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‘Outing’ fires

The other day a recently promoted manager was bemoaning the fact that all or most of his time is taken up with resolving conflict. He just wished that he could put an end to it, so that he could get on with the business of administration.

Unfortunately, this has been the mantra of many managers for some time and it is about time that they realise that an integral part of their function is managing and controlling conflict. The article this week is about the different types of conflict.

It may be surprising to most of you to know that the word conflict has been so widely used and that there are myriads of definitions across the globe. For the purpose of this paper, I will use the definition posited by Robbins and Judge (2011): “Conflict can be defined as a process that begins when one party perceives another party has or is about to negatively affect something the first party cares about.”

In other words it is all about perception and for those who think that perception is a simple issue think again. Any student of psychology will tell you that perception, specifically social perception, is a very complex matter that relates to a wide range of issues that include non-verbal communication, impression management and impression formation (Baron, Byrne & Branscombe, 2009).

But let us not digress — most management and psychology specialists contend that managers have to come to grips with two types of conflict: dysfunctional and functional.

Dysfunctional conflict as anyone can guess is totally destructive to the group and the organisation. It often leads to uncontrolled resentment and opposition to any ideas/change/development that are proposed. This form of conflict is often rooted in relationship and personality differences. It can result in violence, destructive behaviour like workplace deviance, noncompliance to rules and regulations, reduction in group cohesiveness, infighting and even irrational behaviour like insubordination. It can also result in hampered communication because open conflict prevents the sharing of information (Robbins & Judge, 2011.

It is interesting to note here that management specialists are of the view that if the conflict is seen as gender specific (men hold one view and women hold another) the group would not listen to each other, hence not considering the other person’s point of view.

It was also noted from research, that dysfunctional conflict has resulted in the closure or almost demise of some organisations (Robbins & Judge, 2011). One just has to look closer at the conflict that took place at the Lodge School and now the Alexandra school. Although the variables are different the end result could be just as disastrous.

So you may be asking at this point: What is functional conflict? Well according to some management specialists it is “conflict that supports the goals of the group and improves its performance”. In other words it is constructive and entails disagreements about processes or tasks, not personality.

For instance, a group may experience some conflict over how the removal process of a roof is to be performed. They may be conflict about the content of a job description or the goals of an organisation. Such conflict may lead to brainstorming and the development of a task force whose sole job is to determine the best way forward. This type of conflict does not usually end in acrimony among groups or individuals.

However, this type of conflict can escalate into dysfunctional conflict if it is allowed to spiral out of control. So managers must be especially attentive to individuals’ feelings and personalities and lay emphasis on the reasons for the organisation’s existence.

Some people may argue that all conflict is dysfunctional and hence destructive in nature but conflict can be beneficial if managed effectively. Now most of the time managers (like the one in the opening vignette) argue that managing conflict is tough and of course they seek to avoid it at all times.

This is because a large percentage of people who have reached top management avoided conflict on their way up. So naturally they do not like to hear any negative or diverse comments since they never expressed any negative thoughts themselves.

You see, many so call successful business people made it to the top because they never disagreed with the boss even when their (the boss’s) mistakes were evident and they (the employee) knew better. This reminds me of the children’s story “the emperor’s new robe”. But one must remember that the days of people remaining silent are long gone. One only has to read the recent case of the police officers vs the commissioner of police over perceived unfair promotions to realise this.

Finally, the new dispensation in most organisations today is to encourage people to challenge the system instead of encouraging an anti-conflict culture. One suggestion in managing conflict is to encourage employees to question the boss. Now this must be done with upmost respect and impunity.

Some organisations include a devil’s advocate type of situation to encourage alternative views that put emphasis on what is the correct modus operandi or they could have a whole lot of ‘group think’ going on. Managers must however, realise that conflict is inevitable and to be successfully resolved, both sides “must discuss their differences of opinion openly” — realising that “the most disruptive conflicts are those that are never addressed directly” (Robbins & Judge, 2011, pp 465). Until next time…

* Daren Greaves is a Management & Organisational Psychology Consultant at Dwensa Incorporated. e-mail:, Phone: (246) 436-4215

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