Solutions for Workplace Conflict

Out of all my higher education projects, I’ve referenced the studies in this paper most frequently. I suppose the topic of workplace conflict has been the most relevant for me, both as a manager and as a subordinate.

“Organizational culture is important to managers and employees because they spend, on average, 2080 hours per year (minus vacation hours and holidays) in their place of work”

Myers and Patten

My original study reviewed a variety of methods a manager may use to detect the source of workplace conflict and eradicate damaging alliances in the workplace.

This was important to me, as someone who has experienced with toxic workplaces —and still wants to be a part of the solution no matter where I work or who I am working with.

(I originally published these concepts in a paper for my M.A. in Strategic Communication.)

Mediation for Managers

As a team member says, “I can’t work with them,” a good manager thinks, “How can we move forward?”

When confusion and stress start to distract a team, a strong leader can mediate workplace conflict by identifying the source of the conflict and extinguishing the damaging alliances. In an effort to provide leaders with conflict resolution tools, a wide range of research has been conducted, focusing on both the causes and the solutions.

According to Myers and Patten, workplace communication researchers (11), “Organizational culture is important to managers and employees because they spend, on average, 2080 hours per year (minus vacation hours and holidays) in their place of work”.

To date, several researchers have attempted to analyze and categorize facets of organizational conflict with the goal of prescribing both mediation tactics and preventative actions.

Workplace Conflict Resolution Theories

Conflict resolution theories aim to improve organizational culture by removing frustrations caused by both employee relationships and organizational processes.

I reviewed the work preeminent theorists in the field of organizational culture, specifically dealing with organizational conflict. Thomas builds the foundation by identifying two types of workplace conflict: task and relationship. Then, Brief and Weiss note the role of emotions in the workplace. Finally, Wagner and Hollenbeck explain how organizational changes affect culture and mood in workplaces.

Researcher Thomas studied workplace conflict management and categorized reactions to conflict, which are, avoidance, accommodation, competition, collaboration, and compromise.

Thomas (15) reaffirmed his definition of conflict as, “…the process which begins when one party perceives that another has frustrated or is about to frustrate, some concern of his.”

He still contends that this description covers the variety of conflict types for the purpose of studying organizational culture. Most researchers use task and relationship as the two categories for conflict (1). By separating the conflicts into these two categories, the conflicts can be studied through their causes.

During another workplace conflict study, researchers Brief and Weiss (5) focusedon emotions in the workplace, noting the correlation between mood and effectiveness. Similarly, researchers Wagner and Hollenbeck studied how organizational changes produce reactions that affect the work group culture and group mood.

I also included additional scholarly work to provide additional evidence for core theories.

Limitations of these Studies

Practical Limitations. Research and knowledge is difficult to apply during a tense situation. Although a manager may grow into the role of mediator, their first confrontations will be difficult to navigate. Although the concepts presented by this theory are helpful, they need to be distilled into a few practical conflict resolution tools. Although such tools have been proposed in a self-help style, compilations anecdotal evidence seems to outweigh accumulated scientific testing. Such a study may be impossible as the effect of being part of the study may influence the outcome.

Demographic Limitations. With the variety of situations possible, it has been difficult to review the effect of demographics on conflict. Furthermore, it is impractical to theorize scenarios without stereotyping individuals. However, stereotyping can lead to unfairness in treatment of group members through assumptions. Therefore, understanding prejudice within the classifications of conflict makes the subject difficult to study.

Thomas’s View: Lessening Frustration and Improving Culture

Understanding reactions to conflict in organizations allows a manager to both lessen the frustration of the individual and improve organizational culture overall.

Throughout his work, Thomas reviews five main ways that conflict can be managed (15). Each type of conflict management can be separated by the way the groups are divided and how they have defined their goals. Therefore, a review of each type of conflict management discusses these elements. 

First, avoidance stems from a lack of compatibility. The conflicting groups have little reason to try to work together and thus, stay apart (15). Yang (19) studied the effect of conflict avoidance on subordinates. The study asserts that avoiding conflict can intensify the impression of injustice and, create more workplace gossip. So, the lack of compatibility combined with mutually exclusive goals creates a tension between parties who refuse to work together.

Second, accommodation creates a cooperative environment out of necessity. Finding ways to work together quickly, so that each party may return to focusing on other goals is the aim of this process (15). Schalk and Curşeu (14) argue that cooperation is an important theme in modern organizations as they try to adapt to necessary changes. Buzzwords like innovation and efficiency require cooperation within companies (14). Furthermore, Schalk and Curşeu asserted that when people cooperate, factors at several levels need to be taken into account (14). They explain that, “Although value orientation seems a clear-cut individual level variable, cultural value orientations impact on cooperation through multi-level dynamics” (14).

