A considerable amount of literature is devoted to conflict resolution, as this topic is relevant to absolutely all spheres of human activity, including interpersonal relations, business, and politics. Conflicts are generally viewed as adverse phenomena that worsen relations and threaten to lead to dramatic consequences. At the same time, confrontation often reveals defects or tensions that can be resolved through productive conflict resolution. This paper discusses and evaluates the organizational conflict in which I was involved during my professional experience. It explores the origins of the conflict as well as its possible positive and negative effects and addresses the issue of ethics and workplace conflicts. The paper examines effective communication techniques for conflict resolution, including mediation and arbitration. The main question raised in this paper is whether the conflict is an entirely negative phenomenon, or can it have beneficial effects under certain circumstances? Based on the literary analysis and case research, it argues that conflict can be a productive and positive phenomenon, including in the working environment, due to well-established mechanisms of conflict resolution.
Why Does Conflict Occur?
It should be noted that the causes of conflict may be very different, depending on its nature and form. There are situations when it is impossible not to notice a confrontation. Loud arguments, obvious negative emotions, neglect, and even physical aggression may clearly indicate a particular controversy. However, most interpersonal conflicts are latent and implicit, and that can delay their resolution for a considerable time. Moreover, researchers note that people occasionally may not even realize that a conflict situation exists or may not be aware of certain tensions in interpersonal relationships (Cahn & Abigail, 2014). At the same time, they can affect the overall system, whether it is a couple, family, organization, or state.
The case that will be analyzed in this paper has occurred in the course of my professional practice in the organization where I worked some time ago. One of the company’s employees, who specialized in preparing documentation, asked me to draft an operation report. From my point of view, it was within his authority to prepare the report, and, therefore, we got involved in a discussion about the division of our responsibilities. During an extended period, we neither fulfilled this task nor approached the management to resolve the dispute. At the same time, we did not discuss this issue once again, and everyone stayed with their vision. There were no specific mediation mechanisms in this organization, but there was an HR manager. I asked the manager if it was my responsibility to prepare this report. However, I was asked to resolve this issue with the other conflicting party. When the deadline for compiling the general accounting came, he asked me again to provide a report, and the conflict discussion resumed.
In the case described, the main reason for the conflict was the lack of clarity in the definition of professional duties and their distinction between employees. It should be noted that conflicts over the division of responsibility were rather typical for this company. Besides, there were no established dispute resolution practices in it. HR managers usually offered conflicting parties to settle a dispute through bilateral discussions, which could lead to no result due to existing tensions. Researchers note that work-related conflicts can be “exacerbated by the dynamics of the workplace” (O’Sullivan, 2017, p. 88). In this case, management inefficiency and virtually non-existent practice of conflict resolution contributed to the persistence of a latent and then evident confrontation.
The nature of this conflict should be considered within the framework of theoretical concepts. Cahn and Abigail (2014) identify the four main factors of the conflict. These include the interdependence of the parties, the incompatibility of their needs or purposes, the potential adverse impact on interpersonal relations as a result of this incompatibility, and the urgency of these needs. The described conflict fully satisfies all of the above characteristics. When the conflict first occurred, there was some time left before the reporting deadline. Since the situation was not urgent in the beginning, the conflict became implicit for a while. However, with the advent of the emergency, it immediately actualized, and the confrontation continued. Thus, the conflict appeared as a result of the lack of clarity in the division of responsibilities among employees and remained due to the failure of the company to implement well-established mechanisms for conflict resolution.
The Positive and Negative Effects of Conflict
As a rule, conflicts are regarded as negative phenomena capable of undermining interpersonal relations, worsening the efficiency of working processes in the organization, and even leading to an armed clash on a global scale. It should be noted that this is correct for dysfunctional conflicts that are not adequately resolved. According to Cahn and Abigail (2014), dysfunctional conflicts arise when people “behave automatically, without consciously contemplating” their “alternatives or realizing that” they “have options and can choose among them” (p. 32). In that case, conflicts can be prolonged for a considerable time and have negative consequences. For example, in the above case, the confrontation worsened my relations with a colleague, and for a while, we were unable to solve joint work tasks effectively. Due to the fact that we both tended to avoid confrontation, the problem had not been solving. Moreover, the operation report was not completed until the deadline when the conflict was resolved. These effects could have had a tangible impact on the organization’s operations and the productivity of its business processes, especially given that such conflicts were typical of the company.
