Modes of Conflict Resolution in Organization

The final factor that distinguished the conflict-resolving effectiveness of the two high-performing organizations from that of the others was perhaps the most obvious one—differences in the mode of behavior typically used to deal with conflict. When faced with an interdepartmental conflict, managers can and do respond in several ways. We anti-cipated that the most effective way for them to handle conflict would be through a problem-solving or confrontation approach. If the managers involved openly exchange information about the facts of the situation as they see them, and their feelings about these facts, and work through their differences, the probability of reaching a solution that is optimal for the whole organization should be greatest.

To clarify what we mean by confrontation we can cite some comments from managers:

Our problems get thrashed out in our committees. We work them over until everybody agrees this is the best effort you can make. We may decide this isn’t good enough. Then we decide to ask for more plant, more people, etc. We all have to be realistic and take a modification sometimes and say this is the best we can do.

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In recent meetings we have had a thrashing around about manpower needs. At first we didn’t have much agreement, but we kept thrashing around and finally agreed on what was the best we could do.

Not only did we anticipate that confrontation would be the most effective method of resolving conflict, but we also learned from questionnaire data that in the judgment of the managers in these six organizations this was the ideal way in which conflict should be resolved. Confronting conflict, however, requires a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy as well as a high degree of interpersonal skill. Consequently, other ways of handling conflict are also prevalent in some organizations.

Instead of confronting conflict, the managers involved can elect to split the difference and reach a compromise satisfactory to the various parties. The difficulty is that a compromise resolution often does not meet the needs of the whole organization. Another mode of handling conflict is to pour oil on the troubled waters and smooth them over. Unfor-tunately, when problems are smoothed over, they usually do not seem to solve themselves; in fact, they often fester and become worse when no action is taken. In these cases the managers seem to be saying, “We are all good friends, and we shouldn’t let this problem disrupt our friendship, so we will just ignore it and hope it works itself out.” Another comment from a manager in one of these organizations may help to illustrate what is meant by the smoothing of conflict:

I thought I went to real lengths in our group to cause con- flict. I said what I thought in the meeting, but it didn’t bother anybody. I guess I should have been harsher. I could have said I won’t do it unless you do it my way. If I had done this, they couldn’t have backed away, but I guess I didn’t have the guts to do it. I guess my reaction was—well I made a fool of myself in the meeting and nothing happened so I’ll sit back and feel comfortable. I guess I didn’t pound the bushes hard enough.

The relations are wonderful. We are happy—we are friendly and happy as larks. We chew each other out and are happy and go about our business. I’ve never run into more cooperative people. I think they think we are cooperative also, but nothing happens.

Finally, interdepartmental conflicts can be handled by one side or the other trying to use the power of knowledge or position to force a solution that is satisfactory from only one point of view. One way to do this is by asking a superior to help get a unilateral resolution. As one manager described it:

If I want something very badly and I am confronted by a roadblock, I go to top management to get the decision made. If the research managers are willing to go ahead [my way], there is no problem. If there is a conflict, then I take the decision to somebody higher up.

Similarly, a resolution can be reached by two managers forming a solid front that can be used to force others to accept

I really think our team doesn’t act as a team. We have lots of meetings that consist of two people on a team. It is not unusual to get a call from the production representative ask- ing me to come over. We would sit down together and he would explain that he had a problem that wasn’t being at- tacked properly. He would say that the [integrator] wasn’t supporting him. This should be handled in our team. We find small groups getting together and discussing things, be- cause they think the other two members won’t agree. Well, this isn’t acting as a team. It’s our weak spot.

The obvious disadvantage of the forcing mode is that some relevant knowledge is often ignored, and the other parties to the dispute, feeling that their wishes have not been taken into account, are not likely to be motivated to carry out the decisions reached.

Our analysis of questionnaire data identified three distinct modes of actually handling conflict in these six organizations: Confrontation, or problem-solving; smoothing-over differences; and forcing decisions.4 The analysis did not distinguish compromise as a separate mode. This does not imply that it was not used in any of these organizations, but only that our measurement methods did not enable us to identify it as a distinct means of handling conflict.

The questionnaire data indicated important differences among these organizations in the typical modes managers used to handle interdepartmental conflict. While the managers in each organization indicated that confrontation was their most usual mode, there were significant differences in how typical this behavior was in the various organizations (Table III—5). In the high-performing organizations confrontation was apparently used to a significantly greater degree than in the other four organizations. The two organizations with the high states of differentiation and integration required to deal effectively with their environment had managers who relied on confrontation significantly more than did the managers in either the medium- or low-performing organizations. Similarly, managers in the medium-performing companies were using confrontation to a significantly greater extent than were those in the low-performing organizations.

These data also indicated that there were differences among organizations in the extent to which managers smoothed over conflicts and disputes. The managers in medium-performing organization B and low-performing organization B were evidently significantly more prone to smooth over conflicts than were managers in the other organizations. The managers in these two companies were not only relying less on confrontation than were the managers in the two most effective organizations, but were also doing significantly more smoothing than the rest of the managers.

The managers in low-performing organization B also reported that they were doing significantly less forcing than the managers in the other organizations. Thus the managers in the organization that was both least differentiated and least integrated were emphasizing the smoothing over of differences and the maintenance of friendly relations to the extent that it seriously impaired their ability to reach interdepartmental decisions. A less serious but similar situation seemed to occur in medium- performing organization A, where the managers were also doing significantly less forcing than in the other organizations. Ail of these data taken together suggest that while heavy reliance on confrontation is essential, it may also be important in organizations in this environment to have a back-up mode that relies on some forcing and a relative absence of smoothing. Perhaps the presence of some forcing means that the managers will at least reach some decision instead of avoiding problems.

In summary, as we had predicted, reliance on confrontation seems to lead to effective conflict resolution and to the desired states of differentiation and integration. The high- performing organizations met this determinant most clearly. The medium- performing ones to a moderate extent; and the low performers the least.

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

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