Conflict: A cool tool for our organization’s future

August 14, 2014

Whenever people work together there is conflict, for conflict is an integral part of co-operation. Since we at Endocode work in a collaborative environment, every Endocoder has a voice. This brings differences out into the open more often than in a hierarchical structure – and may cause conflicts. But conflict tells us that something has gone awry and may need to change. Conflict is a natural force for optimizing our system and adapting to a changed environment. How we address conflicts can therefore add to or take away from our company’s future._

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If there is a belief that the interests or goals of parties involved cannot be achieved simultaneously, then you have a conflict. There are three routes a conflict can take:

  • The frequent route: escalate it

    The conflict is simply a complaint. The aggrieved person lets it simmer for a while, then talks to others about it (starting rumors), or shoots off an e-mail. The challenged party retaliates with their own e-mail, this one raising all kinds of additional issues that now become the substance of the dispute. After a bout of back and forth the original complaint may be lost but the result is additional costs for all parties.

  • The occasional route: iron it out

    The conflict is a problem. The conflict requires professional handling in order to release resources, save time, money, and restore productivity. The first step is to contain the conflict to prevent it spreading. The next step is to unite the parties at loggerheads into a win-win arrangement. However, these solutions frequently entail a compromise involving gains and losses on both sides. The result is a superficial solution, papering over the cracks: the conflict will resurface in a different form in a different place.

  • The rarest route: use as springboard

    Conflict is seen as an opportunity for development. The conflict results from some underlying need. The parties endeavor to identify the source of the conflict and to overcome it. Conflict helps to see problems standing in the way of enhancing productivity and achieving organizational development and is therefore potential for organizational evolution – particularly in times of upheaval.

Conflicts themselves are neutral; two parties’ interests apparently diverge. It is only our interpretation according to our needs – such as stability – that conflicts acquire the value judgment. The question to ask is, which interpretation will best bring a business further long term? Will the signs of potential deficiencies in the system be used to improve production or will the system be preserved and protected, even if it is not achieving its purpose? Conflicts are Jekyll and Hyde in character; one entity presenting two faces, one positive, one negative, depending on how we choose to look at them.

Mr. Hyde: Developing conflict

Productivity steps aside when unhealthy conflict persists: Decision-making decreases in quality and around 15% of the working day is spent on conflict rather than on production. Even colleagues have to stop working on their tasks to act as negotiator. Beyond all this the question is: What is the opportunity cost? What could have been otherwise achieved? If conflicts continue they cause stress. Stress takes energy. Logically therefore higher levels of conflict take energy which could be applied to income-generating activities: A productivity loss of up to 25% reduces the average weekly time spent working in generally unpleasant work environments. Unresolved conflicts hardening into rigidity are the critical reason for at least 50% of all voluntary departures. The best-skilled employees will leave first.  The “ramp-up” time required for replacement employees to turn them into effective contributors adds some cost, too. This often results additionally in poor image within the industry, the marketplace or with the client. Find a detailed example applicable to larger companies here


Dr. Jekyll: Conflict for development

Conflicts are pointers to smoldering differences in views, opinions and aims. These differences are often based on different knowledge and experiences which, used intelligently, are the major resource of successful companies. The complete picture is only visible through the jigsaw of different perspectives to reveal the best route to resolution. In constructive communication, possible solutions are explored with open minds. Ripple effects are considered and weighed for each solution offered. The result is not only finding the best solution out of a variety of options. There will also be an increase in collaboration and the feeling of personal recognition among the individuals, too. This will ultimately bring to an organization the power of collaboration and the advantages of free information exchange. That is, being focused on resource-oriented solutions instead of problem-oriented thoughts concerning deficiencies. Anyone who wants to maximize effectiveness needs to organize smooth collaboration. Collaboration is built on respect. And respect requires that you listen to others and try to understand them. A sustainable culture of constructive controversy is a chance to improve communication massively.

The question is not: Can conflict yield positive effects? The question is: When does conflict produce positive outcomes?  Using conflicts as a positive drive for organizations requires a radical shift in consciousness. It is not changing the process that is the key; it’s changing the attitudes. Once those involved adapt their thinking and see conflicts for the signals to improve that they are, the parties will, aided by the conflict, evolve for themselves new, improved structures, if they are permitted to do so.

