By Kanu Prince Munachi, AICMC
Conflict is endemic to all social life. It is an inevitable part of living because it is related to situations of scarce resources, division of functions, power relations and role-differentiation. Because of its ubiquity and pervasive nature, the concept has acquired a multitude of meanings and connotations presenting us with nothing short of a semantic jungle. Like other terms, conflict generates considerable ambivalence and leaves many scholars and administrators quite uncertain about (1) its meaning and relevance and (2) how best to cope with it.
There are different ways to come with a definition of conflict. When speaking of conflict, what would immediately come into mind would most likely be how differences and disagreements make such an occurrence to spring u. Webster’s Dictionary defines Conflict as “…a clash, competition, or mutual interference of opposing or incompatible forces or qualities, (such as ideas, interests, or wills).” In general terms, conflict exist where there are differences or disagreement between persons or groups. Contrary to the general impression, conflict is not bad. It is a natural phenomenon.
Conflict may also be defined as a struggle or contest between people with opposing needs, ideas, beliefs, values, or goals. Conflict on teams is inevitable; however, the results of conflict are not predetermined. Conflict might escalate and lead to non-productive results, or conflict can be beneficially resolved and lead to quality final products.
Conflict is an inevitable part of life. Each of us possesses our own opinions, ideas and sets of beliefs. We have our own ways of looking at things and we act according to what we think is proper. Hence, we often find ourselves in conflict in different scenarios; it may involve other individuals, groups of people, or a struggle within our own selves. Consequently, conflict influences our actions and decisions in one way or another. Conflicts are an everyday phenomenon in each Society. Conflicts are impossible to avoid, but it is possible to manage them in a way that we recognize the conflict symptoms in time.
Causes of Conflict
- Limited Resources: Conflict over scarce resources occurs when people want the same thing. Resources based conflict are usually easier to identify, manage and resolve.
- Psychology Needs/Esteem: Human needs for power, authority, friendship, belonging, recognition, etc may be the root cause of Conflicts. Such Conflict require deep analysis to identify and resolve or manage them.
- Values: Human identity is most times defined by values. Our beliefs make us who we are. Conflicts over values invoke deep-seated emotions thus making them difficult to resolve.
- Injustice: This cause of conflict supersedes any other causative factors of conflict because it is not in human nature to allow other people to cheat or deny others the opportunity or access to perceived needs, be it resources, values, information management or psychological needs.
- Perception: This has to do with people’s views, understanding and how they interpret the situations around them. Misconception of issues could lead to individual conflicts as well as group conflict. In other words, not everyone would see things the same way. Peoples view or see things in different perspectives. The reflection of a person makes him or her to draw conclusion on certain thing at a particular time.
Information Management: Information or communication may be benevolent, malevolent and ambivalent in nature. That is why proper management of information is very crucial and important in every human relationship. Such conflict occurs when necessary information is lacking, distorting or mismanaging in terms of propaganda or communication gaps. Information though intangible is a crucial integral part of human. In other words, proper management of information is very vital for better human relationship in order to avoid manifestation of conflict. Mismanagement of information can destroy entire human race. It is a crucial weapon of war but could also help to prevent war and achieve or maintain peaceful coexistence.
Types of Conflict
Interpersonal Conflict: This refers to a conflict between two individuals. This occurs typically due to how people are different from one another. We have varied personalities which usually results to incompatible choices and opinions. Apparently, it is a natural occurrence which can eventually help in personal growth or developing your relationships with others. In addition, coming up with adjustments is necessary for managing this type of conflict.
Intrapersonal Conflict: This occurs within an individual. This experience takes place in s persons mind. Hence, it is a type of conflict that is psychological involving the individual’s thoughts, values, principles and emotions. Interpersonal conflict may come in different scales, from the simpler mundane ones like deciding whether or not to go organic for lunch to ones that can affect major decisions such as choosing a career path. Furthermore, this type of conflict can be quite difficult to handle if you find it hard to decipher your inner struggles. It leads to restlessness and uneasiness, or can even cause depression. In such occasions, it would be best to seek a way to let go of the anxiety through communicating with other people. Eventually, when you find yourself out of the situation, you can become more empowered as a person. Thus, the experience evoked a positive change which will help you in your own personal growth. Intrapersonal conflict most times result to interpersonal conflict.
Intragroup Conflict: This is a type of conflict that happens among individuals within a team. The incompatibilities and misunderstandings among these individuals lead to an intragroup conflict. It arises from interpersonal disagreements (e.g. team members have different personalities which may lead to tension) or differences in views and ideas (e.g. in a presentation, members of the team might find the notions presented by the one presiding to be erroneous due to their differences in opinion). Within a team, conflict can be helpful in coming up with decisions which will eventually allow them to reach their objectives as a team. However, if the degree of conflict disrupts harmony among the members, then some serious guidance from a different party will be needed for it to be settled or managed.
