Q. Case Study # 3 Maelstrom Communications
Respond to Questions 1 and 2
Each question should be written-out with a response to follow. Each response should be about one to two paragraphs long depending on the nature of the question and the details you provide. Paper should be double-spaced. Please include short intro and short conclusion with recommendation to the particular problems identified in the case study.
Q.1. What situational conditions have created the conflict in this case?
Q.2. What actions should the organization take to manage the conflict more effectively?
Name of textbook – Organizational Behavior: Emerging Knowledge. Global Reality, McShane and Von Glinow, 2021 9thth Edition
I HAVE ATTACHED THE CHAPTER BELOW ALSO FOR REFERENCE
Conflict and Negotiation in the Workplace
Learning Objectives After studying this chapter, you should be able to:
LO 11-1Define conflict and debate its positive and negative consequences in the workplace.
LO 11-2Distinguish task conflict from relationship conflict and describe three strategies to minimize relationship conflict during task conflict episodes.
LO 11-3Diagram the conflict process model and describe six structural sources of conflict in organizations.
LO 11-4Outline the five conflict-handling styles and discuss the circumstances in which each would be most appropriate.
LO 11-5Apply the six structural approaches to conflict management and describe the three types of third-party dispute resolution.
LO 11-6Discuss activities in the negotiation preparation, process, and setting that improve negotiation effectiveness.
On a hot August afternoon, an easyJet flight was taxiing out to the runway at London’s Gatwick Airport when an incident delayed its departure to Belfast, Northern Ireland. The problem was neither mechanical nor an external threat. Instead, two cabin crew members had an irreconcilable disagreement about how to properly unpack and store the water bottles. When notified of the quarrel, the cabin manager advised the employees to try to get along and do their jobs. Unfortunately, the conflict continued, so the cabin manager met with the captain and decided to offload and replace the two squabbling crew members. Facing the frustrated passengers, the captain apologized that the flight would be delayed until two new crew members arrived. “This is quite incredible,” exclaimed a British television presenter who had a front row seat on the flight. “We’ve all worked with people we don’t get on with, right? But this tiff means a one hour flight is delayed!” The easyJet flight arrived in Belfast 90 minutes late. Page 401
Overt conflict is infrequent among commercial airline crew members, but when these clashes do occur, the consequences can be costly for the airline and inconvenient for passengers. A few months before the easyJet incident, a Delta Air Lines flight from Los Angeles to Minneapolis made an unscheduled detour to Salt Lake City because two flight attendants got into a nasty argument over work issues. In fact, passengers watched in horror as the two female crew
members began physically fighting each other. A third unidentified woman tried to calm down the two combatants but was hit by a wayward fist. The cabin manager notified the captain, who then changed course. Delta Air Lines later sent an understated letter of apology to passengers, saying: “We expect our flight crew to be nothing but courteous and professional at all times and what you experienced was far from that.” The flight arrived 75 minutes late in Minneapolis.
images/Alamy Stock Photo Overt conflict is rare among commercial airline crew members, but when these clashes do occur, the consequences can be costly for the airline and inconvenient for passengers. Page 402
The most recent and arguably serious airline crew conflict occurred between the captain and her male copilot on a Jet Airways flight from London to Mumbai. More than half way through the nine-hour flight, the visibly upset captain rushed out of the cockpit to the forward galley, complaining to cabin crew that the copilot had slapped her during a disagreement over personal matters. The two pilots were reportedly in a relationship and had less dramatic arguments during earlier flights. The crew tried to comfort the captain but were unable to convince her to return to the cockpit. The copilot eventually came
out—leaving the cockpit unattended on auto-pilot mode—and was able to persuade the captain to return with him. Unfortunately, their disagreement did not abate. Within an hour, the captain left the cockpit a second time, returning only after becoming aware that crew and passengers were increasingly concerned for their safety. Jet Airways initially announced that both pilots had a “misunderstanding” which they “resolved amicably.” However, the two were fired a few days later.1
These incidents involving flight crew members illustrate that workplace conflict can be very costly. But as we will learn in this chapter, some forms of conflict are also valuable to organizations. The challenge is to enable beneficial conflict and suppress dysfunctional conflict. We begin this chapter by defining conflict and discussing the age-old question: Is conflict good or bad? Next, we look at the conflict process and examine in detail the main factors that cause or amplify conflict. The five styles of handling conflict are then described, including the contingencies of conflict handling as well as gender and cross- cultural differences. This is followed by discussion of the most important structural approaches to conflict resolution. Next, we look at the role of managers and others in third-party conflict resolution. The final section of this chapter reviews key issues in negotiating conflict resolution.
The Meaning and Consequences of Conflict LO 11-1
Conflict is a fact of life in organizations. Companies are continuously adapting to their external environment, yet there is no clear road map on what changes are best. Every day, employees disagree on which work objectives should receive priority, which norms they should abide by, and how even minor job tasks should be performed (such as how to properly store water bottles during a flight). These conflict episodes occur because of clashing work goals, divergent personal values and experiences, and a variety of other reasons that we discuss in this chapter.