Generally, employees perceive conflict situations as stressors that affect the working performance. The findings of some studies confirm that “stressors are detrimental to job performance” (Cooper, Gilboa, Shiron, & Yitzhak, 2008, p. 255). At the same time, researchers point out that “different stressors tend to have differential relationships with performance” (Cooper et al., 2008, p. 255). When stressful conflict situations between several participants are perceived as challenges, their resolution can lead to productive consequences for the whole system. First, the emergence of confrontation may indicate weaknesses and shortcomings in the management or operational scheme of the company, as well as tensions in interpersonal relationships. Secondly, a productive resolution of the conflict can lead to the discovery of new perspectives and ways of functioning for all members of the group.
For instance, in the case described, the conflict revealed a lack of clarity in the definition and delineation of responsibilities among the employees. Moreover, the company’s management has failed in effective conflict resolution, which has resulted in the non-fulfillment of the work task. It should be noted that the operation report was eventually drawn up by me and the opposite side of the conflict jointly with a minor deadline violation. If the company’s management took into account this conflict and its typicality and developed a working system for its settlement, it could have been a clear positive consequence of the conflict. It would also be a significant improvement to modify job descriptions and the system for allocating duties and tasks among employees, as “role ambiguity may be perceived as a challenge” (Cooper et al., 2008, p. 255). Unfortunately, this did not happen in the mentioned case, and similar confrontations between employees happened afterward.
Conflict resolution is relevant in many areas of human activity, from interpersonal relations to international disputes. It involves complex efforts aimed at eliminating the source of conflict relations and satisfying the interests and needs of the conflicting parties. Simply suppressing conflict situations or prohibiting specific confrontational behavior tend only to increase tensions and subsequently lead to a relapse into conflict. For this reason, communication between conflicting parties, with or without the mediator, is the basis for a peaceful and sustainable settlement. Individuals should be able to voice their grievances and reach a balanced compromise. However, researchers state that “communication does not end hostility automatically and many settlements collapse after a while” (Eisenkopf, 2018, p. 121). Conflict resolution requires special communication techniques and an understanding of the origin and characteristics of the conflict.
It should be noted that the primary objective of communication techniques is to achieve a result that would satisfy both conflicting parties. According to Eisenkopf (2018), “contestants typically cannot achieve a cooperative outcome without communication,” especially if there was “a high level of pre-communication conflict intensity” (p. 122). The intensity of the conflict in the case described was low, given that both sides tended to avoid confrontation and delay its settlement. There was also no aggression and no excessive emotional expressions in the conflict, although the relationship between the parties had deteriorated dramatically in the aftermath of the conflict.
Nevertheless, we have managed to resolve our conflict through communication. One day before the deadline, we agreed that we would share the task, as neither of us wanted to prepare a whole report. Cahn and Abigail (2014) specify the following communication options in workplace conflict situations: “avoiding/accommodating, collaborating, compromising, passive-aggressive, competitive conflict escalation” (p. 280). However, the latter two are the least productive, as they imply an increase in hostility and mutual claims, either in attacking or passively attacking mode. They are characteristic of the most dysfunctional conflicts, which generate stress and have harmful effects, both for the parties to the conflict and for the whole system or group.
Collaborating, compromising, and avoiding/accommodating can be productive communication techniques in various circumstances. It may seem counterintuitive that avoidance of confrontation or accommodation may lead to positive results. However, researchers argue that if a conflict concerns personal issues or interpersonal relationships, attempts to resolve it within a work team can lead to increased tensions and conflict intensity (Cahn & Abigail, 2014). In the present case, we followed this strategy until a certain point, but the conflict was directly related to work issues. Therefore, avoidance of conflict or accommodation in such circumstances could not be considered as effective and appropriate.
Eventually, we resolved the conflict through a compromise that did not fully meet the needs of either of us but resulted in the conflict being exhausted and the task completed. The authors state that “compromising means making sure that no one totally wins or loses,” and “collaboration means using integrative behaviors and developing mutually satisfying agreements to solve the problem once and for all” (Cahn & Abigail, 2014, p. 42). The resolution of the conflict in the presented case did not prevent similar conflicts from arising in the future. A productive collaborative solution would need to clearly delineate the responsibilities of employees and enable them to resolve the conflict through a particular organizational procedure, such as mediation and arbitration, which will be discussed further.