Third, incompatible goals create competition. If two parties are striving to reach one goal and only one can attain it, they will become competitors (15). Meyer (10) studied competition and cooperation between agents in organizations. She hypothesizes that the incentives play a key role in whether people will cooperate or compete. Meyer (10) proposes, “Even if a decision about a job design improves the static risk/incentive tradeoff, it may worsen the ratchet effect by so much that welfare falls.” She explains that the ratchet effect arise in organizations when an employer cannot compensate an employee based on their performance. In essence, each time the employee improves, he will be held to a higher standard without a higher reward. Therefore, employees may aim to simply meet, and not greatly exceed goals. Competition lessens this effect because people or groups are working against each other for the same incentive. One possible implication is that competition will replace cooperation when the incentive can only be achieved by one party.

Fourth, collaboration grows from compatible goals where interaction is necessary. In this situation, both parties will work through conflict because they know they can mutually achieve their goal (15). Liyakasa (9) reviewed several organizations that prioritized collaboration. Those companies included framework, attitude, and terminology as part of their collaboration strategy. This puts a priority on both sharing information and maintaining a functional workplace culture. Therefore, collaboration usually resembles a team model within organizations. 

Parker’s Support

Similarly, Parker (12) detailed how collaboration can make a team more effective. The contrast of a poorly functioning team outlines how workplace conflict resolution requires strong leadership skills. Signs that a collaboration has been sidetracked by conflict reveal that the goal is foremost. First, a lack of clear purpose makes it difficult to evaluate performance. Second, tense meetings are an emotional distraction from productive conversation. Third, group members discuss the situation but, few take action due to distrust. Fourth, private conversations replace open discussions. Fifth, the team leader makes decisions without soliciting team member ideas. Sixth, low levels of trust results in tense communication. Seventh, other parts of the organization resist helping the team. Eighth, similarity in working styles stalls goals. Ninth, the team does not or cannot evaluate the effectiveness of their process.

Finally, goals that are partially compatible yet, requiring interactions create compromise. Most commonly seen in legal situations, this transactional method of resolving workplace conflict has little room for creative inspiration from working together. This usually resembles a negotiation process where both parties must yield on some issues to reach some of their goals (15). 

Brief and Weiss: Emotional Consequences of Conflict

The emotional consequences of workplace conflict have a profound and negative effect on both organizational culture and group effectiveness.

In their study, Brief and Weiss (5) considered factors that produce moods and emotions in the workplace.

  • First, exogenous factors carry over from their time outsize of work. Influenced by the employee’s lifestyle, this is the cycle of feelings that an individual brings with them into the workplace. For example, a family member’s illness could cause an employee to bring stress to work.
  • Second, stressful working conditions can come from stressful events. Juggling roles or upsetting job experiences contribute to a stressful mood. As an example, a police officer witnessing violence would create this type of stress.
  • Third, leaders impact how followers feel. Some of the studies that Brief and Weiss reviewed show that employees display moods in reaction to the leader’s mood. One example would be an employee feeling anxious when a leader is angry.
  • Fourth, work-group characteristics create a tone. If most of the group feels stressed or unhappy, new employees will quickly take on the same mood.
  • Fifth, physical settings affect feelings in a workplace, including music and personalized spaces.
  • Finally, a review of rewards and punishments showed that positive emotions were linked to feeling successful.

To summarize, Brief and Weiss (5) conclude, “Organizational behavior is an area of inquiry concerned with both sorts of influence: work organization on people and people on work organizations.”

Bakker and Schaufeli Support

Bakker and Schaufeli (3) contend that positive organizational behavior is a valuable area of study for managers. As more modern companies focus on humans as important resources, worker engagement is critical for success.

So, looking for ways to cultivate organizational wellness instead of correcting issues after a conflict is the aim of their study (3). For example, instead of seeking to prevent burnout, Bakker and Schaufeli propose seeking higher worker engagement.

Although it may seem like semantics, the writers feel that it’s actually a shift in perspective. Additionally, it gives an employee room to speak up and seek out a healthy psychological state (3).

Bandura, Johnson, and Lyons Support

Similarly, Bandura, Johnson, and Lyons (4) studied voluntary, helpful organizational behavior. As workplaces rely on employees who go beyond the required job duties, their study attempted to look at the attitudes that could contribute to this kind of behavior. For example, the study felt that developing interpersonal relationships make people more likely to spontaneously assist coworkers. 

