Conflict to Make Positive Change in the Workplace


Conflict happens over disagreements over the goals, personal aspirations, methods used by organizations to achieve business goals. Conflicts can happen between individuals, between groups, between individuals and the management, and also between the management and groups. Conflict is generally regarded as an unwanted manifestation of people’s lack of motivation and job satisfaction and is usually regarded by the organization as something that is nonproductive and has to be resolved so that people can work without friction. But Conflict can also be used as a positive Change Management (CM) tool. This paper examines various theories of conflict and analyses a few case studies where conflict has been used to bring positive change in the workplace.

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Theories of Conflict

McShane (McShane et all, 1999) has suggested that there are different levels of conflict and they are: Intrapersonal Conflict, Interpersonal Conflict, and Intergroup Conflict. These conflicts occur within an employee, between individuals or groups, and across organizations as they compete. Such conflicts can deeply affect employee’s emotions and reduce productivity. The sources or reasons for the conflict can be categorized due to” organizational changes, personality clashes, different sets of values, threats to status and contrasting principles.

Edwards (Edwards, 2003) suggests that Conflicts are dangerous and destructive when they last for a long time or become so intensive that they disrupt the work. It breaks down the work methodology, trust, and cooperation between employees, and the loser in the conflict feels victimized and may suffer a loss in self-esteem. On the other hand, Conflict has been used as a change management tool to bring about positive changes in an organization. In some instances, the conflict has acted as a trigger and focussed attention on a specific issue that made the management change the business process. In the next section, a few such cases are examined.

Conflict as a CM Tool – Case Studies

This section provides a few real-life examples of how conflicts have been used to introduce positive change management in an organization.

Conflict Management in a Hospital

Skjorshammer (Skjorshammer, 2001) has reported about a conflict in a hospital in Norway and how the management intervened to bring in positive change management processes.

The Conflict

According to Skjorshammer, the hospital had problems of conflicts between members of the staff, employees, and the doctors. The hospital had some legacy systems for resolving disputes and these were of two major types: the work process system and the employer union system. There was no standardization, no set of formal rules to identify a conflict, and no accepted means to resolve them. The employer union system mainly dealt with formal relations between the employee and the management. They reached agreements on issues such as work hours, wages, working environment, working shifts, and so on. The work process resolution dealt with the work processes of the hospital such as providing medical care, ensuring cooperation between different departments, ensuring the required level of hygiene, making beds, and so on. Conflicts occurred mainly in the work process system when employees felt that they had more work to do, were paid less, were always given night duty, and so on. The employees used the services of their unions to intervene and clarify their rights, roles, and duties. Confrontations frequently occurred between the doctors and the staff and the doctors expressed their lack of management in resolving the disputes. The frequent collision between the employees and their supervisors occurred regularly and senior managers became involved only when the situation had become serious and gone out of hand. When the people involved in the conflict met to resolve the dispute, the proceedings were usually conducted in isolation and without any modalities or shared framework.

The Change Management Solution

According to Skjorshammer, the top management devised a system that would help to resolve the conflicts. A task force was formed to improve and devise a new conflict resolution system. The task force consisted of the chairman, food director, nurse manager of medicine and psychiatry, and some union leaders. The task force observed that ‘Conflict is an inevitable process and cannot be wished away but the causes and effects can be minimised’ (Slaikeu 1989). They suggested that conflicts should be solved in the hospital itself as early as possible, in an informal environment, and should involve the workers, the supervisor, and the immediate manager. The resolution should be done in an exploratory manner with alternatives being offered. They suggested a system with four levels and each level would allow for escalation to the next level if required. The endpoint was litigation and arbitration and this was the last resort and had to be avoided. The system had an open door policy and the first level involved the personal department and the participants. If the dispute was not resolved, it would be referred to the next level which was the manager. The dispute could be escalated to the next level made of the department head and the final level was the chairman and other senior managers. If the dispute was still not resolved, then it was open to litigation and arbitration. In addition to this system, the management introduced work improvement measures, counseling, and training, and this considerably reduced the number of conflicts.

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Resolving Conflicts and Disputes by Acas

Dix (Dix et all, 2004) has provided an analysis of how Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, London, UK) manages conflicts and uses a special methodology to resolve disputes.

The Conflict

Holtrop(Hiltrop 1985) has suggested that Acas is involved in solving conflicts between employers and employees and it has served as an arbitrator for thousands of disputes since 1974. Lipsky (Lipsky, 2003) has pointed out that for the years 2002-2003, it has been involved in 1352 cases. As does not have any judicial or regulatory powers to force agreement between parties. It rather uses conciliation as a technique to help the parties to solve the disputes themselves. In many cases, the parties have managed to solve their conflicts and used the solution to bring in change management practices in their organization. Dix speaks of a conflict involving the employees and management of the NHS Trust fund. There was a conflict on the role of employees and the duties that had to be carried out.

The Solution Methodology

According to Dix, the unions and the management of the NHS Trust fund approached Acas when they have exhausted all other means of arbitration and dispute settlement. As used a structured methodology that worked on gaining the confidence of the parties. The methodology used techniques such as joint working groups and workshops to resolve the disputes. These techniques served as a forum where the parties could discuss the issues jointly. The advantage of having such as mediator was that both parties did not have any pent-up animosity when talking to a third party, there was no danger of loss of face and consequently, the parties were amenable to suggestion and climb-downs from their rigid stance. The solution that came up between the two parties was agreed upon and there were changes in the way the work activities were conducted and defined what each role was to do.

Conflict and Change Management in a Bank

Darling (Darling 1999) has reported a conflict and change management case that happened in a large European bank. The bank was a multinational Swedish bank that had shown excellent growth and performance for the past 5 years. New systems such as banking services had been introduced, the banking processes had been streamline and many new people from different ethnic groups had been hired. The international market development had also shown good growth and the bank could be regarded as healthy.

The Conflict

The GM of the bank had made some significant changes in the operations and this had affected the employees. There was a grievance that the employees had not been consulted ot told when the decisions were framed and implemented. This had created wide resentment among the employees and the motivation was low. The bank depended on its employees to give their best when dealing with customers and unhappy employees would have a detrimental effect on customer relations and bank operations. The GM had stated that the decisions were made in the best interests of the bank and were not made to victimize any employee.

Managing the Conflict

The Chairman and the GM had discussions about how to handle the dissatisfaction. Giving up the changes that were implemented and going back to previous systems were not acceptable financially and strategically. They decided to have face-to-face meetings and find out what the real issues were and how justified the employees were in rejecting the changes. The meetings were conducted with almost all the satisfied and the dissatisfied people and certain alternatives were proposed. In some instances, the alternatives proved beneficial over the actual changes that were implemented. In a few cases, the alternatives were found to have a negative impact and this was pointed out to the dissenting members, and other alternatives were suggested and accepted. The whole exercise had in effect made the employees and the management more receptive to each other’s needs and helped the bank to grow further.


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  10. Skjorshammer Morten. 2001. ‘Conflict Management in a hospital: Designing processing structures and intervention methods’. Journal of Management in Medicine. Volume. 15 No. 2. pp. 156-166.
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