In the vast arena of consultation services, the subject of conflict resolution is one of inestimable import. As with consultation itself, conflict applies to virtually all circumstances in which individuals and organizations interact, as conflict itself may take an incalculable number of forms. It may be tacit and perceived as eroding the circumstances in inexplicable ways, as it may be overt and forceful disagreement regarding policy, procedures, or the essential nature of an operation or organization. In all cases, when conflict is permitted to exist unaddressed, the consequences for all concerned are invariably harmful. Just as importantly however, it is through the thorough investigation of conflict and the devising of means to address it that real progress is frequently achieved. In the following, organizational conflict will be examined, along with an example of the methods best suited to resolving, and consequently eliminating, this prevalent and often insidious agent. Additionally, the intrinsic element of conflict as generating benefits will be explored.
For the sake of efficacy, conflict here will be chiefly examined in terms of organizational issues, as such are also the most likely forms requiring intervention of a consultation variety. Moreover, no examination may commence without an understanding of the essential differences between conflict management and conflict resolution. The former is far more evident in organizational circles, as companies typically have staff on hand solely to manage conflict, or prevent it from escalating. Resolution is a more visceral approach, one that seeks to comprehend and treat the underlying causes of the conflict (Butler, 2009, p. 15). Conflict management is more topical, and consequently less likely to derive the potential benefits from conflict mentioned; with resolution, the deeper level of understanding is better poised to generate growth and greater degrees of organizational harmony and functioning.
When resolution is the goal, then, it is usually necessary that a third party be engaged in a meditation role. In plain terms, there is no conflict resolution without mediation, as the role of the mediator itself is pivotal to the process. Conflict arises through some form of misunderstanding or unwillingness to conform to prescribed ideas, and the nature of such conflict is that it is created because the involved parties feel compelled, in a sense, to do so. With rare exceptions, and somewhat obviously, no one enjoys conflict; consequently, it is very much generated apart from the actual desires of the participants. This influence or “coercion” in place, then, what typically evolves is that no member of the conflict is enabled to rationally assess the conflict itself, because it exists through each member’s urgency to create it. The mediator is external to these forces, and thus able to more equitably view the situation in its entirety. The role is, in a word, pivotal. When mediation in conflict is practiced well, benefits may accrue in an exponential fashion. The conflict is resolved, but the process of resolution, fairly administered by that third power, usually then promotes a democratic and empowering dynamic which endures (Doherty, Guyler, 2008, p. 3). Mediation is, above all, restorative, and in that restoration promote higher degrees of commitment and cooperation.
The specific role explored here, then, is that of the consultant called in to mediate and resolve conflict. It carries with it an immense responsibility, one vital for a successful conclusion: as thorough an understanding of the nature of the conflict as possible. It is to be expected that each side of a conflict will, intentions to the contrary notwithstanding, seek to present themselves as justified in their stance. That the mediator is typically called in by the more powerful, or more highly ranked, individual(s) within an organization only amplifies this potential influence. It is, for example, usual that management would enhance its own position within a conflict by means of this effort; when any party moves to facilitate resolution, there is an inevitable elevation of perceived integrity. Similarly, this same influence may go to swaying a mediator more to the other side in the conflict, in that a non-management participant will automatically be perceived as less powerful and consequently more subject to unreasonable treatment. None of this may be permitted to enter within a mediator’s efforts, save in how it serves to better define the existing relationship.
What the mediator requires, and to the fullest extent possible, is information, and information untainted by the views of the disputants. Information mediation, in fact, is critical to conflict resolution, even as it is usually difficult for the mediator to acquire knowledge of the circumstances denied to the participants themselves (Fay, Ramsay, 2010, p. 531). In a very real sense, for any conflict to be effectively resolved, the mediator or consultant must be prepared to engage in a complex learning process. It should be noted, moreover, that intuitive skills are valuable in such arenas; members within conflicts will often provide “information” in oblique, and largely unintentional, ways. Exercising intuition permits the mediator to look beneath overt statements and professed motivations (Cloke, 2002, p. 64); it enables the mediator to perceive, in fact, issues perhaps not considered relevant or even present within the conflict.