Conflict is a process in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another party.2 It occurs when one party obstructs another’s goals in some way, or just from one party’s perception that the other party is going to do so. Conflict Page 403 is ultimately based on perceptions; it exists whenever one party believes that another might obstruct its efforts, regardless of whether the other party actually has those intentions. conflict the process in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another party
This definition—and the focus of this chapter—is on conflict with others, such as between people on the same team or department, between work units or business divisions, or between the organization and external stakeholders. However, conflict also occurs within each of us (called intrapersonal conflict). In earlier chapters, we discussed various intrapersonal conflicts, such as when our behavior conflicts with our beliefs and values (see Chapter 4 on cognitive dissonance) and when we need to reconcile conflicting task goals such as providing customer service versus working efficiently (Chapter 7).
IS CONFLICT GOOD OR BAD? One of the oldest debates in organizational behavior is whether conflict is good or bad—or, more recently, what forms of conflict are good or bad.3 The dominant view over most of this time has been that conflict is dysfunctional.4 The “conflict-is-bad” perspective emphasizes that organizations work best through harmonious relations and that conflict, particularly between employees and management, undermines organizational effectiveness. This view argues that even moderately low levels of disagreement tatter the fabric of workplace relations and sap energy from productive activities. For example, conflict critics claim that disagreement with one’s supervisor wastes productive time, violates the hierarchy of command, and questions the efficient assignment of authority (where managers make the decisions and employees follow them).
Although the “conflict-is-bad” perspective is now considered too simplistic, conflict can indeed have negative consequences under some circumstances (see Exhibit 11.1).5 Conflict potentially reduces employee performance by consuming otherwise productive time. It threatens personal needs and self- concept, which produces employee stress, reduces job satisfaction, and increases turnover. Stress also reduces performance because it consumes energy and distracts employees from their work.6 EXHIBIT 11.1Consequences of Workplace Conflict
Interpersonal conflict also has a negative effect on information
sharing.7 Specifically, team members are less motivated to ask for, pay attention to, and transmit information with one another during some types of conflict. In some situations, disagreements can fuel organizational politics and thereby waste resources, such as when employees try to undermine the credibility of
their opponents. Conflict among team members may hurt team cohesion and performance. Even when conflict occurs between work units (such as when competing for budget funding), the interdepartmental conflict may lead to conflict and power struggles among employees within each work unit.8 Benefits of Conflict In the 1920s, when most organizational scholars viewed conflict as inherently dysfunctional, educational philosopher and psychologist John Dewey praised its benefits by suggesting that it “shocks us out of sheeplike passivity.” Three years later, political science and management theorist Mary Parker Follett similarly explained that the “friction” of conflict should be put to use rather than treated as an unwanted consequence of differences.9 But it wasn’t until the 1970s that conflict management experts began to embrace the notion that some level of conflict can be beneficial.10 They Page 404 formed an “optimal conflict” perspective, which states that organizations are most effective when employees experience some level of conflict. Organizations are less effective when the intensity of conflict is very low or very high.
What are the benefits of conflict? First, conflict potentially improves decision making. As Dewey stated, conflict energizes people to debate issues and evaluate alternatives more thoroughly. When employees disagree constructively, they probe and test one another’s way of thinking to better understand the underlying issues that need to be addressed. They evaluate the logic of the opposing positions and reexamine each party’s basic assumptions about the problem and its possible solution. Conflict also motivates creative thinking about novel solutions to the disagreement.11
A second potential benefit is that moderate levels of conflict prevent organizations from becoming nonresponsive to their external environment. Differences of opinion encourage employees to engage in active thinking, and this often involves ongoing questioning and vigilance about how the organization can be more closely aligned with its customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders.12 A third benefit occurs when team members experience conflict with external sources, such as competition with or threats from other teams or organizations. People tend to be more motivated to work together when faced with an external threat, which strengthens cohesion within the team (see Chapter 8). However, as mentioned a few paragraphs ago, this interdepartmental conflict sometimes undermines relations within the department.
The Emerging View: Task and Relationship Conflict
The “optimal conflict” perspective remains popular and seems to be true in some respects—there is some evidence that any form of conflict becomes dysfunctional beyond a level of intensity.13 However, the school of thought most widely accepted today is that there are two dominant types of conflict: task conflict and relationship conflict. These represent two distinct ways that people approach and interact with one another during disagreements and that have different consequences for employees and organizations.14
TASK CONFLICT Task conflict (also called constructive conflict) occurs when people focus their discussion around the issue (i.e., the “task”) in which different viewpoints occur while showing respect for people involved in that disagreement. This type of conflict keeps the spotlight on the qualities of the ideas presented (logic, factual accuracy, etc.). With a task conflict focus, participants examine the assumptions and logical foundation of the ideas presented. Their debate avoids any attention to the competence or power of the participants. task conflict a type of conflict in which people focus their discussion around the issue (i.e., the “task”) in which different viewpoints occur while showing respect for people involved in that disagreement
relationship conflict a type of conflict in which people focus their discussion on qualities of the people in the dispute, rather than on the qualities of the ideas presented regarding a task-related issue
Most conflicts—including “personality clashes” and other interpersonal tiffs—arise while employees are performing their jobs or deciding which task should be performed, how should it be done, how employees should behave, who should perform the various task roles, and so forth. Therefore, in almost all organizational conflicts, the parties can potentially focus on the work- related situation in which these differences arose (task conflict). Research indicates that task conflict tends to produce the beneficial outcomes described earlier, particularly better decision making.15 However, as we already mentioned, there is likely an upper limit to the intensity of any disagreement, even if it is focused impersonally on issues rather than the conflict participants.
