Contingency Theory: Applying Conflict-Resolution Findings

As we pointed out earlier, one traditional way organizations have resolved conflicts is by referring them up the line to the first superior shared by both disputants. This is the way the classical theorists assumed that all integration would be achieved. As organizations have undertaken more complex tasks in more heterogeneous environments, this procedure has not been adequate. Yet the findings of this study clearly show that it is still not only adequate but apparently highly effective under environmental conditions like those we found in the container industry. This condition is schematically shown in Figure IX-4 to indicate that modest differences in structure and orientation can be linked by a common boss.

One obvious type of error in planning the process of conflict resolution arises when such coordination through the management hierarchy is used as the only means of integrating units that are highly differentiated. This error is diagrammed in Figure IX-5.

It is interesting that we found no example of such an error in the 10 organizations we studied. Apparently managers have learned from experience not to try direct bridging of a wide gap. In fact, the error we found in the low-performing container organization was, in effect, the reverse. Here an inte-grating structure was set up to help settle disputes between units that were not sufficiently differentiated to justify it. Such groups seemed to add noise to the system and to make integration more difficult. This kind of error can be diagrammed as shown in Figure IX-6.

The absence of Type 1 errors and the presence of this Type 2 error could be interpreted as the result of a current management fad for decentralization, since establishing an integrating unit tends to push influence further down the structure.

The final error that arises from the use of integrating structures was also observable in the companies we studied—especially in low-performing plastics organization A. It resulted from an integrating unit being structured and oriented so nearly like one of the basic units that it lost its contact with the other. Figure IX-7 compares this type of error with the effective use of an integrating structure.

While this review of the possible types of errors in conflict resolution is suggestive, it does not adequately reflect the range of experimentation that organizations are engaged in to solve their integration problems. We have seen in our data several variations on the use of cross-functional product teams and liaison roles. Industry is teeming with such efforts. One very interesting experiment, used primarily in the aerospace industry, is the matrix organization. In this form, which Gulick actually suggested over 30 years ago, each member of the organization is assigned two bosses. One is the functional boss of his specialty, while the other is the boss of his current work project. Neither is given arbitrary power to resolve conflicts. Thus each member of the organization is as- sociated with two work groups, one made up of fellow specialists, and the other, of his co-workers in the diverse specialties required for a single project. Neither group can claim all of the man’s attention or loyalty. Such an organizational form is an attempt to develop men with the appropriate specialists’ orientation plus an involved enthusiasm for integrated project objectives.

The many conflicts in such organizations are expected to be handled among the members themselves. Each man has to make constant choices between his interests as a project team member and as a specialist. The matrix approach, while often useful, has distinct limitations, since it can at best link together no more than two types of differentiation. The usual matrix linkage of functional with product differentiation does nothing about the further complexity of differentiation based on such factors as physical space and customer types. To understand the possible problems we need only imagine a four-, five-, or six-dimension matrix organization. All these experiments, however, represent a lively interest in searching for new and better ways to resolve conflict and make decisions.

The more systematic way of understanding conflict resolution suggested by our research offers no pat solutions to these considerable complexities. It does, however, help to open the way toward more deliberate planning of how integration is achieved. Methods similar to ours can be used not only to help locate the points of chronic difficulty but also to help in identifying some of the important immediate determinants that are subject to management influence. Have the requisite interdependencies been mapped out? Is the influence located where the requisite knowledge is available—both vertically and horizontally in the system? Are differences confronted in an open, probem-solving manner, or is forcing or smoothing more predominant? Are integrating units used where needed (and not used where they are redundant) ? Are such units appropriately intermediate in structure and orientation? Are the integrators’ rewards tied to the larger goals of the system? Do the integrators base their influence on expertise more than on formal power? These, of course, are the key questions that this research indicates could usefully guide a more systematic approach to the design and improvement of the conflict resolution process.

Once again, educational approaches can play an important part in applying the research findings. Managers in all the organizations we studied almost unanimously saw confrontation as the most desirable mode of conflict resolution. Yet our findings indicate it is used much less than it is recommended. This is most commonly explained by the assumption that people have the requisite knowledge, but have a personality- based aversion to confronting differences sharply. Our study offers a reminder that people may also not confront conflict because they do not have the requisite knowledge and yet feel a need to be influential. The two explanations would clearly call for different educational methods. There are management-development programs specifically designed to be helpful in the former situation. The latter could be identified by a thorough diagnosis and could be addressed either by feeding the necessary knowledge to the person concerned or by changing the organizational expectations about who ought to influence particular kinds of decisions.

In either case it is important to recognize that one concomitant of confrontation is interpersonal competence. Determining to what extent persons can be trained to be more effective interpersonally is complex. Without getting involved in a lengthy discussion, we might note that one school of thought argues that skill in human relations is a central aspect of the individual’s personality and cannot easily be altered.5 Other behavioral scientists take the view that interpersonal competence can be developed through sensitivity training and other laboratory methods.6 After studying the limited number of available systematic assessments of such training methods, we have come to recognize that the training methods can improve interpersonal competence and the ability to confront conflict to some extent. These experiences do not alter the managers’ underlying personality characteristics, but they can alter their expectations of themselves and others about what is legitimate behavior, to the point that they are encouraged to behave more openly and to resolve conflicts more effectively.

A special question, on which this research can offer only very limited evidence, is whether any particular personal attributes and educational preparation are needed for those selected to play integrating roles. While further research on this subject is under way, our evidence does suggest that integrating departments could best be manned by people with prior experience in the various basic departments whose work is to be linked. Most organizations have some long- established integrating departments, even though they are not often so acknowledged. We have in mind such groups as production control, who usually work as integrators between production and sales. Some budgetary planning and cost- control people also perform this function. These roles like-wise turn up in more specialized organizations—for example, some account executives in advertising agencies. Research to discover the common denominators of those individuals who perform effectively in these integrating jobs could have some very practical applications.

In summary, we should emphasize that the possibility of more systematically planning and implementing conflict resolution procedures hinges on establishing a baseline in terms of the required and actual patterns of differentiation in an organization. This baseline establishes the frame of reference for tackling the conflict resolution problem in an orderly fashion. This clarifies what the conflict is all about, what creates the differences of judgment, and what knowledge is relevant to its resolution. From this vantage point we can see why conflict must be accepted as a continuing result of living in a complex civilization. Resolution is not then put up as some final Utopian answer, but simply as a sensible solution to today’s issue—with awareness that basic and legitimate differences will generate new conflicts to be resolved tomorrow. From this baseline managers can move more directly toward designing procedures and devices that are adequate for processing the flow of conflicted issues that will surely arise. We have reason to hope that the use of these guidelines can lead to a higher success rate in our experimentation with new or- ganizational and social inventions for conflict resolution. Finally, the reader may need a reminder that an effective conflict resolution system is really the same thing as an effective decision-making system—rather central to organization per- formance.

Source: Lawrence Paul R., Lorsch Jay W. (1967), Organization and Environment: Managing Differentiation and Integration, Harvard Business School.

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