As an example of these processes of information-gathering, intuitive and otherwise, it is helpful to employ a hypothetical case. Summoned to resolve a conflict within The Company, the mediator, John, first sits down with the general manager, Tom. Tom explains to John that a supervisor, Jane, is creating difficulties. Her performance has visibly deteriorated over the past months, and her entire department is failing to meet expectations. Jane has been called into meetings to discuss this, and she consistently asserts that she is doing her best. When challenged as to exactly why her work is not meeting standards once met, she indicates that factors beyond her control are causing this. Discipline has been attempted in the form of warnings, but nothing has changed except that Jane now ensures that her department meets only minimal requirements, thus legally protecting her from dismissal. Further efforts were made by Human Resources, encouraging Jane to reveal any problems she is having at the job. These have been unavailing, and the conflict has escalated in terms of discontent and/or poor performance moving beyond Jane’s purview. When directly asked, Tom asserts that he has no idea as to the reasons for Jane’s attitude. He shows John how consistently Jane has been given raises in the past, and produces evidence of how her former performance was rewarded.
John then discusses the issues with Jane, and he encounters much of the same demeanor Tom had mentioned as prevalent with her. She admits to no discontent, nor to intentionally lessened efforts. She is annoyed, in fact, by these persistent inquiries from management, as she feels they are actually encouraging a lack of cooperation from herself. John then has attained the overt information, minimal as it is, and he deduces that a serious conflict is in place because, for whatever reasons, there is both inflexibility and confusion on the parts of the participants. Neither, it seems, has any idea of why this conflict actually exists. This in itself, however, is an important clue for John, simply because such a situation is highly unlikely. The more probable reality is that one party is withholding information, intentionally or otherwise. As John perceives it and in basic terms, management or Jane is deeply unhappy. John then assesses the trajectory of the conflict, and it seems that management’s discontent is reactive. The answer, then, lies with Jane, so John arranges to speak with her again.
On this occasion, John maintains an awareness of how psychologically adept a mediator in conflict must be: “The bandwidth of conﬂict resolution…expands to include subtle actions couched in everyday activities (e.g., remedial exchanges, avoidance), as well as formalized negotiation” (Morrill, Rudes, 2010, p. 633). More plainly, there is something evidently false in Jane’s insistence on nothing being wrong, as John notes that her defiant body language and sustained silences are probably indicative of resentment. He believes, then, that the core of the conflict likely lies in the time before her performance levels dropped. He inquires specifically about this time period, which prompts Jane to matter-of-factly relate that this was when she had been hoping to be transferred to a sister company, a transfer that was denied. This established, in due course Jane reveals that, as management expressed no interest in her unhappiness in being denied the transfer, she saw no reason to either pursue the matter or commit herself to her work. John then comprehends that this conflict, like so many, was the result of a single issue never properly addressed. When Tom is apprised of this, communication is opened between himself and Jane, and she is encouraged that The Company will work to procure for her a desired transfer. This in turn generates a sense of corporate support within the departments, and the negative effects of Jane’s reaction are reversed.
It is inevitable that, in any hypothetical conflict, innumerable variables of motive, action, reaction, and nuance are lost. Nonetheless, Jane’s case exemplifies foundational aspects to conflict, and consequently to conflict resolution. On one level, there is the essential element of the mediator or third party, who may investigate with no bias or interests at stake beyond achieving resolution. Then, there is the important factor of how conflict frequently escalates from a single and unaddressed cause, and that the escalation actually serves to further obfuscate this cause. Most crucially, the example illustrates that nothing is more vital to conflict resolution than information, and how information may often be accessible in forms both direct and oblique, ranging from a manager’s pragmatic performance analysis to an employee’s defiant silence.
Conflict, and on multiple levels, is as evident within organizations as it is within personal relationships, and frequently for the same reasons. With few exceptions, it is a desirable state of being for no one, yet the participants often actively foster what they themselves find disagreeable. This occurs through misunderstandings, failures to properly communicate, as well as to reactions to unjust or unreasonable actions or policies. The latter causes are, all things considered, more easily remedied. It is in the vast realm of communication issues that the challenges in conflict reside, and these may only be effectively addressed through better communication itself, both enhanced by deeper knowledge of the circumstances and orchestrated through a mediator. Ultimately, while conflict inherently hampers and creates adverse feelings and conditions, commitments to resolving it which rely on true communication not only eliminate the conflict, but enable more harmonious conditions for all.
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Doherty, M., & Guyler, N. (2008). Essential Guide to Workplace Mediation and Conflict Resolution. Philadelphia: Kogan Page Publishers.
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Morrill, C., & Rudes, D. S. (2010). Conflict Resolution in Organizations. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 6, 627-651.