Step 1: Corporate values

The first step is to acknowledge new values. Instead of viewing conflict as bad, conflict must be seen as a necessary dimension of the organization. Effective conflict management provides a culture that actively seeks different ideas, stimulating interest and curiosity. Managing these conflicts draws resources in an unexpected direction and the first reflex is to balk at the apparent cost. It is imperative here to bear in mind that such investment is demonstrably lower than the hidden costs a conflict would incur. The organization needs to recognize that conflict can present opportunity to improve and to enhance the organization’s creative edge. You need to establish the environment such that conflict is an important part of your organization. Constructive culture of conflict alters workers’ thinking and paves the way to success:

  • “It’s interesting to hear how the same thing can appear so different. Where previously I thought it had to be the one or the other, I’m now far more fascinated by both”
  •  “I know I have power; but I don’t need to show it. I have to build relationships with these other players, so it is important I treat them with respect. For it is these small relationships that will help me in the future.”

The question is: What policy towards conflicts encourages and rewards your organization?

Step 2: Education

It is not the conflict that is the problem – it is the repertoire of action! Only those who grasp how to use a conflict can build a group where the capacity to take effective action increases. The first step is to establish the new paradigm of conflicts: everyone needs to learn that conflicts are merely indicators of underlying problems. They need to learn to focus on causes, instead of focusing on the surface or symptom: e.g. the personality presenting the position, how it is presented, what agendas are being pursued, etc. Organizations need a conflict resolution process, so that employees believe their opinions matter and will be heard, and their experience is important. They need to encourage their co-workers to see the viewpoint of others as the missing complementary pieces in the jigsaw of the whole.  The question is: What access to conflict resolution does your workforce have?

Step 3: Support

Conflicts often start with a complaint, but not every complaint is indicative of a conflict. Again, it is the totality of pieces that makes up the jigsaw. Management of complaints and suggestions for improvement (both internal and external) provide organizations with not only a means of spotting needs, setting priorities and verifying problem-solving processes, it also provides a means of assembling the parts and providing reliable warning signs of brewing antagonism before they evolve into full-blown conflicts. The question is: Does your organization track internal and external complaints and suggestions for improvement adequately?

Collaboration is built on respect. And respect requires that you listen to others and try to understand them. In constructive communication, possible solutions are explored with open minds. Ripple effects are considered and weighed for each solution offered. It helps to structure company, departmental or project objectives and to put them across. It opens the gates to energy, progress and innovation, triggering change processes; preventing stagnation.

Notes

References

  • Slaikeu, K. A. and Hasson, R. H. “_Controlling the costs of conflict_” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998
  • van Overveen, C. “_The Many Costs of Conflict_” Jakarta: Trimitra Consultants, 2004
  • Cram, J. A. and MacWilliams, R. K. “_The Cost of Conflict in the Workplace_” Danvers: Cramby River Consultants, 2000
  • Dana, D. “_How Much is Conflict Costing Your Organization?_” Kansas City: Dana Mediation Institute, Inc., 2008
  • Bobinski, D. “_The hidden costs of conflict_” Idaho: Center for Workplace Excellence, 2006
  • Barnes-Slater, C. and Ford, J. “_Measuring Conflict: Both The Hidden Costs and the Benefits of Conflict Management Interventions_” Oakland: MGH Consulting, LLC
  • Winfried, B. W “_Konfliktprävention: Die effizienteste Form von Konfliktmanagement_”  Vorderbuchberg: Die Umsetzungsberatung, 2004
  • Baron, R. A.  “_Positive Effects of Conflict: A Cognitive Perspective_” Netherlands: Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1991
  • Rosenberg, M.  B. “_Non Violent Communication: A Language of Life 2_” PuddleDancer Press, 2003

About the Author

Andreas Wichmann is a partner at the Endocde AG and adds more than 25 years of experience in project management and team building to our track record. With his expertise in complex group interactions, he designs environments for collaboration, teamwork and cooperative thinking.