No human endeavor is without conflict, and that goes as much for business management as it does for any other scenario. While conflict often has a negative connotation, it can be a means of professional growth and understanding, and becoming a much better professional as a result. But this isn’t always the case– conflicts that are personal as well as professional sometimes are irresolvable, and these conflicts can disrupt workflow and overall trust in the structure of a working team.
According to Manktelow and Carlson (1996), there are several benefits to handling conflict in constructive ways. When conflict is handled appropriately, there may be increased understanding, in which the resolved conflict has the ability to expand people’s awareness of the situation that was in conflict, and allows them insight into how goals can be achieved without undermining the goals that others may have. There may also be increased group cohesion, in which trust is not only confirmed, but enhances a collaborative team situation. In this case, team members understand and realize that they can work together. Another benefit of conflict resolution is improved self-knowledge, in which individuals are pushed to examine their goals and decide what is important to them and how to focus on that aspect of their work.
As the manager of a research and development facility, I am responsible for making sure that work flows smoothly even when there are conflicts that threaten to overcome what our responsibilities are. I happen to manage a team of scientists and engineers who do both fundamental research as well as product development. Part of my responsibility is to decide between competing priorities when there are multiple requests from different parts or groups within the organization. Thomas and Kilmann (1974) developed a model of conflict resolution that rests primarily upon a particular management style that occurs along a matrix of other styles. For example, it is probably true that there is no manager who simply manages from one perspective, but uses several different perspectives, depending on the issue at hand. That said, however, managers tend to orient themselves toward one particular management style for handling conflict resolution. Thomas and Kilmann listed five conflict management styles. These management styles are as follows: competitive, collaborative, compromising, accommodating, and avoiding. Clearly, these conflict resolution styles are different in their orientation, and there is at least one of them which, if followed, would result in a manager finding new work to do.
Personally, my orientation style is a collaborative. The characteristics of a collaborative conflict resolution style (Thomas and Kilmann, 1974) are that the manager using this style tries to meet the needs of all the people involved in a conflict. What is looked for here is cooperation rather than competition, and the cooperation should be effective and acknowledge everyone’s importance. According to the authors, this style is helpful when there are a variety of viewpoints that need to be considered in order to get the best solution or when the situation is too important to simply trade-off individuals’ needs.
In this particular scenario, there is a conflict that has arisen between two engineers within the workgroup. One of the engineers involved has requested a piece of equipment that is already in use by another one, and the original equipment use was required for three to three and a half weeks, and that particular engineer is a bit more than halfway through his use of the equipment. Traditionally, in this department, a piece of equipment cannot be reserved for use if it is already being used. It can only be claimed after the use is finished. But in this case, the requested use is of some significant importance and high visibility, and even those in upper management are concerned that it gets done without delay. What is expected is that the current activity will have to be interrupted long enough to allow the new job to be completed.
Given a collaborative style, all of those involved in this conflict are invited to a relatively informal meeting in my office to discuss the matter, and to make sure that all parties are on board with whatever decision is made. It is important that everyone understand that there is no favoritism involved in the decision (and they wouldn’t likely think so, anyway, given that I am not particularly partial to anyone group), and that the guiding principle here is expediency while meeting everyone’s needs as nearly as is possible.
I have prepared as best I can for this meeting, though it is a difficult one, and there are sure to be some injured professional pride as a result. But we’re all adults here, and we are all expected to behave like adults, so I wouldn’t expect that this conflict would linger for very long. Huebsch (2014) discusses the advantages and disadvantages of using a collaborative approach to solve conflict. One of the main advantages is that collaboration allows people to speak freely, and in doing so, problems get solved creatively. Additionally, the collaborative style is nonconfrontational, and people can feel safe in discussing things like personal conflict with someone else without being called to task for it. A disadvantage, however, is that collaborative problem-solving takes more time than the other conflict management styles, and using them in trivial disputes can tie up a manager longer than necessary, keeping him or her in doing his or her job effectively. In this case, however, the conflict has the potential to be a major one, and it is best addressed with a cooperative, collaborative approach.
One might think that a better approach would be a compromising approach. But in this case, compromise could backfire, because one of the engineers might feel like his work is less important than another, and it certainly is not true. So we use a collaborative approach, and we discuss the importance of each project need, and how we can best go about meeting the needs of both project groups so that both get done with the work they need to get done without the problem devolving into personal conflicts and serious problems in the workplace. Since the collaborative approach is the most important one to use in this scenario, and since it’s important to maintain the integrity of all people involved, as much time as necessary will be devoted to the meeting being held to discuss strategies for working out a solution as equitably as possible.
- Huebsch, R. (2014). The advantages and disadvantages of collaborating conflict management. Small Business. Retrieved from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/advantages-disadvantages-collaborating-conflict-management-36052.html
- Manktelow, J., & Carlson, A. (1996-2014). Mind Tools Ltd: Essential skills for an excellent career. Mind Tools. Retrieved from Http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_81.htm
- Thomas, K. W. and Kilmann, R. H. (1974). Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Tuxedo, N.Y.: XiCom.