Intergroup Conflict: This takes place when a misunderstanding arises among different teams within an established organization such as a university or even a faculty. For instance, the sales department of an organization can come in conflict with the customer support department. This is due to the varied sets of goals and interests of these different groups. In addition, competition also contributes for intergroup conflict to arise. There are other factors which fuel this type of conflict. Some of these factors may include a rivalry in resources or the boundaries set by a group to others which establishes their own identity as a team.
Stages of Conflict
To better understand how to effectively manage conflict, it is important that the various stages of Conflict is reviewed which are:
- Formation Stage: At this stage, the problem emerges and arid things that were previously taken for granted becomes serious issues.
- Escalation Stage: This stage is characterized by the development of enemy images. People begins to take sides; perception becomes distorted and parties begin to commit resources to defend their positions. Leaders begin to make inflammatory statements regarding such positions. Street demonstrations increases and intensify.
- Crisis: The peak of the conflict. Tension and violence are most intense at this stage and communication between the opposing sides ceases with possible loss of human lives and material resources.
- De-escalation Stage: This stage is characterized by gradual cessation of hostilities arising either from conflict weariness, hunger, sanctions or external intervention by a third party.
- Transformation Stage: At this stage, all causes of conflict have been removed and reconciliation has occurred. Usually, this stage is difficult to attain.
Dark and Positive Sides of Conflict
Conflict can either be positive or negative. Negatively, it leads to chaos and destruction. Our conflict has the capacity to confuse and hypnotize us and we come to believe there is no way out other than battle. Conflict possesses a dark, hypnotic, destruction power: the power of attachment when it is time to leave, the power of demonization when it is time to forgive, the power to articulate speech when it is time to be silent or to listen. Conflict alternately strokes and crushes our egos, fuels and exhausts our will, energizes us and freezes us in fear. It speaks to a deep, ancient part of our souls that thirsts for power and delights in revenge.
It is possible to change our perception of conflict from negative to positive, destructive to developmental. Conflict energy can therefore be channelled into possible ways. The idea is to focus on the positive dimension and understand conflict as an opportunity for change. Conflict are sometimes “desirable” to achieve the following:
- Generate new ideas
- Test group cohesion
- Explore possibilities
- Effect necessary changes
- Break unwholesome alliances
- Provide opportunity for dialogue
- Reveal different needs and interests
- Create mutual respect and dependence
- Release tension and bottled up feelings
- Recruit like minds and build formidable teams
- Provides emancipation from oppression and tyranny
- Identify the boundaries between the possible and the impossible
- Reveal fears and provide and opportunity to understand the other party.
Why Analyse Conflicts
We analyse conflict because it has been observed that a lot of solutions or recommendations made during conflicts are proffered on the basis of inaccurate analysis which sometimes compounds the conflict situation. Analysis helps to identify root causes and to formulate policies based on credible evidence. It facilitates future planning and prevents re-occurrence. It also facilitates the identity of all parties in conflict and helps in addressing their needs.
The following are some reasons for conflict analysis:
- Identify causes
- Assess damage
- Determine best approach
- Identify factors and forces at play apparent or hidden
- Guard against future occurrence
- Proffer solutions.
Conflict Management is generally discussed with regard to intractable conflicts, and has to do with the way people handle, or manage wrongs done to them. Conflict Management refers to a process that will be undertaken for an indefinite period of time (and may not result in a resolution), and is primarily concerned with containing and limiting the conflict. Ways of managing organizational conflict are as varied as its causes, origins and contexts. Conflict management refers to the process of using preferred strategies to handle a conflict with goals of limiting negative impact and enhancing positive impact. The purpose of conflict management, whether undertaken by the parties in conflict or whether involving the intervention of an outside party, is to affect the entire structure of a conflict situation so as to contain the destructive components in the conflict process (e.g. hostility, use of violence) and help the parties possessing incompatible goals to find some solution to their conflict. Effective conflict management succeeds in (1) minimizing disruption stemming from the existence of a conflict, and (2) providing a solution that is satisfactory and acceptable.
The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, which is an assessment used globally in conflict handling, specifies five strategies or skills used to manage conflict. All people can benefit, both personally and professionally, from learning conflict management skills. Each of these modes can be characterized by two scales: assertiveness and cooperation. None of these modes is wrong to use, but there are right and wrong times to use each. They are as follows:
The accommodating mode is low assertiveness and high cooperation. Accommodation involves having to deal with the problem with an element of self-sacrifice; an individual sets aside his own concerns to maintain peace in the situation. Thus, the person yields to what the other wants, displaying a form of selflessness. It might come as an immediate solution to the issue; however, it also brings about a false manner of dealing with the problem. This can be disruptive if there is a need to come up with a more sound and creative way out of the problem. This behaviour will be most efficient if the individual is in the wrong as it can come as a form of conciliation.
