Managing conflict

During this past week I received many calls from friends, many of them alumni, both on the island and abroad who are concerned about the ongoing conflict at the Alexandra School. I have already said my bit on that, but basically they believe that the crux of the matter surrounds the management of conflict.

You see a lot of people seem to think that conflict is something bad and only happens to bad people. This is not so, whenever a collection of people come together conflict can emerge between them at any time. My suggestion is that every manager/principal/department head/supervisor must be trained not only in human skills but in conflict management.

In this particular circumstance, a teacher is usually trained to disseminate material and elucidate it to his/her students but I wonder how many of them are sent to management training which includes role play in conflict management.

Most employees aspire to be the top boss in their organisation at some time or the other and very often there are some top bosses who make the job of managing look very easy. However, any manager worth his/her salt would tell you that managing people is one of the most problematic jobs in the world.

Added to that, we have a culture of not saying what we really mean or feel when called into formal meetings. You see, very often the boss would have a meeting with Barbadian employees and ask for some feedback about “X” or “Y” policy/concept/rule and he would be greeted with silence. To his horror, after implementing the policy he/she will get a call from some union rep/senior management official who will inform him that he did “this, that and that” and the staff are not happy with it.

This behaviour is one of the first challenges that a manager must be made aware of when managing Barbadian employees. Another one is that silence does not mean consent as we so often mistakenly believe. Very often the one who is making the most noise is only the messenger but the leader may be a silent observer to the proceedings and is “the brains” behind the affair.

However, before I digress, the article this week is once again about managing conflict. During my research it was revealed that managing conflict in any organisation is a tough job to handle mainly because there are many managers who have risen to the top of their game all the while skilfully avoiding conflict.

Most of the time these people “don’t like hearing negatives; don’t like saying or thinking negative things … they … make it up the ladder in part because they don’t irritate people on the way up”. Locally, we like to call such people something else that I will not mention in this forum.

However, the research also revealed that there was a time when employees would keep quiet when the boss does or says something that they may think is not quite right. In other words, they would watch while the boss makes mistake after mistake although they know better.

However, this no longer obtains in contemporary organisations since today’s employees have a tendency to speak out, so now more than ever a boss needs to know how to handle conflict (Robbins & Judge, 2011, P464).

In this global arena where we are encouraging our children to “think outside the box” employees are being encouraged to speak out and to challenge the status quo. At university, students are encouraged to be analytical and to develop new ideas so that they can become entrepreneurs and create new forms of employment.

This is because we have realised that in challenging the status quo change will emerge. Take for example, the discovery of the new world (according to our history books) if they did not challenge the belief that the world was flat we would not be here today. We can also look at Bill Gates from Microsoft, if he did not decide that the interface on the computer could be made into a more simplified operating system many of us would not be using the computer today because the disk operating system first used by IBM was not as user friendly.

One must realise that the acceptance of different points of view is often a very “difficult pill to swallow” and often times require people with discipline, creativity, flexibility and patience which we appear to be lacking in this particular environment. Since one set of players seem to have the view that it is “their way or the highway”.

We often view people who question our opinions as being either difficult, negative or trouble makers because they appear to be putting obstacles in the way of progress. However, although these “trouble trees” may be preventing progress, they may also be asking the right questions and may prevent us from making some fundamental mistakes.

Take for instance, if someone had questioned the behaviour of Allan Stanford or Bernard Madoff before they became the cons of the century, look how many people could be spared the hurt, grief and humiliation that occurred afterwards.

Finally, I will add one other thing about handling conflict. Management specialists have suggested that conflict is not resolved by listening to only one side/party. Instead they suggest that active discussion with both parties is integral to the resolution of conflict.

Moreover, they contend that both parties must come to the point where they must recognise that they each have shared goals and values that cannot be attained without the co-operation of each other. Finally, they suggest that each party must be prepared to give up something of value.

So one can conclude that if one party in this dispute wants one person to be moved, they themselves must be prepared to move also, it cannot be a one sided affair. Before I close, let me add that by bringing in outsiders whose backgrounds, values and attitudes are different from the members of the opposing party will not solve the dispute but instead will only serve to encourage it further.

Instead, management specialists suggest that job redesign, transfers and other formal restructuring techniques are successful measures for resolving conflict (Robbins & Judge, 2011).

You see as the old saying goes “what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander”. Until next time…

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