Dave Carlson - March 11, 2009
Organizational conflict was born the first time more than one person worked together to accomplish something. The Bible records a conflict within the original first family between brothers which lead to murder. Anyone who aspires to manage an organization must be able to recognize, and effectively deal with, various forms of conflict. This article discusses conflicts caused by resistance to change, potential sources of stress, consequences of conflicts, and managing those forces in organizations. The discussion includes content about disruptive forces of change, stress, and conflicts, along with ways to deal with these forces in an organization. Methods to deal with change, procedures about how to face stress, and suggestions for resolving conflict are powerful organizational management tools.
Organizational conflict was born the first time more than one person worked together to accomplish something. The Bible records a conflict within the original first family, between Cain and Able, which lead to one brother murdering the other (Genesis 4:8 King James Version). Anyone who aspires to manage an organization must be able to recognize, and effectively deal with, various forms of conflict. This paper will discuss conflicts caused by resistance to change, potential sources of stress, consequences of conflicts, and managing those forces in organizations.
Resistance to Change in Organizations
Not me!, is the battle cry of someone opposed to change. One of the most frequently documented findings from studies about individual and organizational behavior is that the people in organizations resist change (Robbins & Judge, 2009). There are many reasons (read excuses) people give to avoid change (see Appendix A). It does not matter what is changing;, certain people always will want to lock their heels and try to maintain the status quo (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Resist Change(https://secure.llamaproducts.com/assets/product_pics/resist_change.jpg)
Management-related books and articles have cited John Kotter’s classic 1996 work for several years. Kotter (1996) observed eight errors organizations make that frequently usher in the beginning of the end, unless something in the organization changes. Those errors are:
- allowing too much complacency (p. 4),
- failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition (p. 6),
- underestimating the power of vision (p. 7),
- under-communicating the vision by a factor of 10 (or 100 or even 1,000) (p. 9),
- permitting obstacles to block the new vision (p. 10),
- failing to create short-term wins (p. 11),
- declaring victory too soon (p. 13), and
- neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture (p. 14).
Kotter (1996) did not leave his readers pondering these eight errors without a solution. He provided an eight-step plan for implementing change to help avoid the eight fatal organizational errors.
Managing Stress in Organizations
Armstrong (2008) documented the observable symptoms of stress as inability to cope with job demands (which creates more stress), tiredness, lethargy, lack of enthusiasm, and bad temper. Wallace (2007) identified three forms of organizational stress: discomfort stress, performance stress, and disjunctive stress.
- Discomfort stress: “Pressure exerted on individuals and subgroups by the complexity of the environment relative to time, energy, and ability that groups expend understanding it and of the uncertainty in the environment relative to a group’s ability to forecast the future” (p. 72).
- Performance stress: “Allows for the possibility that organizations may be highly sensitized either to success or to failure, or to some mixture of the two” (p. 72).
- Disjunctive stress: “Results from increasing degrees of divergence and conflict in the ways in which individuals and subgroups behave” (p. 73).
Brody (2004) offered another perspective of causes for organization stress, drilling down to highlight specific issues. Brody’s major organizational stressors are listed below.
- Role Ambiguity: Objectives and tasks are unclear, causing staff to become confused about what is expected of them. A manager can reduce uncertainty by using accurate job descriptions and negotiating mutually agreed-upon objectives.
- Overload (or Underload) of Work: Many organizations expect workers to accept assignments that require 60-70 hours a week to complete properly. In other organizations, professional staff have too little to do, causing a feeling of boredom and uselessness to set in. An organization manager must analyze and seek ways to address unusual and continually heavy work-load demands.
- Contradictory Expectations: Some organizations have a do as I say, not what I do attitude about promises organization management made to workers.
- Poor Planning: Expecting staff members to execute a poorly conceived plan can exacerbate small problems and cause undue stress. Management can avoid “tremendous feelings of frustration” with better planning (p. 157).
- Poor Match Between Staff and Jobs: “Stress can occur as a result of staff being assigned work that is beyond their abilities…when employees are assigned jobs that only minimally use their skills” (p. 157). Matching the appropriate person to the appropriate job can eliminate this stressor from the organization.
It is almost impossible to solve a problem without being able to identify the problem. However, just identifying stressors will not solve the problems those stressors create. Armstrong (2008) suggested several processes and policies to help organization leaders manage stress:
Dealing with Conflict in Organizations
- clarifying roles to reduce role ambiguity and give people more autonomy;
- setting reasonable and achievable performance standards;
- establishing performance management processes which encourage a dialogue about work and its pressures between managers and their staff;
- giving individuals the opportunity to obtain professional counseling;
- developing anti-bullying policies;
- developing work-life balance policies which take account of the pressures on employees as parents, partners, or carers, and which can include provisions such as special leave or flexible working hours (p. 185).
Conflict is a fundamental component in human interaction. “Conflict management is a significant and unavoidable part of a manager’s role in an organization” (Lang, 2009, p. 240). The consequences of conflicts can manifest themselves as significantly lower employee morale, increased turnover rates, avoidable litigation, and an overall decline in an organization’s effectiveness (Lang 2009). Lang (2009) argued that “conflict resolution skills are critical to individual employees, organizational teams, top management decisions, and effective organizational leadership” (p. 241).
Sometimes individuals can resolve their conflicts without intervention and restore a healthy balance in the workplace. However, a manager who expects conflict to go away on its own is heading toward an organizational disaster. In almost all cases, conflict must be managed effectively, before it turns into an uncontrollable cancer that will destroy the cohesion and effectiveness of an organization. Robbins and Judge (2009) identified three types of conflict: task (conflict about content and goals of the work), relationship (conflict based on interpersonal relationships), and process (conflict over how to do the work).
Even minor conflicts can cause strained relationships, emotional trauma, lost efficiency, and persistent animosity in an organization (Pierce, 2009). Effectively resolving interpersonal conflicts can result in “stronger relationships, settled emotions, increased efficiency, and shared respect” (Pierce, 2009, p.60), leading to a better organization. Pierce (2009) reminded his readers that work relationships are one of the greatest determinants of the effectiveness and success of an organization. See Appendix D for professional suggestions from Pierce (2009) about how to resolve conflict.
Organizational managers must learn to recognize and deal effectively with various issues which may disrupt the organization. This paper discussed some disruptive forces of change, stress, and conflict. Additionally, you read about ways to deal with these forces in an organization. Methods to deal with change, procedures about how to face stress, and suggestions for resolving conflict are powerful organizational management tools.
Armstrong, M. (2008). How to be an even better manager (7th ed.). Philadelphia: Kogan Page.
Brody, R. (2004). Effectively managing human service organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Lang, M. (March/April 2009). Conflict management: A gap in business education curricula. Journal of Education for Business, 84(4), 240-245.
Nilsson, U. G. (2008). Resisting change. Retrieved March 4 2009 from http://blogs.hj.se/bibl/2008/04/04/resisting-change/ [NOTE: This reference was not peer-reviewed, but it offers an interesting and appropriate contribution to the subject of change.]
Pierce, K. (January/February 2009). Healthy conflict resolution. Physician Executive, 35(1), 60-61.
Robins, S. P, and Judge, T. A. (2009). Organizational behavior (13th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pretence Hall.
Wallace, D. P. (2007). Knowledge management. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.