Organizational conflict is a frequent occurrence in most work settings. Whether rooted in interactions with co-workers, supervisors, or customers, conflict is an inevitable part of task and relational communication. Conflict refers to incompatibilities or perceptions of diametrically opposed goals and values that occur in the process of organizing. It includes disagreements about ideas, negotiations to obtain scarce resources, informal complaints about work issues, objections to corporate policies, and formal grievances filed against an organization. Hence, conflict is a pervasive feature of organizational life, but one that is often ignored. Unresolved and poorly managed organizational conflicts are very costly and lead to lower job satisfaction, lost work time, high costs of litigation, and the loss of valuable employees.
Social Interaction And Conflict
Organizational conflict also entails social interactions between two or more interdependent parties that adjust to each other’s moves and countermoves. It includes what the parties say to each other, the information that they exchange, their nonverbal behaviors, and the meanings or interpretations of their messages. Moreover, in conflict interactions, parties react to each other’s influence attempts and anticipate each other’s actions.
Communication in conflict situations draws on sequences of statements and responses that develop into patterns. These patterns, then, can lead to repetitive cycles or conflict spirals. For example, if one party makes a threat and the other party responds with another threat, followed by a counter-threat, the conflict interaction begins to develop a competitive spiral that increases in intensity. Parties often have difficulty breaking a conflict spiral and avoiding these cyclical patterns in present and future interactions (Folger et al. 2005).
Because the parties in organizations are interdependent, they need each other to accomplish tasks and develop working relationships. Hence, they cannot easily walk away from disagreements without the problems recurring at another point in time. Interdependence also means that each person has the potential to block the other party from attaining organizational goals. Therefore, parties must cooperate with each other to work together, yet they simultaneously compete with each other to attain their own goals; hence, parties mix both cooperation and competition to manage organizational conflicts (Putnam 2006).
This mix of cooperation and competition contributes to the tensions that parties feel in organizational conflicts. Because they are competing with each other, they may withhold information, feel distrustful, and fear exploitation. However, the need to cooperate pushes the parties to share information, develop trust, and avoid escalation. Folger et al. (2005) describe these tensions that result from cooperating and competing as a balancing act. Like tacking a sailboat that is moving upstream, parties need to capture the force and energy of the wind and steer the boat to avoid rampant escalation or easy exploitation. Parties need to confront the other disputant about the issues, develop mutual understanding of the underlying concerns, and avoid giving in prematurely.
In effect, conflict interaction develops into processes that move in either a destructive or a constructive direction. Destructive conflicts become inflexible over time; lead to uncontrolled escalation; and increase in the number of issues, parties, and costs that participants experience (Deutsch 1973). Disputants in destructive conflicts typically lose sight of their original goals, blur issues together, and aim to hurt or annihilate the other person. Thus, destructive conflicts often end up in a win-lose or lose-lose situation for both parties. In contrast, conflicts that move in a constructive direction lead to added flexibility, broaden participants’ insights about situations, and foster personal development. Constructive conflict management focuses on discovering options to expand the pie and to produce a win-win situation for all parties. Because conflict can lead to destructive outcomes, most people avoid it or see it as a necessary evil. Organizational conflict, however, when handled in a constructive way, promotes change through preventing stagnation and enabling adaptability. It also functions as a safety valve, exposing problems and improving group cohesiveness.
To enhance effective conflict management, most people believe that parties must engage in rational decision-making and remove emotions from their interactions. Yet conflicts by definition are emotional. Emotions are triggered because participants perceive an interruption in their plans or see a discrepancy between their goals and the likelihood of achieving them (Jones 2001). Emotions also enter into conflicts through seeing a course of action as good or bad, right or wrong. This value framing evokes frustration, anger, and contempt as well as feelings of pride and defensiveness. Emotions enter into conflicts because participants want to look good rather than be viewed as a wrongdoer. Thus, conflicts need to be approached with rational procedures, but with ones that recognize the personal and emotional involvement that employees have in work situations.
The role of communication in organizational conflict is clearly complex. Scholars have adopted different perspectives to examine the role of communication in organizational conflicts, especially ones that treat communication as a variable, as an interaction process, as interpretations or meaning, or as a dialectic.