RELATIONSHIP CONFLICT Whereas people engage in task conflict when they focus on logical foundations of work-related disagreements, relationship conflict occurs when the discussion focuses on qualities of participants in the dispute. This type of Page 405conflict is apparent when employees attack an opposing idea by questioning the competence of those who introduce that position or engage in the disputed behavior. Rather than identifying logical and factual concerns with someone’s suggestion (task conflict), relationship conflict attempts to dismiss the idea by arguing that it was proposed or supported by people who lack expertise, intelligence, credibility, or other traits necessary to make good suggestions.
Team decision making at Amazon .com is not a casual social gathering. “It is respectful contention and eventually we reach a decision based on the data, but meetings are hotly debated,” says a vice president about the meetings he attends at the online retailer. In fact, one of Amazon’s principles states that leaders should “respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.” Another Amazon executive explains that “it would certainly be much easier and socially cohesive to just compromise and not debate, but that may lead to the wrong decision.” Some observers and employees say that Amazon fuels relationship conflict, not just task conflict. Others counter that relationship conflict is discouraged, pointing out that “respectfully challenge” means focusing on the problem, not the person. “We debate politely and respectfully, and you are given constructive feedback to course- correct if you are rude or disrespectful,” says a middle management engineer.a fizkes/Shutterstock
Relationship conflict also occurs more indirectly when people rely on status or expertise to defend their position (“My recommendation is better because I have the most experience!”). Arguing for an idea by claiming one’s own superior competencies implies the inferiority of those who present opposing arguments or recommendations. It focuses on the relative qualities of the people involved, not the qualities of the ideas presented. Relationship conflict even occurs when someone is abrasive or assertive to the extent that the behavior demeans others in the conversation.16 For example, relationship conflict can occur when a manager bangs his or her fist on the desk while presenting an argument; the physical action implies that the speaker has more power and the followers need harsh signals to get their attention.
Relationship conflict is dysfunctional because it threatens self-esteem, self- enhancement, and self-verification processes (see Chapter 3). It usually triggers defense mechanisms and a competitive orientation between the parties. Relationship conflict also reduces mutual trust because it emphasizes interpersonal differences that weaken any bond that exists between the parties.17 Relationship conflict escalates more easily than task conflict because the adversaries become less motivated to communicate and share information,
making it more difficult for them to discover common ground and ultimately resolve the conflict. Instead, they rely increasingly on distorted perceptions and stereotypes, which tend to reinforce their perceptions of threat.
MINIMIZING RELATIONSHIP CONFLICT DURING TASK CONFLICT From our discussion so far, the logical recommendation is for organizations to encourage task conflict and minimize relationship conflict. This idea sounds good in theory, but separating these two types of conflict isn’t easy in practice. Research indicates that we experience some degree of relationship conflict whenever we are engaged in constructive debate.18 No matter how diplomatically someone questions our ideas and actions, he or she potentially threatens our self-esteem and our public image, which usually triggers our Page 406drive to defend. The stronger the level of debate and the more the issue is tied to our self-view, the more likely that task conflict will evolve into (or mix with) relationship conflict. Fortunately, three conditions potentially minimize the level of relationship conflict during task conflict episodes.19
• Emotional intelligence. Relationship conflict is less likely to occur, or is less likely to escalate, when team members have high levels of emotional intelligence, as well as the related attributes of emotional stability personality and trait self-control.20 Employees with higher emotional intelligence are better able to regulate their emotions during debate, which reduces the risk of escalating perceptions of interpersonal hostility. They are also more likely to view a coworker’s emotional reaction as valuable information about that person’s needs and expectations, rather than as a personal attack.
• Team development. Team development plays a critical role in suppressing relationship conflict during task conflict.21 One explanation is mutual understanding. As teams develop, their members become better at understanding and anticipating one another, which reduces the risk that a coworker’s words or actions will be misinterpreted as a conflict trigger. This may explain why newly formed teams (which have lower mutual understanding) have difficulty separating task and relationship conflict, whereas experienced teams (such as senior executive teams) are better able to suppress and separate relationship conflict. A second explanation is that team development produces higher team cohesion, in which employees feel a strong social identity with the group. Members of cohesive teams are motivated to Page 407minimize relationship conflict because these episodes threaten the team’s stability and the member’s future with that group.
debating point CAN PEOPLE AVOID RELATIONSHIP CONFLICT DURING DISAGREEMENTS? One of the core ideas in conflict theory is that people can disagree with each other regarding an issue (task conflict) without experiencing negative emotions toward each other (relationship conflict). The most popular book on negotiation makes this point by stating that the parties need to “separate the people from the problem.”b It advises that the participants need to view themselves as “working side by side, attacking the problem, not each other.”
