Managing Organizational Conflict

Barry A Stein, PhD
Goodmeasure, Inc.
6 Channing Place
Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

May 12, 2011

Conflict is a part of life and a fact of life. Its presence can never be eliminated (nor should it be) but it can be adjusted, modified, resolved or eliminated and in general changed to be less costly, painful or difficult, and often more useful. There are many different ways of dealing with it, and most of them by far are simply part of the normal ways people manage their lives, in and out of organizations.

These traditional mechanisms – just working it out, learned or mutual accommodation and adjustment, using family influence, tribal councils, trusted third parties (clergy, community leaders, King Solomon, friends), or therapists -- are so routine as to pass unnoticed, yet their influence is greater than all more formal approaches combined.

It is a mistake to imagine that all conflicts need to be addressed by formal means including legal action and increasingly common ADR (alternative dispute resolution) tools; mediation, negotiation and arbitration. In organizations, the fundamental task is to support, enhance and make more visible existing informal mechanisms, supplemented by new powerful approaches to situations in which existing mechanisms are either not useful, unnecessary or need improvement.

It is possible to help people and organizations deal effectively and quickly with both existing and emerging unhelpful conflict. This would lead to a broad and powerful approach to conflict in organizations; eliminating or resolving it where possible, transforming it to a more manageable version, helping people become more personally skilled in forestalling and addressing it, and by helping organizations reduce their (often unrecognized) propensity to promote or create dysfunctional conflict.

In Western society, conflict is generally regarded as an interpersonal issue, something that happens between people. This is understandable, because that is the way most conflict presents itself; as a disagreement between individuals. However, this is generally not the whole story and is often deeply misleading. In organizations, people rarely act entirely independently (though they may think they do). Rather, they inevitably act as reflections and representatives of some organization or group. In that case, “resolving” the conflict between the people through which it is noticed may not actually “solve” anything; a conflict’s roots, left untouched, usually make their presence known elsewhere and in other ways.

This is universally true in formal organizations such as businesses, schools, hospitals, foundations, and governments, where these facts are generally overlooked or assumed not to be important. Nothing could be further from the truth. In these organizations, conflict is often both pervasive and costly. Worse yet, because direct and open conflict between people in them is strongly sanctioned, it often appears in more subtle and less overt, but no less destructive forms. Where that is the case, damage to the organization can be very high, and its potential costs tend to grow over time. In that sense, unaddressed conflict is contagious.

Fortunately, powerful, effective, finely tuned and appropriate tools are now becoming available; they take advantage of our growing understanding of conflict within organizations, enabling the people involved and others to re-assess their own relations to the conflict, and assisting them to understand and disentangle its causes. Personal conflicts are often simply the observed consequences of underlying organizational issues. This broader framework can transform both people’s willingness and ability to improve their own behavior.

But conflict is not a simple thing, nor does it always appear in the same way. It is usually simply one (relatively visible, costly and unpleasant) manifestation of different points of view, many of which are in turn consequences of organizational positions and structures. Thus, a hierarchy of conflict exists, from the most benign and acceptable to the most troublesome and unacceptable sort. Here’s one version.

Benign                                                                                                              Destructive 

 Different viewpoints 
               Conflicting opinions 
                                 Social tension 
                                                             Open conflict 
                                                                              Rancorous conflict 
                                                                                                  Physical fighting 

Clearly, conflicts cover a very wide range of situations, and approaches to addressing them therefore need to be based on understanding where and when a given approach does – and does not -- make sense. However, this sort of spectrum only covers visible behavior and says nothing about underlying causes, importance or appropriateness of that conflict, either to the people or to their organization. After all, even fighting is appropriate under some circumstances – when lives are threatened, for example. And different viewpoints, however politely expressed -- such as casual slurs or jokes about other people -- can signal deep underlying issues.

Ultimately, therefore, when conflict arises, it should always be treated as a symptom, rather than a problem on its face. It’s critical to ask questions such as these, to help decide to what extent the conflict is primarily personal or is instead a consequence of organizational structure and change.