When scholars position communication as a variable, they combine it with other factors, like gender, culture, or cognitions, to test for the effects of interaction on conflict outcomes. Communication surfaces as a variable when it is treated as a type of media, a strategy or tactic, a style or orientation to conflict, or information that affects an individual’s judgments about a situation (Wilson et al. 2001). As a process, communication becomes the interaction patterns of participants that unfold over time. This approach focuses on the combinations of actions and reactions and how they result in constructive or destructive outcomes.
Treating communication as meaning highlights the language that participants use, the stories that they tell, and the ways that they make sense of situations. For example, formal negotiation between labor and management signifies efforts to work out differences between parties who have competing interests. This routine has symbolic meanings for the parties who have a stake in this process.
Finally, scholars adopt a dialectical perspective to the study of communication and conflict. A dialectic perspective focuses on the tensions that arise through the simultaneous connection of opposites, such as cooperating and competing, or withholding and sharing information. Communication helps parties manage the tensions that arise from the oppositions that are inevitable in organizational conflicts. In this approach, communication and organizational conflict define each other as disputes surface through both formal and informal means, become fused with public and private activities, and are worked out through rational and emotional interactions.
Arenas Of Organizational Conflict
These perspectives for studying communication and organizational conflict surface in research findings on conflict styles, communication media, negotiation and bargaining, work /life conflicts, and dispute system designs.
Individuals typically approach an organizational conflict with a predisposition to manage the dispute in a particular way. This orientation influences the verbal and nonverbal behaviors that members choose. In the 1960s and 1970s, Blake and Mouton (1964) identified five styles that are common ways of managing conflicts: problemsolving, competing, accommodating, avoiding, and compromise. With problem-solving, individuals confront a conflict directly through exploring causes and possible solutions. Competing relies on coercion or position power to pressure the other party to comply. Individuals who accommodate tend to smooth over a conflict and yield to others, while those who avoid withdraw from the scene or fail to confront. Compromise refers to meeting the other party half-way or settling for a 50 –50 split. This approach is regarded as a halfhearted effort and often fails to meet the needs of both parties (Olekalns et al. 2007).
Choosing a conflict style depends on the importance of one’s own and the other party’s goals. Employees who develop a repertoire of approaches are typically more effective at managing conflicts than are people who rely on only one or two styles. If both parties regard their relationship and their respective goals as important, they should use problem-solving or compromise. However, if organizational members need to reach a decision quickly or if only one party’s goals are critical, competing, accommodating, or avoiding are appropriate. Managers who are optimistic about resolving a conflict typically begin with problem-solving and then shift to competing if subordinates do not comply. This combination of problem-solving and competing promotes the information search necessary for resolution and leads to the best substantive and relational outcomes (Olekalns et al. 2007). Choice of conflict style also influences levels of stress at work. Specifically, problem-solving and accommodating lower the amount of stress while the use of competing and avoiding may increase anxiety.
Research in the 1980s and 1990s revealed that the effects of using conflict styles differed across cultures. For example, managers from China, Korea, and the Middle East scored higher on avoiding as a preferred conflict style than did managers in the United States and Australia. However, younger Asian workers preferred problem-solving to manage organizational conflicts.
As a whole, research on conflict styles treats communication as a variable and relies heavily on questionnaires that measure organizational members’ preferences. These questionnaires are sometimes inaccurate predictors of actual behaviors in conflict situations and fail to recognize that preferences are fluid; hence, styles are only one indicator of verbal and nonverbal messages that parties use in organizational conflicts.
Conflict And Communication Media
Another way that communication functions as a variable in organizational conflicts is the type of media or channel that parties use. “Communication media” refers to telephones, memos, computers, or face-to-face interactions. Early research in this arena revealed that disputants were more likely to cooperate when conflicts were managed through face-to-face interactions than when individuals used telephones or written messages. Recent studies on the use of emails reaffirmed these findings. In particular, disputants were more likely to use negative strategies, reduce information sharing, and receive lower joint profits in conflicts managed through email than in face-to-face interactions. Organizational conflicts handled via the computer led to fewer explanations, informal tones, and a tendency to bundle disparate arguments. The loss of social cues, such as vocal overtones or facial expressions in computer messages, may make it difficult to infer the other party’s intentions (Olekalns et al. 2007). The effects of communication media on conflicts, however, are not direct or simple. Thus, if parties know each other well, interact regularly, or use multiple media to manage a conflict, these negative effects may not occur.
Communication And Negotiation Processes
Research on negotiation process focuses on what bargainers say and how they respond to each other while searching for mutually satisfactory agreements. Negotiation is a form of conflict management in which parties exchange offers and counteroffers in search of a settlement. In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers coded communication into categories of negotiation talk, such as a threats, offers, or information giving. Thus, this line of research treats communication as an interaction process.