Ethics and Workplace Conflicts
Corporate ethics is a system of moral principles and standards of conduct that govern relationships within an organization. According to O’Sullivan (2017), “workplaces, like societies, have formal and informal sanctions that encourage and discourage particular behaviors” (p. 93). The subjects of corporate ethics are both managers and employees of the organization. As a rule, ethical guidelines define the procedure for resolving conflicts or non-regulated situations. In the presented case, the company’s management failed to establish such procedures. It should be noted that there were no unique corporate ethics standards in this particular company, and it used ordinary conventional principles accepted in most companies.
There are several points of convergence between ethics and workplace conflicts other than corporate standards. This is particularly relevant for occupations that involve increased social responsibility or certain risks. For instance, human lives depend on the effectiveness of the performance of physicians and nurses, and conflict situations in a clinical setting can lead to rather dramatic consequences. According to Cahn and Abigail (2014), “a harmful conflict climate, consisting of the threats of power abuse, competition, distrust, and defensiveness,” fosters avoidance, accommodation, and competition (p. 135). Under such conditions, the productivity of employees can be significantly reduced.
Thus, general ethical considerations and standards of corporate ethics tend to warn employees against getting involved in work-related conflicts, especially if this concerns professions that have a critical function. However, conflicts are an inherent part of both working and any other relationships, and they cannot be avoided entirely. Moreover, they can be sources of valuable information that makes it possible to identify the necessary potential improvements, which are particularly important for developing organizations. In the case presented, for example, the conflict and the nature of its course revealed certain shortcomings in the company’s working process employment and the lack of proper settlement instruments. It should be emphasized that appropriate conflict resolution mechanisms can both prevent disastrous consequences, for example, in the healthcare sphere, and result in productive transformations.
Mediation and Arbitration
Mediation and arbitration are among the most effective communication instruments for organizational conflict management. They are widely used both in corporate practice and in interstate dispute resolution. According to Hartman and Crume (2007), “mediation focuses on altering the language used during the conflict process and discovering alternative ways for presenting ideas” (p. 138). According to the authors’ approach, it is reasonable to train the team in communication skills for conflict resolution (Hartman & Crume, 2007). The mediation procedure consists of several stages, involving disputants, reflecting team, and a facilitator trainer. During this process, the disputants take turns stating their position in front of the facilitator and the reflecting team, which identifies the values behind it and analyzes the language used. The reflecting team gives each disputant feedback, “provides options for language use, indicates how language choice could be altered and how the ideas can be reformulated for greater clarification of the ideas” (Hartman & Crume, 2007, p. 140). Eventually, the disputants are given the opportunity to discuss the issue with each other in the presence of a facilitator and a reflecting team.
It should be mentioned that most mediation and arbitration procedures are structured in a similar way. Their main objective is to use communication mediation between conflicting parties in a way that makes their messages more acceptable to each of them. Thus, the disputants have an opportunity to re-evaluate the essence of the conflict and come to a collaborative solution through the participation of a third party.
In the presented case, I once addressed an HR manager, who advised me to resolve the conflict with a colleague by myself. Apart from this, the superiors were unwilling to get involved in the conflict described. Thus, the standards of conflict resolution in this organization are far from the “best practices” approach. As previously stated, our decision was more of compromising nature, and the cause for future conflict has not been removed. In case my colleague and I could take the opportunity to resolve the conflict through a mediation procedure, perhaps the solution would be more beneficial for both of us. For example, we could define precisely whose responsibility it is to compile the report.
It can be concluded that the outcome of the confrontation and its long-run consequences depend primarily on the settlement mechanism. The “best practices” approach is based on a thorough analysis of the positions of both conflicting parties and the development of a collaborative solution that prevents possible future conflicts related to the same issue. Regardless of the causes of conflict and its potential adverse effects, effective resolution can lead to beneficial results and the detection of essential improvements in the whole system. Specific instruments and approaches based on communication techniques make it possible to restructure the dispute and settle it in order to keep both parties satisfied.
- Cahn, D. D., & Abigail, R. A. (2014). Managing conflict through communication (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.
- Cooper, C., Gilboa, S., Shiron, A., & Yitzhak, F. (2008). A meta-analysis of work demand stressors and job performance: Examining main and moderating effects. Personnel Psychology, 61(2), 227–271.
- Eisenkopf, G. (2018). The long-run effects of communication as a conflict resolution mechanism. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 154, 121-136.
- Hartman, R.L., & Crume, A.L. (2007). Public forum mediation: A training exercise for conflict facilitation skills. Industrial and Commercial Training, 39(3), 137–142.
- O’Sullivan, M. (2017). The structural causes of workplace conflict: Understanding the implications for the mediation of workplace disputes. Bond Law Review, 29(1), 87-94.