Scholars do recognize that separating task from relationship conflict isn’t easy, but they claim it is possible.c People with well-developed emotional intelligence can control negative emotional reactions (anger, frustration, hurt, etc.) and can reframe the conflict as a constructive event rather than as a personal attack. Research also suggests that relationship conflict is less likely to occur when the parties understand each other’s views, such as in high-performing teams. Psychological safety norms have also been identified as a way to avoid relationship conflict while engaging in task conflict.
The ability to avoid relationship conflict during task conflict sounds promising in theory yet, in practice, it may be a bridge too far. Instead, some degree of relationship conflict may be inevitable. One of the most basic problems is that employees immediately and automatically experience negative emotions when they become aware that coworkers or supervisors disagree with their ideas or behavior.d Negative emotions aren’t just attributed to information in the opposing message; they are also attributed to the source of that message. This occurs because we naturally try to make sense of disruptive conditions, and this includes forming adverse interpretations about why a coworker has disagreed with our proposal or behavior. Consequently, relationship conflict seems to form as soon as we become aware that our ideas or actions are being challenged.
Relationship conflict may also be unavoidable because it disrupts the current or expected pattern of behavior, which produces negative emotions toward those who caused that disruption. People have a natural desire to maintain the status quo.e Even those who propose change want to see their ideas flow predictably through to the future without opposition. This effect occurs because people want to believe
they control their situation, whereas disagreement reduces perceived control and predictability in the work environment.
Relationship conflict may also be inevitable in any disagreement because all communication has both a relational and substantive function.f This means that when people interact with each other, they not only transmit and receive information (substantive), but also reinforce or strain the fabric of their relationship. Communication is important for one’s relatedness needs, so a message that challenges another viewpoint (substantive) also seems to challenge the relationship.
• Norms supporting psychological safety. Task conflict is less likely to morph into chronic relationship conflict when the team or broader workplace adopts norms that support psychological safety.22 As we described in Chapter 8, psychological safety refers to a shared belief that it is safe to engage in interpersonal risk- taking. In other words, employees are confident that presenting unusual ideas, constructively disagreeing with the majority, or experimenting with new work behaviors will not cause coworkers to threaten their self-concept, status, or career. Psychological safety flourishes when team and organizational norms encourage employees to respect and value one another, demonstrate interest in one another, be open-minded about and tolerant with coworkers’ opinions, and show positive intentions toward one another. Showing positive intentions involves displaying positive emotions and nonthreatening behavior when discussing different points of view.
psychological safety a shared belief that it is safe to engage in interpersonal risk-taking; specifically, that presenting unusual ideas, constructively disagreeing with the majority, and experimenting with new work behaviors will not result in coworkers posing a threat to their self-concept, status, or career
Conflict Process Model
Now that we have outlined the history and current perspectives of conflict and its outcomes, let’s look at the model of the conflict process, shown in Exhibit 11.2.23 This model begins with the sources of conflict, which we will describe in the next section. The sources of conflict lead one or both parties to perceive that conflict exists. They become aware that one party’s statements and actions
interfere with or otherwise threaten their own goals or beliefs. These perceptions produce and interact with emotions experienced about the conflict. EXHIBIT 11.2Model of the Conflict Process
Conflict perceptions usually produce negative emotions, including feelings
of stress (emotional strain), anxiety, fear, frustration, and/or anger.24 However, some people experience positive emotions through cognitive reappraisal of the conflict, such as by perceiving the situation as a positive challenge, an opportunity to learn about other viewpoints, and a relief that nagging concerns about a possible conflict are out in the open and can now be addressed.
Manifest conflict represents each party’s decisions and behaviors toward the other. These conflict episodes may range from subtle nonverbal communication to warlike aggression. Page 408Conflict behaviors are influenced by many personal characteristics (personality, emotional intelligence, personal values, etc). However, as the model illustrates, these forms of manifest conflict are also influenced by how the situation is perceived and the emotions experienced from awareness of the conflict. For instance, employees who experience anger tend to be more assertive and competitive toward the opposing party.25 In contrast, those who experience fear or anxiety when faced with workplace conflict tend to avoid the opposing coworkers or concede to their wishes.
Exhibit 11.2 shows arrows looping back from manifest conflict to conflict perceptions and emotions. These arrows illustrate that the conflict process is really a series of episodes that potentially cycle into conflict escalation.26 It doesn’t take much to start this conflict cycle—just an inappropriate comment, a misunderstanding, or an action that lacks diplomacy. These behaviors cause the other party to perceive that conflict exists. Even if the first party did not intend to demonstrate conflict, the second party’s response may create that perception. A typical problem with conflict escalation is that any task conflict focus that existed crumbles and relationship conflict takes over. Furthermore, the parties become less motivated to communicate with each other because of the shift to personal attacks and the failure of past logical discussion to resolve their differences. With less communication, the parties increasingly rely on
stereotypes of the opposing group, which amplify differences and feed relationship conflict.
