Conflict Management — A Guide for New Managers
WHAT IS CONFLICT MANAGEMENT?
Conflict occurs when two or more people do not agree on an issue or course of action. Conflict is unavoidable in the workplace and is often valuable in contributing to the formation of high- performing groups (McNamara). Not all conflict is bad. When conflicts are properly managed, positive learning experiences may result as it increases the groups' willingness or ability to ask questions and challenge the status quo.
Conflict management seeks to limit the negative aspects and increase the positive aspects of conflict by implementing certain strategies. It aims to enhance learning and group outcomes (Rahim).
Managers play a crucial role in identifying and managing workplace disputes at an early stage. To this end, managers can be both the solution to, and the cause of workplace disagreements. Management style of managers could contribute to stress within their team or department (Chartered 2–3).
HOW DO CONFLICTS ARISE?
Figure 1. Causes of conflict.
The key thing to remember is that the conflict itself is not the problem, but poor management of conflict may result in even bigger problems down the line.
THE GOAL OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT
Conflict management should be distinguished from conflict resolution. The former does not seek to get rid of the problem, but rather to ensure that the problem is managed transparently, and that the entire team gets to working together again. In short, conflict management aims to enhance learning and helps in the development of high performing and effective teams. Conflict resolution, on the other hand, aims to reduce, remove or end the conflict (Rahim).
A GUIDE TO CONFLICT MANAGEMENT
There are three key aspects to conflict management – awareness of the Self (S), awareness of Team Dynamics (T), and taking Action (A).
Figure 2. Key aspects of conflict management.
Awareness of the Self (S)
Awareness of the self is important in conflict management. As a manager, your behaviour in the workplace (as a professional) and toward your team (as a person with integrity) will be a key defining factor with regard to how much individual team members trust and respect you. A manager who has the trust and respect of the team members will find it easier to get various members to understand the situation from others' standpoints. They would then be more willing to compromise or adhere to a proposed solution.
The Johari Window, a model created by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955, can be used to inform self-awareness and the individual's relationship with other team members, which hinges on mutual understanding. The aim is to develop the 'open area' (i.e., information known by the individual and by the group) (Chapman).
Awareness of Team Dynamics (T)
Knowing how the team works is the second aspect of conflict management. For example, who in the team requires more hand-holding? When issues arise, are there ample opportunities given to both parties to have their say? Are there cliques within the team that will take sides? What are some of the indicators that trouble may be brewing at work? An awareness of such issues will put the manager in good stead to pre-empt potential problems, and increase the chances of a happier and more productive team.
Understanding the stages of group development can be helpful in managing conflict because it contextualises group dynamics within the work context. Tuckman's stages of group development can be used as a basis to assess which phase one's team is in. There are basically four stages of group development (Tuckman).
Forming: This first stage marks the formation of a team. Each team member desires to be accepted by others and will tend to agree readily to avoid conflict. Although the manager of such a team almost has no issue with conflict, it is important for him/ her to be mindful of creating a firm foundation for the team in this stage. The manager should facilitate team members to get to know one another, develop mutual trust and establish positive relationships. It is crucial for the manager to establish and communicate expectations, and assist the team to identify similarities and agree on common goals.
Storming: For the team to grow, this second stage is inevitable. In this stage, team members open up to one another and confront differences in opinions. In expressing such differences, team members would develop skills in communication, which sets the foundation for good team dynamics. As team members seek to resolve these differences, it is important for the manager to be directive in guiding the decision-making in a professional manner. The manager should emphasize on the importance of tolerance, patience, and being open and non-judgmental. Clearly, this stage would not be easy, but is necessary for the development of a high performing team.
Norming: In this third stage, the team has come to a consensus and arrived at a common agreement on roles and processes for problem solving. Some team members might have to compromise on their own opinion to ensure the success of the team's goals. The manager can encourage this by recognising and celebrating the progress of the team.
Performing: Teams should strive to arrive at this last stage. In this stage, team members are interdependent, competent, motivated, able to work collaboratively and handle conflicts and decision-making without supervision. Managers of such teams can switch to a participative role as the team is autonomous and capable of making decisions. Nevertheless, this is often not the end point. There may be addition of new team member(s), which brings about new challenges, shifting the team back to earlier stages (e.g., storming stage).
Taking Action (A)
When dealing with conflict within the team, it is best to intervene as soon as the team exhibits signs of distress and inability to resolve differences. Thereafter, follow-up action will be required to ensure all members of the team are on the same page and aware of the entire situation. All action taken should also be in line with company policy, and clearly communicated so that the entire process is transparent, and no member feels that he or she is unfairly treated.
Remember, conflict management does not seek to get rid of the problem, but rather to ensure that the problem is managed transparently so that the entire team gets back to working together again, and as a result, grow from the episode. Whether the conflict would be constructive hinges critically on the way a manager handles the episode. Table 1 shows a list of encouraged and discouraged behaviour that could affect the results.
Table 1. Encouraged and discouraged behaviour of managers.
CONFLICT MANAGEMENT STYLES
There are a few approaches to managing conflict and along with it different instruments that could be useful to help managers and teams gain awareness of their conflict management styles. Examples include the DISC assessment and Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode instrument (Rahim; What; Thomas). In particular, Rahim's framework consists of five management approaches, namely, integrating, obliging, dominating, avoiding and compromising (Rahim). The key point to remember is that there is no one style that is appropriate to all situations, but knowing which style to adopt appropriately in the conflict is key to managing the conflict well.
Inspired by Rahim's model, this section attempts to list the different approaches in conflict management for managers when handling their supervisors or subordinates.
Table 2. Different approaches in conflict management for managers.
There is no shortcut to managing conflict. The key is to understand and establish good working relationships with your supervisors and team. Every situation of conflict is an opportunity for your team to grow, learn and work even more effectively if it is handled appropriately.
Goh Shu Shang is Senior Executive in the Institute of Public Administration and Management in the Civil Service College. The Institute equips officers with managerial, supervisory and operational competencies, by employing a diverse range of learning approaches, including group discussion, self-reflection and e-learning.
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