To Resolve or To Manage Conflict?

Deciding when to resolve conflict and when to manage it may not be so easy. Perhaps an example or two will help determine the best strategy to use. While these examples are based on actual situations, details are left out to prevent identification of the parties involved.

Take, for example, the situation where an employee has been having difficulty, in the eyes of the supervisor, being successful on the job. The supervisor has been receiving complaints about the employee from other staff and from clientele. However, because the supervisor is new and inexperienced little of the job performance is discussed with the employee. Instead, the supervisor has only "hinted" that the employee "might" want to "think about doing the job differently." Finally, the supervisor's board of directors has heard enough and the board determines the supervisor must fire the employee. The supervisor meets with the employee and delivers the bad news.

You might think that this conflict is now over. However, it really is just beginning. After some reflection the employee decides to file a grevience against the supervisor and the organization.

So, how should this conflict be addressed? Using the assumptions of management and resolution, let's determine what is at stake in this conflict. First of all, is the relationship the critical issue or is the "common good" the issue? Is it more important that the relationship with the employee be preserved or is it more important the work of the organization be completed with a high degree of clientele satisfaction?

Once it has been determined that the clientele satisfaction, or the "common good," is the essential element, the situation is now clearly in the realm of conflict management. In addition, since this situation is now in the middle of a formal process, the grevience, this too indicates the solution to this conflict lies with the party that has the power to determine what is right and what is wrong. This also indicates utlizing a conflict management strategy.

Therefore, the strategy selected to address this conflict is arbitration, a conflict management strategy. This, in fact, was the strategy used. Could this situation have utilized a conflict resolution strategy? Perhaps a conflict resolution strategy could have been implemented earlier in the conflict to help identify and resolve issues before they became larger concerns. However, once the decision was made to terminate the relationship between the employee and the organization, the effectiveness of a resolution strategy was greatly diminished.

What, then, would be a situation where a resolution strategy should be utilized?

A small organization of 5 employees is struggling with employee interactions. Interpersonal relationships and personal styles seem to be getting in the way of the employees working effectively as a team. However, the employees are uncomfortable with confrontation and open conflict. Therefore, the employees are very polite when face-to-face, but very destructive to the relationships by talking behind one anothers' backs. This leads to a lot of sabotage and passive/aggressive behavior.

So, how should this conflict situation be addressed? Again, untilizing the assumptions, it is determined that teamwork and interpersonal communications is essential to successful performance. The relationships are the most important aspect to the effectiveness of clientele satisfaction. In addition, if all parties involved are willing to participate in helping arrive at a solution, then this conflict situation can be addressed by a resolution strategy. Thus, a third party could be engaged to create a learning environment to help the individuals determine their level of responsibility in creating or adding to the conflict.

The strategy selected is facilitation. An unbiased outside individual is asked to facilitate one or more sessions to begin identifying, clarifying, and resolving the conflict with mutually agreed upon solutions. Facilitation, a resolution strategy, was selected to resolve this conflict situation.

Hopefully, these two examples will help clarify when it is best to utilize conflict management strategies and when it is best to utilize conflict resolution strategies.

In the next post, I want to explore further the art of facilitation.

Until next time, utilize the assumptions of management and the assumptions of resolution to determine the best strategy for addressing your conflicts.