Examples of when Accommodating may be appropriate:
- When it is important to provide a temporary relief from 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 conflict would be detrimental.
Possible advantages of Accommodating:
- 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
- As a rule, does not require much effort.
Some caveats of Accommodating:
- The risk of being abused is real, i.e. the opponent may try to constantly take advantage of your tendency toward smoothing/accommodating. Therefore, it is important to maintain the right balance and this requires some skill.
- May negatively affect your confidence in your ability to respond to an aggressive opponent.
- 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 be turned off.
The avoiding mode is low assertiveness and low cooperation. In this approach, there is withdrawal from the conflict. The problem is being dealt with through a passive attitude. Avoiding is mostly used when the perceived negative end outweighs the positive outcome. In employing this, individuals end up ignoring the problem, thinking that the conflict will resolve itself. It might be applicable in certain situations but not in all. Avoidance would mean that you neglect the responsibility that comes with it. The other individuals involved might think that you are neglecting the problem. Thus, it is better to confront the problem before it gets worse.
Examples of when Avoiding may be appropriate:
- When the issue is trivial and not worth the effort.
- When more important issues are pressing, and you don’t have time to deal with it.
- 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
- When you need time to think and collect information before you act (e.g. if you are unprepared or taken by surprise)
- 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 Avoiding:
- When the opponent is forcing or attempts aggression, you may choose to withdraw and postpone your response until you are in a more favourable circumstance for you to push back.
- Withdrawing is a low stress approach when the conflict is short.
- Gives the ability/time to focus on more important or more urgent issues instead.
- Gives you time to better prepare and collect information before you act.
Some caveats of Avoiding:
- May lead to weakening or losing your position; not acting 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.
The collaborating mode is high assertiveness and high cooperation. Collaboration has been described as “putting an idea on top of an idea on top of an idea…in order to achieve the best solution to a conflict.”. Collaborating aims to find a solution to the conflict through cooperating with other parties involved. Hence, communication is an important part of this strategy. In this mechanism, effort is exerted in digging into the issue to identify the needs of the individuals concerned without removing their respective interests from the picture. Collaborating individuals aim to come up with a successful resolution creatively, without compromising their own satisfactions.
Examples of when collaborating may be appropriate:
- When consensus and commitment of other parties is important.
- In a collaborative environment
- When addressing the interests of multiple stakeholders is required
- When a high level of trust is present
- When a long-term relationship is important
- When you need to work through hard feelings, animosity, etc.
- 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 a reputation as a good negotiator.
- For those involved, the outcome of the conflict resolution is less stressful (however, the process of finding and establishing a win-win solution may be very involved).
Some caveats of collaborating:
- Requires a commitment from all parties to look for a mutually acceptable solution
- May require more effort and more 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 involved parties must continue collaborative efforts to maintain a collaborative relationship.
The competing conflict mode is high assertiveness and low cooperation. Competition involves authoritative and assertive behaviours. In this style, the aggressive individual aims to instil pressure on the other parties to achieve a goal. It includes the use of whatever means to attain what the individual thinks is right. It may be appropriate in some situations but it shouldn’t come to a point wherein the aggressor becomes too unreasonable. Dealing with the conflict with an open mind is vital for a resolution to be met.
Examples of when competing 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 or pressure
- When a quick resolution is required and using force is justified (e.g. in a life-threatening situation, to stop aggression)
- As a last resort to resolve a long-standing conflict
Possible advantages of competing:
- May provide a quick resolution to a conflict.
- Increases self-esteem and draws respect when firm resistance or actions were the response to aggression or hostility.
Some caveats of competing:
- May negatively affect your relationship with the opponent in the long run
- May cause the opponent to react in the same way, even if the opponent did not intend to be forceful originally.
- Cannot take advantage of the strong sides of the other side’s position
- Taking this approach may require a lot of energy and be exhausting to some individuals.
The compromising mode is moderate assertiveness and moderate cooperation. Compromising is about coming up with a resolution that would be acceptable to the parties involved. Thus, one party is willing to sacrifice their own sets of goals as long as the others will do the same. Hence, it can be viewed as a mutual give-and-take scenario where the parties submit the same amount of investment for the problem to be solved. A disadvantage of this strategy is the fact that since these parties find an easy way around the problem, the possibility of coming up with more creative ways for a solution would be neglected.