Structural Sources of Conflict in Organizations The conflict model starts with the sources of conflict, so we need to understand these sources to effectively diagnose conflict episodes and subsequently resolve the conflict or occasionally to generate conflict where it is lacking. The six main conditions that cause conflict in organizational settings are incompatible goals, differentiation, interdependence, scarce resources, ambiguous rules, and communication problems.
INCOMPATIBLE GOALS Organizations divide the work among departments and teams, who divide it further among individuals. Each division of work has associated goals, resulting in different goals from one employee and department to the next. Goal incompatibility occurs when the goals of one person or department seem to interfere with another person’s or department’s goals.27 For example, the production department strives for cost-efficiency by scheduling long production runs whereas the sales team emphasizes customer service by delivering the client’s product as quickly as possible. If the company runs out of a particular product, the production team would prefer to have clients wait until the next production run. This infuriates sales representatives who would rather change production quickly to satisfy consumer demand.
DIFFERENTIATION Another source of conflict is differentiation—differences among people and work units regarding their beliefs, values, and preferences. Differentiation is distinct from goal incompatibility; two people or departments may agree on a common goal (serving customers better) but have different beliefs about how to best achieve that goal (such as by introducing new technology versus employee customer service training). Employees form different beliefs, expectations, and worldviews due to their childhood socialization, gender, ethnicity, occupation, personal values, and personality.28 Also, conflict is a perception, so before differences are actually apparent, employees form conflict beliefs from stereotypes and false expectations about coworkers from different backgrounds.
Generational diversity is one form of differentiation that can lead to workplace conflict.29 People across broad age groups tend to have different needs, expectations, and Page 409behaviors, which become a source of workplace conflict. This intergenerational differentiation occurs for two reasons. First, each of us is deeply influenced by the unique technological advances (e.g., smartphones versus Sputnik), economic conditions, and other “social forces” we experience growing up and throughout our lives. Second, we
tend to have somewhat different needs and priorities at each stage of our career and life, such as a greater need for skills development during early career, a greater need for job security while raising a family, and a greater need for financial security in retirement toward the end of our career.
Uber developed such a competitive culture that many employees at the ride-sharing service clashed with one another to achieve their own career goals. “It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job,” complained a former Uber engineer. Hostilities also occurred across teams due to both incompatible team goals and differentiation. For instance, sources say the San Francisco software engineers working on Uber’s self-driving vehicles viewed their robotics hardware coworkers in Pittsburgh as “a bunch of academics with no real-world, product-building experience,” whereas the Pittsburgh crew perceived the West coast engineers as “whiny and ungrateful.” This infighting may have contributed to faulty technology, which was one of several factors in the death of a pedestrian by an Uber self-driving vehicle.g
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images Differentiation also produces the classic tension that occurs when two
companies merge, particularly when they are based in different countries.30 These organizational and national culture clashes occur through disagreements over the “right way” to do things because of their unique experiences within each organization. This form of differentiation-based conflict emerged when CenturyLink acquired Qwest, creating the third-largest telecommunications company in the United States. The two companies were headquartered in different parts of the country. “Their languages were different, their food was different, answers were different. We talked fast and interrupted, and they talked slow and were polite,” recalls a senior Qwest executive. “If we said up, they said down. If we said yes, they said no. If we said go, they said stop.” This resulted in “unnecessary misunderstandings” as executives tried to integrate the two companies.31
All conflict is caused to some extent by interdependence, because conflict exists only when one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another party. Task interdependence refers to the extent to which employees must share materials, information, or expertise to perform their jobs (see Chapter 8). The risk and intensity of conflict increase with the level of interdependence because more frequent interactions increase each party’s awareness that they have divergent goals, beliefs, or intentions.32
Conflict has the lowest intensity or probability of occurring when employees have a pooled interdependence relationship. Pooled interdependence exists where individuals operate independently except for reliance on a common resource or authority. The potential for conflict is higher in sequential interdependence work relationships, such as an assembly line. The highest risk and intensity of conflict tends to occur in reciprocal Page 410 interdependence situations. With reciprocal interdependence, employees have high mutual dependence on each other as well as higher centrality. Consequently, relationships with reciprocal interdependence are the most intense because they have the strongest and most immediate risk of interfering with each other’s objectives.
global connections 11.1 Open Office, Hidden Conflicth
The private office has become a rarity in most workplaces. By some estimates, two-thirds of large organizations in the United States have open-plan offices (where employees work in a large shared space). Many firms are also moving toward nonterritorial offices or hot-desking (desks are shared, not assigned to specific employees). These arrangements reduce real estate costs, but they are also supposed to improve communication and cooperation among coworkers.
Instead, open office and nonterritorial workspaces may be fueling conflict, although mostly as hidden irritation and resentment rather than manifest verbal arguments. Shared work space arrangements create higher interdependence among employees regarding the noise, visual movement, territorial privacy, and information privacy of that space. Numerous studies have found that these distractions and intrusions make it more difficult to concentrate on one’s work. The result is interpersonal conflict from the discomfort of the distractions as well as from their effect on lower job performance.
