Conflict. It seems to be an inherent part of any process. If we ignore it or fail to deal with it effectively, it can destroy the process and leave more problems for the future.
The key factor with conflict is not whether it will happen, but rather how effectively we deal with it. Conflict does not have to be destructive. It can help us determine the effectiveness of what a group is trying to accomplish, and in doing so can strengthen the process. It can make us more carefully examine what we are doing or look for more options. It is certainly better to have some conflict than to have everyone passively (or apathetically) agreeing without any questioning or serious thought.
Anyone who has been part of a labor-management process knows that conflict can easily erupt, particularly of the parties are using a traditional, adversarial process. Conflict is not limited to labor-management committees, but can occur in the workplace, the home, or anywhere people interact.
A recent article by Katie Shonk from the Harvard Program on Negotiations made me think about conflict between labor and management. We often encounter conflict when we are dealing with a new client, particularly if they have a difficult history between the parties. Principled discussions and problem-solving are replaced by comments like, “I’m doing t this way because I can.”
The article points out three different types of conflict: task conflict, relationship conflict, and value conflict. Each has different origins, varying levels of complexity, and require different steps to help in their resolution. In this post, we will consider the first two types of conflict.
These two types of conflict are generally easier to deal with than value conflict. Task conflict can occur when there are differing opinions about jobs that need to be done, the correct way to complete a task, or deciding the ways to carry out workplace policies. Like all types of conflict, disagreement over tasks can occur in the workplace, home, or any organization.
Task conflict can be resolved if the parties take the time to explore the cause of the conflict. A supervisor or other manager should get involved to help the parties identify why the issues are important to each party and find the underlying interests,
Managers need to be trained in how to facilitate the discussions in a neutral manner. This will involve active listening, a calm demeanor that will help defuse the situation, and appropriate problem-solving tools to help resolve the issue.
Although task conflict is usually the easiest type of conflict to resolve, this is not always the case. If the conflict has not been resolved for a period of time one or more of the parties may have hardened their position and be less willing to openly participate. A lack of trust can also hamper the ability to find a solution. If the parties feel they are being heard and have participated in developing the solution, they will be more satisfied with the outcome. It will also help to improve their relationship which can pay benefits in the future.
Relationship conflict results from differences in approach, style, personality, or background. Putting people together in the workplace who have little in common but must try to work together can create this type of conflict.
Traditional labor-management interactions tend to focus on our differences. This can create or enhance relationship conflict. When we begin working with a labor-management committee, we do a small-group exercise in which we ask members to talk to each other and develop a list of things they have in common. As members learn about each other, they discover they have common interests and activities. Participants begin to build common understandings and break down the barriers that might divide them.
This approach works with other types of organizations or in the workplace in general. As with task conflict, mediation can help start the process of bringing the parties together.
We must consider the best means of dealing with any type of conflict. We cannot afford to ignore task or relationship conflict or hope they will simply go away. The conflict will continue and further divide the parties, preventing them from working together and being effective as a team.
Next time, we will take a look at the most difficult conflict type of conflict to resolve, value conflict.