Conflict Resolution: An Increasingly Important Consideration (Part I)

Bart Castle SPHR
March 6, 2007 — 1,926 views  
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Life in any organization will involve differences, or what most refer to as conflict. It’s not if but when and about what the conflict will occur. Despite the certainty, an irony exists in our behavior toward these differences. Further, there are several convergent factors that potentially increase the frequency and intensity of the interactions we typically refer to as conflict. The outcomes of conflict can be quite damaging to an organization. To overcome the societal factors in play and to keep from suffering the lingering ill-effects of unnecessary, or unnecessarily messy, conflict, organizations need to be more proactive both in addressing conflicts early in their life-cycle and in teaching employees the critical skills necessary to reduce the number of unnecessary conflicts and to resolve those inevitable conflicts before the conflicts produce irreparable harm. This paper, the first of several on the topic, will examine many over-arching elements of conflict. Conflict Avoidance: An Irony I Sociologists and biologists have long contended human and animals respond to adversity in one of two ways: “Fight or flight.” And, while there are certainly a few fighters in both the human and animal kingdoms, the presence of a situation determined (or perceived) to range from uncomfortable to very painful produces the flight response in the vast majority of either kingdom. Yes, there are individuals in organizations who appear to enjoy fighting; they are the minority. However, even in instances where fights occur, the initial volley of unkind words, loud conversation or nasty e-mails are often attempts to get the other party to back down in order to avoid a full-fledged fight. Generally speaking, we do not like to fight (conflict). We prefer to avoid conflict. Ironically, this avoidance does not eliminate conflict. On the contrary, in a great many instances, avoidance intensifies the issues. And eventually, a word is spoken or an act committed produces a tipping point, and the issue explodes. At this point, avoidance is no longer an option. Organizationally, unresolved conflict conforms to Murphy’s Law quite clearly. The more difficult the issue to resolve and the longer the issue is avoided, the greater the likelihood that this eruption will occur at the most disruptive time, requiring immediate attention and action. We have all witnessed explosions between two co-workers at a critical point in a project, the blow-up between departments during a meeting where key outsiders are present, or the sudden resignation and departure of a valuable employee in the middle of a work day or week. Conflict Avoidance: An Irony II Conflict avoidance, a natural behavior for many individuals, is actually fostered by the litigious nature of our society today. Organizations, determined to reduce the potential risk of litigation resulting from individuals having “said the wrong thing,” have implemented written policies and practices deemed effective risk management. While such policies are designed to reduce the risk, those policies, like other types of conflict avoidance, ironically tend to increase the intensity of the behaviors they are intended to deter. While litigation can be complex, it can essentially be summarized in the following manner. People go to plaintiffs’ attorneys for three reasons: They are mad, they are sad, or they are both. As such, an angry employee who believes he or she was let go inappropriately and who gets stonewalled in his or her attempts to get a reference, often will not go away. Instead, he or she may seek an advocate who can help him or her flesh out the legal details of how inappropriate the termination was and turn those details into a cause of action, messy enough to require attention from the employer. The whole episode might well have been avoided with authentic, fact-based conversation during the termination process and beyond. The point in the example above is not to argue reference-checking policies, per se. (Everyone please have their corporate counsel come down from the ledge.) The point is simply this: Organizations, like individuals, tend to go to great lengths to avoid the inevitable – resolution of conflict. Avoidance measures, regardless of how well-intended, generally do not resolve conflict. On the contrary, avoidance measures create a climate where the resolution of conflict requires a great deal more time, energy, and money than would have been necessary if the issues had been addressed sooner or more directly and effectively. Differences, or conflicts, including strong ones, are here to stay. Adaptation and increased skill, rather than avoidance (of any type), are the answers to effective resolution, both interpersonally and organizationally.

Bart Castle SPHR


Bart W. Castle, of the Sapio Group, LP, has been involved in virtually all facets of human resource management over the past two decades.