“Our open office has absolutely crippled my productivity,” concludes a marketing professional in Idaho after three years in an open-office arrangement. “I can’t hear myself think, I’m starting to feel bitter toward my coworkers, and my anxiety has shot through the roof.” Employees at another
company reported increased conflict when the company squeezed more desks into the open space. “When we sat closer together, suddenly minor things became major irritants,” observes one occupant. “That was before the disagreements over blinds open or closed, windows opened or closed.”
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Conflict seems to be even more intense in nonterritorial offices because, along with the irritations of sharing office space, employees compete for scarce resources. Nonterritorial spaces usually have more desks than employees on a given day, but there is ongoing competition over prized locations, such as desks near windows, in quieter areas, and with stronger Wi-Fi.
“Each morning in my office is like a grown-up game of musical chairs, with six or so people competing for the last remaining hot desk,” complains a junior accountant in one office. “Lost productivity spent hunting for somewhere to sit is the least of our concerns. Barely concealed resentment comes to the fore on regular occasions.”
SCARCE RESOURCES Resource scarcity generates conflict because each person or unit requiring the same resource necessarily interferes with others who also need that resource to fulfill their goals.33 Most labor strikes, for instance, occur because there aren’t enough financial and other resources for employees and company owners to each receive the outcomes they seek, such as higher pay (employees) and higher investment returns (stockholders). Budget deliberations within organizations also produce conflict because there isn’t enough cash flow or debt facility to satisfy the funding aspirations of each work unit. The more resources one group receives, the fewer resources other groups will receive. Fortunately, these interests aren’t perfectly opposing in complex negotiations, but limited resources are typically a major source of friction.
AMBIGUOUS RULES Conflict breeds in work settings where rules are ambiguous, inconsistently enforced, or completely missing.34 This occurs because uncertainty increases the risk that one party will interfere with the other party’s goals. Ambiguity also encourages political tactics and, in Page 411some cases, employees enter a free- for-all battle to win decisions in their favor. This explains why conflict is more common during mergers and acquisitions. Employees from both companies have conflicting practices and values, and few rules have developed to minimize the maneuvering for power and resources.35 When clear rules exist, on the other hand, employees know what to expect from one another and usually agree to abide by those rules.
COMMUNICATION PROBLEMS Conflict often takes a dysfunctional first step because employees lack the ability or motivation to state their disagreement in a diplomatic, nonconfrontational manner. It is difficult to craft a message that communicates dissent with neither too little nor too much assertiveness.36 Influenced by their own emotions regarding an issue, employees tend to use emotion-laden language and aggressive nonverbal behavior when transmitting their concerns. The stronger the message, the stronger the perception by receivers that the conflict not only exists, but is a high risk threat. Receivers often reciprocate with a similar response, which further escalates the conflict. Furthermore, aggressive and emotive communication typically fuels relationship conflict and makes it more difficult for the discussants to maintain a task conflict focus.
Poorly crafted communication is a source of conflict, but a lack of communication often amplifies that conflict. Occasionally, lack of communication exists because employees don’t have the opportunity to discuss their differences. More often, the quarrel makes the relationship so uncomfortable that the parties actively avoid each other. Unfortunately, less communication can further escalate the conflict because each side increasingly relies on distorted images and stereotypes of the other party. Perceptions are further distorted because people in conflict situations tend to perceive more differentiation with those who are unlike themselves (see Chapter 3). This differentiation creates a more positive self-concept and a more negative image of the opponent. We begin to see opponents less favorably so our self-concept remains positive during these conflict situations.37
Interpersonal Conflict-Handling Styles
The six sources of conflict lead to conflict perceptions and emotions that, in turn, motivate people to respond in some way to the conflict. Mary Parker Follett (who argued that conflict can be beneficial) observed almost a century ago that people respond to perceived and felt conflict through various conflict- handling strategies. Follett’s original list was expanded and refined over the years into the five-category model shown in Exhibit 11.3. This model recognizes that how people respond behaviorally to a conflict situation depends on the relative importance they place on maximizing outcomes for themselves and for the other party.38 EXHIBIT 11.3Interpersonal Conflict-Handling Styles
• Problem solving. Problem solving tries to find a solution that is beneficial for both parties. This is known as the win–win orientation because people using this style believe the resources at stake are expandable rather than fixed if the parties work together to find a creative solution. Information sharing is an important feature of this style because both parties collaborate to identify common ground and potential solutions that satisfy everyone involved.
• Forcing. Forcing tries to win the conflict at the other’s expense. People who use this style typically have a win–lose orientation—they believe
the parties are drawing from a fixed pie, so the more one party receives, the less the other party will receive. Consequently, this style relies on hard influence tactics (see Chapter 10) to get one’s own way. However, forcing is not necessarily aggressiveness or bullying. It includes more moderate degrees of assertiveness, where you speak up and show conviction for your idea or request.39
win–win orientation the belief that conflicting parties will find a mutually beneficial solution to their disagreement
win–lose orientation the belief that conflicting parties are drawing from a fixed pie, so the more one party receives, the less the other party will receive
• Page 412 • Avoiding. Avoiding tries to smooth over or evade conflict situations
altogether. A common avoidance strategy is to steer clear of the coworkers associated with the conflict. A second avoidance strategy is to minimize discussion of the sensitive topic when interacting with the other person in the conflict. Although avoiding is situated in the “low– low” sector of the model, people do not always avoid conflict due to a low concern for both one’s own and the other party’s interest. On the contrary, we may be very concerned about one or both party’s interests but conclude that avoidance is the best strategy, at least in the short term.40
• Yielding. Yielding involves giving in completely to the other side’s wishes, or at least cooperating with little or no attention to your own interests. This style involves making unilateral concessions and unconditional promises, as well as offering help with no expectation of reciprocal help.