  1. Is this behavior new or have we simply not noticed it before?
  2. Have we seen similar behavior elsewhere in the organization?
  3. Do others in similar positions feel inclined to be sympathetic?
  4. Have the people involved been prone to such problems before?
  5. Why is this arising now? What triggered it?
  6. Have those involved recently shifted roles or positions?
  7. Have their been recent changes in the organization or its structure?

Similarly, since conflicts can be of very different types, it's important to understand the underpinnings of any conflict. That means exploring issues like the following, seeking information that helps illuminate the nature and sources of the conflict.

  1. In some conflicts, the alternatives are sharply defined and limited, and it may be literally impossible for both (or all) parties to get what they want; for example, when there are several candidates for a position (Which one shall we assign?) or when a yes/no decision is required; (Shall we make that acquisition?)
  2. Some conflicts arise because the organization encourages it, sometimes without recognizing it or its possible consequences. For example, loosely defined sales targets might encourage several people to target the same potential customer, thus creating new conflicts.
  3. Those involved in a conflict may also have been entangled earlier, but which never surfaced because it was rendered moot because of organizational changes (eg, one was transferred, or there was a reorganization). New circumstances might re-open personal anger or make earlier problems relevant once again.
  4. Major structural changes, such as mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, buy-outs, layoffs, plant closings, etc almost universally create sources of potential conflict that can emerge unexpectedly or well after the events that gave rise to them. Often these too are unrecognized, in part because of the passage of time.

Conflict, of course, is not necessarily bad. In fact, it is essential to the proper functioning of every organization. Without differences of focus, opinion, belief or action, organizations would die, since there would be no alternatives, no new ideas and no learning, and therefore no growth. There is much evidence that new ideas arise strongly at the intersection of different views and experiences, encouraging people to question assumptions and to see the possibility of doing things differently.

Moreover, a certain kind of tension or built-in disagreement is mandatory in effective organizations. Think, for example, of production and sales, the two core functions in every business. Production is easiest and least expensive when a single product or narrowly defined service is offered. (Think of Henry Ford, who said, “People can have a Ford automobile in any color they want as long as it’s black.”) But sales is easiest and most successful when people can get exactly what they want. Although this conflict could be resolved completely simply by agreeing on what will be available at what price, in a competitive environment such an organization will go out of business. The winners will be those that encourage production to reduce the costs of product variations, and that encourage sales to persuade customers that permissible variations suit them perfectly. This is a (constructive) conflict that should always be present.

Unfortunately, people from both sales and production may forget that they are representing their functions and get angry because each sees the other as getting in her way. In this way, the organizational focus may be converted into an interpersonal issue (“She is making my life difficult.” and “Why can’t he just listen to reason?”), which no amount of effort will eliminate. Conflicts of that sort may appear to be resolved by getting the parties to compromise, or by asserting a Solomonic judgment. But the conflict often either goes underground, reappearing later in another form or through other people, or the organization becomes less competitive because it is crippled, (This is common in matrix organizations; giving them an undeserved poor reputation.)

However, even though conflict in this sense is inevitable in organizations, much can be done to improve the results and to make conflicts less destructive. Doing this can take several different forms, and a well-designed program may use them all. However, it is remarkably helpful simply to shift the way the people themselves —particularly those through whom the conflict is being channeled – come to understand that the problem is not in them but in the organization’s design.

That new understanding shifts the dynamic from “me vs you” or “you vs them” – in both of which the win-lose implications are clear -- to “us vs the organization” – which clearly does not require a win-lose framework. Instead, it encourages the people to co-operate in developing ways to modify the organization or their specific roles to make both of them, and their work, easier and more effective. A new mindset by itself makes a remarkable difference.

Using the same approach also makes it possible to assess an organization’s design, operation and culture to see whether and where dysfunctional conflict might arise, and thus to intervene effectively before it develops. This sort of assessment, combined with education and training to help the organization’s people add this new competency, is both simple and potentially powerful. Preventing problems is much more cost effective than addressing them later, after the mischief is done.