A Policy Approach to Discord in the Workplace
Because workplace conflict may yield unpleasant consequences - litigation, unproductive strife, or, at theextreme, tragic acts of violence - it is often viewed as both organizationally and personally undesirable.Realistically, however, eradicating conflict is neither possible nor desirable.
Instead, the relevant policy question is: How can conflict be managed effectively and efficiently? HRexecutives can lead the way by focusing company attention on (1) recognizing the possible benefits of conflict;(2) taking a systems approach to managing conflict; and (3) developing skills among employees and managersto handle conflict effectively.
While often avoided or suppressed, conflict is essential for organizational change to occur. If employees lackmeaningful ways to voice dissatisfaction or disagreement with the status quo, their choice is to quit or absorb thesource of conflict in ways that are either personally or organizationally unhealthy.
An important first step to managing conflict is recognizing that there are legitimate differences or disagreements overhow organizations should be run and how employees should be treated.
Taking a Systems Perspective
Conflict in the workplace does not arise or manifest itself in a vacuum. Its sources may stem from environmentalpressures - e.g., reduced sales revenues which force controversial resource reallocations - or personality clashes. Asystems approach enables companies to identify the sources of conflict and provide appropriate remedies.
The system includes establishing mechanisms for employees and managers to express themselves. Such mechanismscan range from simple suggestion systems to collective bargaining and union/non-union grievance procedures. An arrayof dispute resolution procedures, under the label of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), are available to companies:conciliation, fact finding, mediation, arbitration, mini-trials, peer reviews and negotiation. These methods can expeditethe diagnosis and resolution of conflict before undesirable consequences materialize.
Using Negotiating Skills
To operate effectively, conflict management systems require that employees and managers possess certain knowledgeand skills. The skill of negotiating is important, which requires an ability to listen actively and communicate effectively.
Problem-solving skills are also useful.
In this vein, companies should treat conflict resolution as a corporate capability, much like financial management andmarketing research. It is a way of releasing and positively channeling the untapped discretionary knowledge and energyof employees, rather than letting disagreement and dissension fester into costly disputes.
Marick F. Masters is a Katz Graduate School of Business professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
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