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How to Manage Workplace Conflicts Without Losing your Mind

Guidelines for Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

For any organization to perform effectively, interdependent individuals and groups must establish working relationships across organizational boundaries, between individuals, and among groups.  Individuals or groups may depend on one another for information, assistance, or coordinated action.  The fact, however is that they are interdependent.  Such interdependence may foster either cooperation or conflict.

This post will focus primarily on conflict that occurs between groups in organizations.  Types and causes of inter-group conflict, results of inter-group conflict, and ways to manage inter-group conflict.   In the past many organizations operated under the assumption that any and all conflict was bad and should be eliminated.  Today, more companies are beginning to understand that is not the case.  A more accurate and enlightened view is that conflict is neither good nor bad, but is inevitable.  It’s true that too much conflict can have negative consequences because it requires time and resources to deal with it because it diverts energy that could more constructively be applied elsewhere.  Too little conflict on the other hand can be negative in that such a state can lead to empathy and lethargy and provide little or no opportunity for change and innovation.  If everything is going smoothly, people may become too comfortable to want to make changes that could improve organizational effectiveness.

It’s true, of course, that some conflict situations produce nothing positive.  Other conflict situations, however, may be beneficial if they are used as instruments for change or innovation.  There is evidence that suggests conflict can improve the quality of decision-making in organizations.  When dealing with conflict the critical issue is not so much the conflict itself but how it’s managed.  Using this perspective, we can define conflict in terms of the effect it has on the organization; which can be either functional or dysfunctional.

A functional conflict is a confrontation between groups that enhances and benefits the organization’s performance.  For example, two departments may be in conflict over the most efficient and adaptive method of increasing production in a declining plant without increasing cost.  The two departments agree on the goal but not on the means to achieve it.  Whatever the outcome, the plant will probably will end up with better productivity once the conflict is settled.  Without this type of conflict in organizations, there would be little commitment to change, and most groups likely would become stagnant.  Functional conflict can lead to increased awareness of problems that need to be addressed, result in broader and more productive searches for solutions, and generally facilitate positive change, adaptation, and innovation.

A dysfunctional conflict is any confrontation or interaction between groups that harms the organization or hinders the achievement of organization goals. Management must seek to eliminate dysfunctional conflict.  Beneficial conflicts can often turn into harmful ones.  In most cases, the point at which functional conflict becomes dysfunctional is impossible to identify precisely.  The same level of stress and conflict that creates a healthy and positive movement toward goals in one group may prove extremely disruptive and dysfunctional in another group.  A group’s tolerance for stress and conflict can also depend on the type of organization it serves.  Car manufacturers, professional sports teams, and crisis organizations such as police and fire departments would have different points where functional conflicts become dysfunctional than would organizations such as universities, and training firms.

As previously indicated, conflict may have either positive or negative consequences for the organization depending on how much exists and how it is managed.  Every organization has an optimal level of conflict that can be considered highly functional as it contributes to positive performance.  When the conflict level is too low, performance can also suffer.  Innovation and change are less likely to take place, and the organization may have difficulty adapting to its changing environment.   If a low level of conflict continues, the very survival of the organization can be threatened.  On the other hand if the conflict level becomes too high, the resulting chaos also can threaten the organization’s survival.  Every conflict situation leaves a conflict aftermath that affects the way both groups perceive and act upon subsequent conflicts.  Generally the earlier conflicts can be resolved, the more likely the aftermath will facilitate positive future interactions between the conflicting groups.  While manifest conflicts can have functional aftermaths, the likelihood of dysfunctional outcomes increases as conflict moves from perceived to felt to manifest.

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