In contrast, subtle bullying behaviors can be seen in withholding important information, excessive monitoring, persistent criticism, excessively high workloads, social ostracism, gossip, shouting, personal insults, and taking credit for another’s work (13).

When these behaviors continue, they become a new normal. This is where the idea of depersonalized bullying originates.

Samnani Support

Samnani (13) concludes that the environment of the organization, not just one individual, creates an atmosphere that intimidates an individual. The effects of this bullying include a high intent to leave, low level of commitment, and a higher level of absenteeism (13).

Contrary to assumptions, the study found that targets who try to ignore the bullying are usually bullied more. Typically, the bullying will only stop when the victim recognizes that they are being bullied and ask for the behavior to stop. However, this is even harder for an employee to do when management feels that the environment should be “tough” or that the employee just doesn’t fit into that workplace’s culture (13).

Samnani (13) concludes that the longer bullying persists, the harder it is to stop. Also, witnesses of these bullying behaviors will assume the bullying is an acceptable part of the workplace culture.

An overview of this research shows that the emotional consequences of conflict will affect productivity in an organization.

Identifying the Source and Extinguishing Alliances

During each conflict, a strong leader will be able to identify the source of conflict and extinguish alliances. The groups can be team members versus the team leader or team members versus each other. For each type of conflict, the leader’s goal is to resolve the conflict completely and restore harmony. 

Team Members versus Team Leader

When a leader sees that the group opposes the leader’s direction, he should resolve that conflict while maintaining authority over the group. Wagner and Hollenbeck (16) discuss how change affects organizations saying, “Whenever managers attempt to set any change in motion they can expect resistance, for people tend to resist what they perceive as a threat to the established way of doing things.” They posit that the intensity of the reaction will parallel the magnitude of the change. However, Wagner and Hollenbeck assert that identifying the source of the resistance gives the leader opportunities for solutions (16). These include self-interest, fear of the unknown, general mistrust, fear of failure, differing perceptions of goals, prospective loss of status, social disruption, peer pressure, poor timing, personality conflicts, and bureaucratic inertia (16).

Wagner and Hollenbeck explain forcefield analysis as a diagnostic method to overcome typical employee resistance (16).

  • First, education and communication dispels inaccurate beliefs and provides correct information about the upcoming change.
  • Second, participation creates loyalty by letting group members facilitate the change.
  • Third, support fills in the employee educational gaps allowing them to be successful in the new situation.
  • Fourth, negotiation on smaller elements of the change may help smooth over resistance.
  • Fifth, hidden persuasion includes covertly disseminating information to select employees to garner support before the change is implemented.
  • Sixth, explicit and implicit coercion uses the threat of negative consequences to convince resistant group members to comply. This tactic only works when the leader has sufficient power to carry out the threats. 

Wagner and Hollenbeck (16) reviewed the Lewin development model (8) to explain the organizational development process.

  • First, unfreezing prepares employees for change by weakening their preconceived values, attitudes and behaviors (8).
  • Second, transforming facilitates the change by educating employees on the affects and expectations that will follow implementation (8).
  • Third, refreezing creates a new normal where employees accept the change and continue in like manner (8).

Walton and Dutton (17) studied interdepartmental conflict and determined that executive responses were imperative to resolving issues. They evaluated a three-part diagnostic model for an executive response.

  • First, they ask, “Are there manifestations of conflict or low collaboration in the lateral relationship?” to evaluate whether the problem stems from personal issues or a task obstacle .
  • Second, they ask, “Are these dysfunctional elements of the conflict process inherent in a competitive inter-unit relationship?” to understand how management may have contributed to the problem. This could manifest as denying necessary resources or putting uncooperative employees in key positions.
  • Third, they ask “Which of the contextual factors that create the interunit conflict are not inherent in the technology or are not essential parts of the administrative apparatus?” to identify if the system could be adjusted to prevent future conflict.

Walton, Dutton, and Cafferty (17) furthered their argument by studying 300 managers with interdepartmental liaison positions (17). Their review concluded that three factors created conflict (17).

  • First, ambiguous departmental jurisdictions created tension.
  • Second, interdepartmental communication was complicated by barriers, such as, a lack of consideration, overstatement of needs, withholding information, annoying behavior, and distrust between departments.
  • Third, an imbalance of rewards and workload creates a feeling of injustice.

When a group leader and a group are in conflict, an organizational leader should mediate the situation between a manager and their group. Harris, Harvey, and Kacmar studied the causes of abusive supervision. They found that managers were more likely to abuse employees that they didn’t like (6).  A preventative measure is for organizational leaders to mediate those conflicts, instead of giving the manager total control (6). 