Scholars have examined the relationship between categories of talk and distributive and integrative bargaining. Distributive bargaining treats organizational conflict as a fixed pie in which parties employ a win-lose approach to get the most from a pool of scarce resources. This approach is suitable when a person is buying a car or negotiating for the cost of a house. Integrative bargaining, in contrast, engages in a win-win process in which participants strive to meet the needs and interests of both parties. This model is most effective in workplace negotiations that depend on relationships and routine interactions. The two models, however, are tightly interrelated and any one negotiation is rarely a pure process. Bargainers who mix the two approaches rather than keep them distinct are more likely to reach agreements (Olekalns et al. 2007).
Research on communication and negotiation also reveals that bargainers reciprocate both cooperative and competitive tactics. That is, they match each other’s tactics, such as arguments, threats, and demands, and they reciprocate offers and trade problem-solving tactics. To buffer against conflict spirals, bargainers use complementary tactics, such as following a demand with information giving or discussing procedures. Communication tactics also emerge at different stages in a negotiation. For example, bargainers who shift from persuasion in the early stages of interaction to clarifying priorities later in the negotiation are likely to receive high joint gains.
Language use also aids in developing bargaining relationships. Specifically, studies find that negotiators who use first person pronouns, speak with short utterances, and avoid excessive interruptions convey closeness to the other party. Language use also facilitates making sense of a negotiation through the stories and symbols that parties share. For example, stories about outsiders as impeding the negotiation can unite opposing teams in reaching agreements.
Work/life conflict, also known as incompatibilities between work/family and home/work, refers to the tensions and role strain that occur from dividing time and energy to attend to both domains. Organizational expectations often compete with family and personal life for these scarce resources.
As a new arena of organizational conflict work, this topic embraces a dialectical perspective to examine the pushes and pulls between these domains. It also draws from the tensions between the public and the private domains, ones rooted in assumptions about the proper roles of men and women in society. These roles typically cast men in the work domain and expect women to attend to the private realm. In like manner, these assumptions perpetuate the myth of a separation between home and work, when, in actuality, the boundaries are very blurred. Effective management of work/family conflict improves organizational morale for both men and women (Kirby et al. 2006).
Research reveals that the critical factors for effective conflict management include having supervisors who recognize and are supportive of both domains, enacting and administering fair work/family policies, developing an organizational culture that fosters flexibility, and having co-workers who value personal lives as well as organizational agendas. Organizations need to guard against sending mixed messages, such as having supportive policies but requiring excessive overtime and weekend work.
Designing Dispute Systems
All organizations, large or small, have some type of conflict management system. Most of these systems are informal norms or sets of procedures for filing grievances. In the past 10 years, however, organizations have focused on designing formal dispute systems that are proactive and aimed at preventing, managing, and resolving conflicts (Lipsky & Seeber 2006). These systems contain steps and procedures for processing conflicts, build in alternative approaches for handling disputes, and integrate the system into the daily organizational routines. Alternatives for managing a conflict include hiring a neutral facilitator to lead discussions, voting on issues, assigning employees to serve as neutral third parties, or arranging for a mock trial with a jury of peers. Dispute systems typically offer conflict management training for employees, multiple points of entry for registering complaints, and approaches that focus on the needs and desires of parties rather than on who was right or wrong (Ury et al. 1988).
Communication plays a pivotal role in integrating dispute systems into the daily operations of organizations. The most effective systems are responsive, encourage employees to address conflicts at the lowest organizational level and as early as possible, and develop an organizational culture that supports dissent. Thus, employees feel able to voice complaints without fear of retaliation or reprisal.
New Directions In Conflict Resolution
Organizational conflicts differ from disputes in other arenas because they often reappear in different forms. Scarce resources and power differences often lead to fighting the same battles over and over again. Thus, scholars have moved away from resolving conflicts and, in turn, recommend ways to make decisions fairly and moving forward. When conflicts become opportunities to redefine situations, new directions emerge for managing conflicts. Dialogue is a form of communication that promotes attending to the other party’s stance and creating new frames to locate conflict in alternative contexts. This approach differs from using the traditional options of conflict styles, negotiation, and dispute systems and brings multiple voices to the scene, transcends polarized positions, and develops new possibilities for meaning and action.
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