Examples of when compromise may be appropriate:
- When the goals are moderately important and not worth the use of more assertive or more involved 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 collaborating or competing 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 where 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.
What factors can affect our Conflict Management Skills or Mode
Some factors that can impact how we respond to conflict are listed below with explanations of how these factors might affect us.
• Gender: Some of us were socialized to use particular conflict modes because of our gender. For example, some males, because they are male, were taught “always stand up to someone, and, if you have to fight, then fight.” If one was socialized this way, he will be more likely to use assertive conflict modes versus using cooperative modes.
• Self-concept: How we think and feel about ourselves affect how we approach conflict. Do we think our thoughts, feelings, and opinions are worth being heard by the person with whom we are in conflict?
• Expectations: Do we believe the other person or our team wants to resolve the conflict?
• Situation: Where is the conflict occurring, do we know the person we are in conflict with, and is the conflict personal or professional?
• Position (Power): What is our power status relationship, (that is, equal, more, or less) with the person with whom we are in conflict?
• Practice: Practice involves being able to use all five conflict modes effectively, being able to determine what conflict mode would be most effective to resolve the conflict, and the ability to change modes as necessary while engaged in conflict.
• Determining the best mode: Through knowledge about conflict and through practice we develop a “conflict management understanding” and can, with ease and limited energy, determine what conflict mode to use with the particular person with whom we are in conflict.
• Communication skills: The essence of conflict resolution and conflict management is the ability to communicate effectively. People who have and use effective communication will resolve their conflicts with greater ease and success.
• Life experiences: We often practice the conflict modes we saw our primary caretaker(s) use unless we have made a conscious choice as adults to change or adapt our conflict styles. Some of us had great role models teach us to manage our conflicts and others of us had less-than-great role models. Our life experiences, both personal and professional, have taught us to frame conflict as either something positive that can be worked through or something negative to be avoided and ignored at all costs.
Discerning how we manage our conflict, why we manage conflict the way we do, and thinking about the value of engaging in conflict with others are important. With better understanding we can make informed choices about how we engage in conflict and when we will engage in conflict.
How to prevent Conflict
Individuals, groups and organizations should develop diverse but appropriate strategies to resolve and manage conflicts as they arise before escalating to unmanageable level. They all can do this by:
- Establishing formal procedures – for dispute resolution, grievances and disciplinary issues
- Explain plans – link individual performance targets to the overall business plans so everyone feels involved.
- Listen – consultation is the key to involving employees in decision-making
- Reward fairly – pay is seldom far from people’s minds.
- Work safely – think about use of computers, smoking, stress and drugs as well as noise, dust and chemicals.
- Value employees – how would most employees describe the culture within the organisation?
- Encourage initiative – think about job design and developing individuals
- Balance personal and business needs – Flexible working patterns help to improve the work-life balance of employees and the effectiveness of the business.
- Develop new skills – It is worth thinking about Invest in People (IIP) to promote training and communication.
- Build trust between employee representatives and management – do relationships add value to the organisation by working effectively to respond to change.
- Efforts should be made by the managers to occasionally stimulate conflict by encouraging divergent views and rewarding staff and unit/department for outstanding performance.
- Proper communication procedures should be put in place to resolve conflict. For instance, when any disagreements arise among the employees, it should be reported to the management and then management should get statements from the parties involved, brainstorm the issue and make recommendation on how to resolve the conflict.
- Efforts should be made by the management to organize seminars/workshops on organizational conflict management from time to time for the employees. This will enable employees learn about conflict and how it can be effectively managed for individual and organization effectiveness.
- Lastly, group interaction and activities should be followed up so as to ensure a degree of functionality compatible to conflicts. Positive conflicts will only be possible if particularities of the organization are analysed.
References for Further Information
- Adomi EE, Anie SO, 2005. Conflict Management in Nigerian University Libraries. Journal of Library Management, 27(8): 520-530.
- Brad ford; “Conflict Management Styles – How to Deal with Conflict” Available at; http://www.typesofconflict.org/
- Consulting Psychologists Press (CPP). Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Palo Alto, CA: (800)624-1765 or available on the WorldWide Web at http://www.cpp-db.com.
- D. Thakore; ‘Conflict and Conflict Management’ Journal of Business and Management (IOSR-JBM) e-ISSN: 2278-487X.Volume 8, Issue 6 (Mar. – Apr. 2013), PP 07-16 www.iosrjournals.org
- Jacob Bercovitch: CONFLICT AND CONFLICT MANAGEMENT IN ORGANIZATIONS: A FRAMEWORK FOR ANALYSIS
- Professional ADR skills certification course manual: module 1
- Understanding Conflict and Conflict Management. Available at http://www.foundationcoalition.org/teams