Conflict management is the practice of being able to identify and handle conflicts sensibly, fairly, and efficiently. Since conflicts in a business are a natural part of the workplace, it is important that there are people who understand them and know how they can be solved. Today (more than ever before), individuals are striving to show how valuable they are to the organizations they work for. At times, this can lead to disputes with other members of the team. In any situation involving more than one person, conflict can arise. The causes of conflict range from philosophical differences and divergent goals to power imbalances. Unmanaged or poorly managed conflicts generate a breakdown in trust and lost productivity.
For small businesses, where success often hinges on the cohesion of a few people, loss of trust and productivity can signal their death. With a basic understanding of the five conflict management strategies, small business owners can deal better with conflicts before they escalate beyond repair .Conflicts are important aspects of the workplace. These are situations when the interests, needs, goals or values of the parties involved interfere with one another.
A conflict is a common phenomenon in the workplace. Different stakeholders may have different priorities. Conflicts may therefore involve team members, departments, projects, organization and client, boss’ and subordinate’s or organization’s needs versus personal ones. Often, a conflict is a result of perception. Is conflict a bad thing? Not necessarily. Often, it presents opportunities for improvement. Therefore, it is important to understand (and apply) various conflict resolution techniques.
This is also known as competing. An individual firmly pursues his or her own concerns despite the resistance of the other person. It may involve pushing one viewpoint at the expense of another, or maintaining firm resistance to another person’s actions.
Examples of situations when forcing may be appropriate:
• In certain situations when all other, less forceful methods, don’t work or are ineffective;
• When you need to stand up for your own rights, resist aggression and pressure;
• When a quick resolution is required and using force is justified ( for example in a life-threatening situation or to stop an aggression);
• As a last resort in resolving a long-lasting conflict.
Possible advantages of using force:
• May provide a quick resolution to a conflict;
• Increases self-esteem and draws respect when firm resistance or actions are a response to an aggression or hostility.
Some caveats of forcing:
• May negatively affect your relationship with the opponent in the long run;
• May cause the opponent to react in the same way, even if he or she did not intend to be forceful from the word go;
• Cannot take advantage of the strong sides of the other party’s position;
• Taking this approach may require a lot of energy and be exhausting to some individuals.
This is also known as problem confronting or problem solving. Collaboration involves an attempt to work with the other person to find a win-win solution to the problem in hand – the one that most satisfies the concerns of both parties. The win-win approach sees conflict resolution as an opportunity to come to a mutually beneficial result. It includes identifying the underlying concerns of the opponents and finding an alternative which meets each party’s concerns.
Examples of situations when collaborating may be appropriate:
• When consensus and commitment of other parties is important;
• When it is required to address the interests of multiple stakeholders;
• When a high level of trust is present;
• When a long-term relationship is important;
• When you need to work through hard feelings or animosity;
• When you don’t want to take full responsibility.
Possible advantages of collaborating:
• Leads to solving the actual problem;
• Leads to a win-win outcome;
• Reinforces mutual trust and respect;
• Builds a foundation for effective collaboration in the future;
• Shared responsibility of the outcome;
• You earn the reputation of a good negotiator;
• For parties involved, the outcome of the conflict resolution is less stressful. However, the process of finding and establishing a win-win solution may be very involving (see the caveats below);
Some caveats of collaborating:
• Requires a commitment from all parties to look for a mutually acceptable solution;
• May require more effort and time than some other methods. A win-win solution may not be evident;
• For the same reason, collaborating may not be practical when timing is crucial and a quick solution or fast response is required;
• Once one or more parties lose their trust in an opponent, the relationship falls back to other methods of conflict resolution. Therefore, all the parties involved must continue collaborative
efforts to maintain a cordial relationship.
Compromising looks for an expedient and mutually acceptable solution which partially satisfies both parties.
Examples of situations when compromise may be appropriate:
• When the goals are moderately important and not worth the use of more assertive or more involving approaches, such as forcing or collaborating;
• To reach temporary settlement on complex issues;
• To reach expedient solutions on important issues;
• As a first step when the involved parties do not know each other well or haven’t yet developed a high level of mutual trust;
• When collaboration or forcing do not work.
Possible advantages of compromise:
• Faster issue resolution. Compromising may be more practical when time is a factor;
• Can provide a temporary solution while still looking for a win-win solution;
• Lowers the levels of tension and stress resulting from the conflict.
Some caveats of using compromise:
• May result in a situation when both parties are not satisfied with the outcome (a lose-lose situation);
• Does not contribute to building trust in the long run;
• May require close monitoring and control to ensure the agreements are met.
This is also known as avoiding. It occurs when a person does not pursue his or her own concerns or those of the opponent. He or she does not address the conflict, sidesteps, postpones or simply withdraws.
Examples of situations when withdrawing may be appropriate:
• When the issue is trivial and not worth the effort;
• When more important issues are pressing;
• In situations where postponing the response is beneficial to you, for example when it is not the right time or place to confront the issue or when you need time to think and collect information before you act;
• When you see no chance of getting your concerns met or you would have to put forth unreasonable effort;
• When you would have to deal with hostility;
• When you are unable to handle the conflict (e.g. if you are too emotionally involved or others can handle it better)
Possible advantages of withdrawing:
• When the opponent is forcing or attempts to be aggressive, you may choose to withdraw and postpone your response until you are in a more favourable situation;
• Withdrawing is a low stress approach when the conflict is short;
• Gives the ability and time to focus on more important or more urgent issues;
• Gives you time to prepare well and collect the necessary information before you act.
Some caveats of withdrawing:
• May lead to weakening or losing your position while failure to act may be interpreted as an agreement. Using withdrawing strategies without negatively affecting your own position requires certain skill and experience;
• When multiple parties are involved, withdrawing may negatively affect your relationship with a party that expects your action.
Smoothing is accommodating the concerns of other people first, rather than one’s own.
Examples of situations when it may be appropriate:
• When it is important to provide a temporary relief from the conflict or buy time until you are in a better position to respond or push back;
• When the issue is not as important to you as it is to the other person;
• When you accept that you are wrong;
• When you have no choice or when continued competition would be detrimental.
Possible advantages of smoothing:
• In some cases, smoothing will help to protect more important interests while giving up on some less important ones;
• Gives an opportunity to reassess the situation from a different angle.
Some caveats of smoothing:
• There is a risk to be abused, i.e. the opponent may constantly try to take advantage of your tendency towards smoothing or accommodating. Therefore, it is important to keep the right balance and this requires some skill;
• May negatively affect confidence in your ability to respond to an aggressive opponent;
• It makes it more difficult to transition to a win-win solution in the future;
• Some of your supporters may not like your smoothing response and consequently, they maybe be turned off.
Dr. Kellen Kiambati holds a PhD in business administration with a focus on strategic management from JKUAT and an MBA from KEMU. She is a certified business associate (CBPA) and a member of the Institute of Human Resource Management of Kenya. She is also the author of business Research Methods and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org