Team Member versus Team Member

When a leader sees that members of a group are split, he should resolve that conflict with the intention of restoring harmony. Jehn, Bezrukova, and Thatcher (7) hypothesized that understanding group diversity gives insight into conflict. They reviewed group faultline activation, group culture, and issues with faultline measurement.

Diversity between group members has both positive and negative consequences. Cognitive diversity results in positive effects such as enhanced performance. Perceived differences between members creates interpersonal conflict. So, leaders of mixed teams need to find ways to identify the differences and mitigate their ability to create conflict .

Two big differences are social category characteristics and informational characteristics.

  • Social category characteristics include racial/ethnic background, nationality, sex, and age. Individual bias in response to these differences contribute to conflict. Jehn, Bezrukova, and Thatcher (7) propose that while these characteristics are not relevant to completing a task, they shaper members perceptions and behaviors .  This means the group could split into subgroup based on similar traits.
  • Informational characteristics include work experience and education. These are not noticeable until individuals are engaged in a task. Jehn, Bezrukova, and Thatcher propose that diversity of informational characteristics can complicate member’s understanding of what is expected for a task. This means that a flexibility of group member’s thoughts can stimulate a stronger decision-making process. They concluded that “The delineation of the processes behind social category and information-based splits as related to conflict should help managers handle effectively the dynamics of diverse groups…”

Harris, Harvey, and Kacmar (6) reviewed the consequences of abusive supervision in response to team conflict. Abuse included sabotaging, yelling at, or ignoring subordinates. Additionally, supervisors who responded to subordinates with tension, animosity, or annoyance were studied in light of relationship conflict. Harris, Harvey, and Kacmar proposed that the abuse stems from displaced aggression. Essentially the supervisor takes out their frustration with the entire situation on a single employee (6). The paper concludes that this creates stress for subordinate employees that cannot be resolved because they are afraid to report the behavior or abusive supervisors.

Ayoko and Callan (2) studied the impact of transformational and emotional leadership behaviors on team conflict. They found that team member’s reactions to conflict directly affect the productivity of the team. Specifically, negative emotions through words and perceived attributes had more impact than negative information. To summarize, if a team member or members are perceived to be negative then, they are usually ascribed all blame. They also found that the team leader is often blamed for team failure, when the leader is perceived to be the root of negative feelings (2).

Overall, leaders should be aware of conflict on teams, whether between team members or between the group and the leader.

Ayoko, Callan, and Hartel (1) studied team member’s reactions to conflict to test the effects of emotional intelligence. Their study concluded that both leaders and members need to be aware of the team member’s reactions to conflict. If a team has a destructive reaction to conflict, they should seek training in empathy and emotion management (1). To summarize, both situations require strong leadership to intervene and set the team back on course.

Improving Workplace Communication

As diverse teams bring triumphs of ingenuity, they are also punctuated by outbreaks of conflict. Managers, especially those who rely on teams, need to be able to mediate conflict to ensure positive results. The body of research in this paper describes both the types and reactions to conflict, many of which create negative emotions and lower productivity. Therefore managers must mediate organizational conflict to create a positive and productive organizational culture.

This review has revealed both the types and reactions to conflict, most of which distract from team goals. There are several ways that managers can lessen frustration to improve organizational culture and team productivity. This starts by understanding the five types of conflict and combining both people and processes in such ways that conflict is manageable. If a manager can shift the group focus to organizational goals, less-than-ideal reactions can be mitigated. While reactions such as avoidance, competition, accommodation and compromise are common and workable, they generally produce less desirable results than collaboration. With collaboration, the goal is foremost and supported by strong leadership, trust, and healthy conversations. 

Furthermore, the prolonged emotional consequences of conflict are destructive at all levels, including individual, work group, and organization. The research in this paper supports the concern that negative behavior, such as absenteeism, burnout, turnover, and bad attitudes, escalate if conflict is not adequately and promptly resolved. Therefore, identifying the source of conflict and extinguishing alliances formed from conflict allows managers to reconcile workplace disputes.

Final Thoughts

There are two areas of study that complement the discussion of conflict in modern organizations.

  • First, in keeping with current concerns, the possibility of combining a study of intersectionality with organizational conflict is an intriguing proposal. As the workplace has become more diverse, the need for sensitive conflict resolutions has become more apparent.
  • Second the influence of digital communication and social media is a component of conflict in the modern workplace. Depersonalization, an effect of communicating through screens, probably contributes to organizational conflict in a measurable way. Also, misunderstandings and missed connections, from reliance on such technology, may produce an unseen and little-studied tension.

