ReGeneration Resources


The Cost and Management of Organizational Conflict

by Greg Hessel

Published in New Hampshire Business Review, 7/14/03

You haven't slept in weeks. Your team members are sniping, missing deadlines and blaming each other for poor performance. You just want everyone to work it out, but the conflict is creating an environment filled with gossip and back-stabbing. Individuals are working in isolation rather than as a team. Authentic communication is avoided, productivity requirements suffer and you're feeling the heat.

The failure of teams to function harmoniously is just one consequence of conflict in organizations. Similarly, tensions arise from performance reviews, unwelcome or misunderstood change initiatives and cultures where authentic conversations are discouraged.

A study published in the Academy of Management Journal revealed that up to 30% of a typical manager's time is spent dealing with conflict. This means that for each manager who earns $60,000 a year, the company is spending $18,000 on conflict management.

Unresolved tensions often result in worker departures and, according to a Raytheon report, the cost of replacing skilled employees can be 150% of his or her annual compensation.

Managers at all levels react to conflict in different ways. Because conflict can be uncomfortable, many managers simply ignore it. Others choose to separate the parties and give them advice. Managers also opt to threaten, transfer or fire employees. When managers do try to "mediate," they often don't take the time to understand the issues, and the parties may neither feel heard nor perceive the managers as being neutral.

Furthermore, as Hal Lancaster writes in the Wall Street Journal, "Corporate cultures that reward quick decisions on tough issues don't help. The quickest solution, which is typically found without investigating all the sides of the issue, isn't necessarily the best one for everyone involved."

Often missing from the manager's repertoire of responses are the skills, intervention models and attitudes that can bring about long-lasting change. However, development of these skills takes effort and commitment, and there are times when an organization will want help.

Thorough assessment

When looking for help, a successful outcome will more likely be reached if you seek a consultant who specializes in conflict.

Conflict specialists understand that certain human needs (feeling understood, respected and heard) must be met by the process or attempts to resolve tensions will not be successful.

Despite our culture's focus on fixing things, it is not the dispute that is most important to us -- rather, it is the process we use to resolve the dispute. Designing and facilitating this process is the job of conflict specialists.

But before the intervention can be designed, the problem must be fully understood. Organizational conflicts can be complex. Usually when organizations call a consultant,they're looking for a specific solution. For example they might ask, "Could you facilitate a training for us on communication skills?" Or, "We need someone to mediate some staff disputes." While these services can be useful, the initial request often lacks the depth of analysis needed to achieve the desired results.

In order to avoid an ineffective intervention, it is necessary to start with a thorough assessment.

I recently consulted at a school where dissatisfied teachers were seeking new jobs due to a change initiative the principal had announced. In addition to feeling insulted by how the principal presented it, the teachers were concerned about their perceived lack of input into the change itself.

After conducting assessments with both parties, a process was designed in which the principal invited the teachers' input into the implementation. Because of the highly charged situation, the process insured safety by gathering the teacher' input in small working groups. After only 90 minutes the teachers believed they would have meaningful input, and the principal had achieved significant buy-in to his change initiative.

Through this process, the principal learned that how he communicates is as important as what he communicates; that human needs are important and, by meeting at least some of them, his initiative could move forward; and he learned that collaboration requires deliberation and listening. These are things all managers need to learn -- whether they are senior vice presidents in the tech industry or front-line managers of a manufacturing firm.



  ..... Strategic