarce rewards, conflict is almost
ensured to arise. There are a number of ways to deal with con
flict, varying from concern about one's own needs to concern
about the needs of the other party. Frequently, the desired out
come is a win-win situation in which the interests of both parties
are met. However, depending on the circumstances, the best
approach to conflict management will strive for a different out
come. No matter the approach used, however, it is important to
realize that conflict situations can easily become personalized,
and the original source of conflict forgotten, remaining unre
solved. To avoid this possibility, it is important not only to know
the various conflict management options available and where
they are best applied, but also to be aware of personal emotions
and involvement, as well as short-term and long-term goals in
resolving the conflict.

Terms & Concepts


Accommodation: An approach to conflict management in which

one party completely gives in to the position of the other party


or acts with little or no attention to its own interests. Accommo
dation can be a functional conflict management approach if the
opposing party has substantially more power or if the issue is not
as important to the first party as it is to the opposing party.
Assertiveness: In conflict management, the motivation to satisfy

one's own interests (cf. cooperativeness).

Avoidance: An approach to conflict management in which the

parties attempt to manage their differences by smoothing them


over or avoiding or minimizing the situations in which conflict
might arise. Although avoidance is not a functional long-term
solution to conflict situations, it can be useful in the short-term as
a way to temporarily cool down heated disputes or for situations
where the issue causing conflict is trivial. Avoidance approaches
are low in both assertiveness and cooperativeness.
Collaboration: A conflict management style in which the parties

attempt to resolve their conflict by finding a mutually beneficial


solution through problem solving. Collaborative solutions are
high in both cooperativeness and assertiveness. Collaboration is
the preferred method for conflict management when the parties
do not have perfectly opposing interests and when there is suf
ficient trust and openness between the parties so that information
can be shared.
Competition: An approach to conflict management in which one

party attempts to "win" at the other party's expense. Competition

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Conflict Management

tends to be a win-lose situation with high assertiveness and low


cooperativeness. Competitive solutions to conflict situations can
be appropriate if the party knows that its solution is correct and
a quick solution is needed or where the other party would take
advantage of a more cooperative approach.
Compromise: An approach to conflict management in which one

party attempts to reach a middle ground with the opposing party.


Compromise positions tend to have moderate levels of asser
tiveness and cooperativeness. When attempting to compromise,
parties typically look for solutions in which losses are offset by
equally valued gains. Compromise tends to work best in situa
tions in which there is little possibility of mutual gain through
problem solving, both parties have equal power, and there are
time pressures to settle the conflict.
Conflict: A situation in which one party believes that its inter

ests are negatively affected by another party (McShane & Von


Glinow, 2003).

Conflict Management: The process of altering the severity and

form of conflict in order to maximize its benefits and minimize


its negative consequences. Between parties, conflict can be
resolved through collaboration, accommodation, competition,
compromise, or avoidance. Conflict management can also refer
to interventions performed by an objective outside party in the
attempt to de-escalate conflict between two or more parties.
Cooperativeness: In conflict management, the motivation to sat

isfy the interests of the other party (cf. assertiveness).

Groupthink: The tendency to have the same opinion as the other

members of the group as a way to avoid conflict, reduce interper


sonal pressure, or maintain an illusion of unity or cohesiveness
without thoroughly thinking through the problem. Groupthink
interferes with effective decision making.
Synergy: The process by which the combined product resulting

from the work of a team of individuals is greater than the results


of their individual efforts.
Task Interdependence: "The degree to which team members

must share common inputs, interact in the process of execut


ing their work, and receive outcomes determined partly by their
mutual performance" (McShane & Von Glinow, 2003).
Win-Lose Orientation: The belief in a conflict situation that

there is a fixed pool of resources that are to be divided among


all parties so that the more one side receives, the less the other
side receives.

Win-Win Orientation: The belief in a conflict situation that it is

possible to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution for all parties.

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Suggested Reading
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and development tool to resolve the conflict between the
marketing and sales organizations. International Journal
of Business & Management, 7(13), 2839. Retrieved
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match or mismatch on the Gottman conflict styles:
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relationship between self-efficacy and conflict-handling
styles in terms of relative authority positions of the two

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Conflict Management

parties. Social Behavior and Personality, 38(1), 1328.


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Essay by Ruth A. Wienclaw, Ph.D.


Dr. Ruth A. Wienclaw holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology with a specialization in Organization Development from
the University of Memphis. She is the owner of a small business that works with organizations in both the public and private sectors,
consulting on matters of strategic planning, training, and human/systems integration.

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