• Compromising. Compromising involves looking for a position in which your losses are offset by equally valued gains. It involves actively searching for a middle ground between the interests of the two parties. Compromising is also associated with matching the other party’s concessions and making conditional offers (“If you do X, I’ll do Y.”).
Source: C.K.W. de Dreu, A. Evers, B. Beersma, E.S. Kluwer, and A. Nauta, “A Theory-Based Measure of Conflict Management Strategies in the Workplace,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 22 (2001): 645–68. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
SELF-ASSESSMENT 11.1:What Is Your Preferred Conflict-Handling Style?
There are five main conflict-handling styles that people use in response to conflict situations. We are usually most comfortable using one or two of these styles based on our personality, values, self-concept, and past experience. You can discover your preferred conflict-handling styles by locating this self- assessment in Connect if it is assigned by your instructor. Page 413
CHOOSING THE BEST CONFLICT-HANDLING STYLE Chances are that you prefer one or two conflict-handling styles more than the others. You might typically engage in avoiding or yielding because disagreement makes you feel uncomfortable and is contrary to your self-view as someone who likes to get along with everyone. Or perhaps you prefer the compromising and forcing strategies because they reflect your strong need for achievement and to control your environment. People usually gravitate toward one or two conflict-handling styles that match their personality, personal and cultural values, and past experience.41 However, the best style depends on the situation, so we need to understand and develop the capacity to use any of the five styles for the appropriate occasions.42
Exhibit 11.4 summarizes the main contingencies, as well as problems with using each conflict-handling style. Problem solving is widely recognized as the preferred conflict-handling style, whenever possible. Why? This approach calls for dialogue and clever thinking, both of which help the parties discover a win– win solution. In addition, the problem-solving style tends to improve long-term relationships, reduce stress, and minimize emotional defensiveness and other indications of relationship conflict.43 EXHIBIT 11.4 Conflict-Handling Style Contingencies and Problems
The problem-solving style is not optimal in all situations, however. If the
conflict is simple and perfectly opposing (each party wants more of a single fixed pie), then this style will waste time and increase frustration. It also takes more time and requires a fairly high degree of trust because there is a risk that the other party will take advantage of the information you have openly shared. The problem-solving style can be stressful and difficult when people experience
strong feelings of conflict, likely because these negative emotions undermine trust in the other party.44
The avoiding conflict style is often ineffective because it produces uncertainty and frustration rather than resolution of the conflict.45 However, avoiding may be the best Page 414short-term strategy when the conflict has become emotionally charged or is so intractable that resolution would be excessively costly in terms of time, effort, and other resources. Avoidance is also one of the preferred cooperative styles in cultures where openly resolving the conflict is a lower priority than maintaining superficial harmony in the relationship (superficial because the disagreement still exists under the surface).
The forcing style is usually inappropriate because a high level of assertiveness tends to generate relationship conflict more quickly or intensely than other conflict-handling styles. This adverse effect of forcing is conveyed in the old adage: “The more arguments you win, the fewer friends you will have.”46 Even so, a moderate degree of assertiveness may be appropriate where the dispute requires a quick solution or your ideas have a significantly and objectively stronger logical or moral foundation. This conflict-handling style may also be preferred when the other party would take advantage of a more cooperative conflict-handling style.
The yielding style may be appropriate when the other party has substantially more power, the issue is not as important to you as to the other party, and you aren’t confident that your position has superior logical or ethical justification.47 On the other hand, yielding behaviors may give the other side unrealistically high expectations, thereby motivating them to seek more from you in the future. In the long run, yielding may produce more conflict, rather than resolve it.
The compromising style may be best where the conflict is simple and perfectly opposing (each party wants more of a single fixed pie). Even if the conflict is sufficiently complex for potential mutual gains, compromising may be necessary when the parties lack time, trust, and openness to apply the problem-solving style. The compromising style is also popular where the parties prioritize harmony in their relationship over personal gains in the dispute.48 Compromise tends to occur where both parties have approximately equal power because this prevents one party from gaining advantage over the other. The main problem is that many conflicts have the potential for mutual gains, whereas the compromise style settles for a suboptimal solution. Research also suggests that employees experience negative emotions (depression, frustration, etc.) under some conditions after they settle for a compromise agreement. Steering Clear of Workplace Conflicti
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CULTURAL AND GENDER DIFFERENCES IN CONFLICT-HANDLING STYLES Cultural differences are more than just a source of conflict. They also influence the preferred conflict-handling style.49 Some research suggests that people from high collectivism cultures—where group goals are valued more than individual goals—are motivated to maintain harmonious relations and, consequently, are more likely than those from low collectivism cultures to manage disagreements through avoidance or problem solving. However, this view may be somewhat simplistic. Collectivism motivates harmony within the group but not necessarily with people outside the group. Indeed, research indicates that managers in some collectivist cultures are more likely to shame those whose actions oppose their own.50 Cultural values and norms influence the conflict-handling style used most often in a society, so they also represent an important contingency when choosing the preferred conflict-handling approach in that culture. For example, people who frequently use the conflict avoidance style might have more problems in cultures where the forcing style is common.