Several researchers have categorized the parts of organizational conflict and prescribed mediation tactics for effective resolution. Defining conflict as frustration between parties, Thomas reviewed several ways that people try to manage conflict. Concerned with the motional effects of conflict, Brief and Weiss studied the causes of conflict. Finally, Wagner and Hollenbeck built on the Lewin’s model of forcefield analysis to identify means of eliminating employee resistance.

Focusing on both the causes and solutions for organizational conflict can allow a leader to both improve workplace culture and increase efficiency.  

References

1.Ayoko, O., Callan, V., & Hartel, C. (2008). The Influence of Team Emotional Intelligence Climate on Conflict and Team Members’ Reactions to Conflict. Small Group Research, 121-149. Retrieved September 4, 2015, from http://sgr.sagepub.com

2.Ayoko, O., & Callan, V. (2010). Teams’ reactions to conflict and teams’ task and social outcomes: The moderating role of transformational and emotional leadership. European Management Journal, 220-235.

3.Bakker, A., & Schaufeli, W. (2008). Positive organizational behavior: Engaged employees in flourishing organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior J. Organiz. Behav., 29, 147-154. doi:10.1002/job.515

4.Bandura, R., Johnson, R., & Lyons, P. (2014). Voluntary helpful organizational behavior. Euro J of Training and Dev European Journal of Training and Development, 38, 610-627. doi:10.1108/EJTD-08-2013-0088

5.Brief, A., & Weiss, H. (2002). Organizational Behavior: Affect in the workplace. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 279-307. Retrieved September 4, 2015.

6.Harris, K., Harvey, P., & Kacmar, K. (2011). Abusive supervisory reactions to coworker relationship conflict. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 1010-1023. Retrieved September 4, 2015, from www.elsevier.com/locate/leaqua

7.Jehn, K., Bezrukova, K., & Thatcher, S. (2008). Conflict, Diversity, and Faultlines in  Workgroups. In R. Pritchard (Ed.), The Psychology of Conflict and Conflict Management in Organizations (pp. 179-210). New York: Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

8.Lewin, K. (1997). Resolving social conflicts and field theory in social science. American Psychological Association, 301-336.

9.Liyakasa, K. (2013, August). Collaboration makes good sales great: world-class organizations leverage teamwork to be more successful. CRM Magazine, 17(8), 23+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA342676282&v=2.1&u=vic_liberty&it=r&p=ITOF&sw=w&asid=c113c076cf62cbb52a324c7d24447f9d

10.Meyer, M. (1995). Cooperation and competition in organizations: A dynamic perspective. European Economic Review, 39(3-4), 709-722. doi:10.1016/0014-2921(94)00078-E

11.Myers, D. W., & Patten, T. H. (1996). Exercises for Developing Human Resources Management Skills : Human Resources Management, Organizational Behavior, Business Communications, Compensation Management. Chicago, Ill: CCH Inc.

12.Parker, G. (2008). What Makes A Team Effective or Ineffective. In Team players and team work: New strategies for developing successful collaboration (2nd ed., pp. 63-67). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

13.Samnani, A. (2013). “Is this bullying?” Understanding target and witness reactions. Journal of Managerial Psychology Journal of Managerial Psych, 28, 290-305. doi:10.1108/02683941311321196

14.Schalk, R., & Curşeu, P. (2010). Cooperation in organizations. Journal of Managerial Psychology Journal of Managerial Psych, 25(5), 453-459. doi:10.1108/02683941011048364

15.Thomas, K. (1992). Conflict and conflict management: Reflections and update. Journal of Organizational Behavior J. Organiz. Behav., 13(3), 265-274. Retrieved September 4, 2015, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2488472

16.Wagner, J., & Hollenbeck, J. (1995). Managing Interpersonal and Group Relations: MicroOrganization Development. In Management of Organizational Behavior (2nd ed., Annotated instructor’s ed., pp. 412-444). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

17.Walton, R., & Dutton, J. (1969). The Management of Interdepartmental Conflict: A Model and Review. Administrative Science Quarterly, 14(1), 73-73. doi:10.2307/2391364

18. Walton, R., Dutton, J., & Cafferty, T. (1969). Organizational Context and Interdepartmental Conflict. Administrative Science Quarterly, 14(4), 522-522. doi:10.2307/2391590

19.Yang, I. (2015), Perceived conflict avoidance by managers and its consequences on subordinates’ attitudes. Business Ethics: A European Review, 24: 282–296. doi: 10.1111/beer.12083

Published by Danielle

I'm a writer and artist in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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