Men and women also rely on different conflict-handling styles to some degree.51 The clearest difference is that men are more likely than women to use the forcing style, whether as managers or nonmanagement employees. Female managers are more likely than male managers to use the avoiding style, whereas female nonmanagement employees use the avoiding style only slightly more than male nonmanagement employees. Women in management and
nonmanagement roles are only slightly more likely than men to use problem solving, compromising, and yielding. Except for the male preference for forcing, gender differences in conflict-handling style are relatively small, but they have a logical foundation. Compared to men, women pay more attention to the relationship between the parties, so their preferred style tries to protect the relationship. This is apparent in less forcing, more avoiding, and slightly more use of compromising and yielding.
Structural Approaches to Conflict Management
Conflict-handling styles describe how we approach the other party in a conflict situation. But conflict management also involves altering the underlying structural causes of potential conflict. The main structural approaches parallel the sources of conflict discussed earlier. These structural approaches include emphasizing superordinate goals, reducing differentiation, improving communication and understanding, reducing task interdependence, increasing resources, and clarifying rules and procedures.
EMPHASIZING SUPERORDINATE GOALS One of the oldest recommendations for resolving conflict is to increase the parties’ commitment to superordinate goals and less on the conflicting subordinate goals.52 Superordinate goals are goals that the conflicting employees or departments value and whose attainment requires the joint resources and effort of those parties.53 These goals are called superordinate because they are higher-order aspirations such as the organization’s strategic objectives rather than key performance objectives specific to the individual or work unit. Research indicates that the most effective executive teams frame their decisions as superordinate goals that rise above each executive’s conflicting departmental or divisional goals. Similarly, effective leaders reduce dysfunctional organizational conflict through an inspirational vision that unifies employees and makes them less preoccupied with their subordinate goal differences.54 superordinate goals goals that the conflicting parties value and whose attainment requires the joint resources and effort of those parties
Suppose that marketing staff members want a new product released quickly whereas engineers want more time to test and add new features. Leaders can potentially reduce this interdepartmental conflict by reminding both groups of the company’s mission to serve customers, or by pointing out
that competitors currently threaten the company’s leadership in the industry. By increasing commitment to companywide goals (customer Page 416 focus, competitiveness), engineering and marketing employees pay less attention to their competing departmental-level goals, which reduces their perceived conflict with each other. Work-related goals are often linked to one’s self- concept, so as employees strengthen their commitment to a superordinate goal (while still valuing their subordinate work goals) they form a stronger social identity with the department or organization where that goal is embedded. In other words, superordinate goals not only manage conflict by reducing goal incompatibility, they also potentially reduce differentiation by establishing feelings of a shared social identity with the department or company.55
REDUCING DIFFERENTIATION Differentiation—differences regarding training, values, beliefs, and experiences—was identified earlier as one of the main sources of workplace conflict. Therefore, reducing differentiation is a logical approach to reducing dysfunctional conflict. Employees across subgroups form a shared social identity as they become more aware of or actually develop common experiences, beliefs, and values. As employees in one team, department, or region develop and recognize more similarities than differences with members of other work units, they increase their trust in members of the other group and are thereby more motivated to coordinate activities and resolve their disputes through constructive discussion.56
Organizations can reduce differentiation among individuals or work units in several ways, particularly where the parties have similar status and the process doesn’t threaten that status.57 One strategy is for employees to have meaningful interaction with people in other groups, such as through temporary assignments to other work units or participation in multidisciplinary projects.58 These work-related interactions not only improve mutual understanding through the contact hypothesis (see Chapter 3); they also create common experiences among coworkers across the organization and consequently increase employee identification with the organization rather than just with a narrow career specialization.
A second strategy is to rotate staff to different departments or regions throughout their career. This is a longer-term career development intervention than the temporary assignments recommended above. Consequently, cross- functional and regional career transfers may have a particularly strong influence on the employee’s identification with the organization rather than with one geographic region or occupational group (engineering, marketing, etc.). A third strategy is for leaders to build and maintain a strong organizational culture. Employees have shared values and assumptions and a stronger sense of community in a company with a strong culture. Chapter 14 describes specific activities to support a strong culture.
IMPROVING COMMUNICATION AND MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING A third set of approaches for minimizing or preventing dysfunctional conflict is to help employees across the organization understand one another better through increased communication and more formal mutual understanding interventions.59 These activities don’t necessarily reduce differentiation (employees still have divergent beliefs and experiences), but the interaction and discussion may create a clearer awareness of and respect for one another’s situation and point of view.