Sat, 21 Jun 2003

Effective ways to manage organizational conflict

Sonny J. Soeharso, Psychologist, Jakarta

Have you ever experienced a conflict in your past or present organization? The answer to that is probably yes, because there are precious few companies that are free from conflict.

No employee can escape conflict, whether it is little or big, direct or indirect. We can face any conflict because it can increase organizational performance, or on the other hand we avoid conflict because of personality type or the scope and impact of the conflict.

One of the problems is sometime we cannot define clearly what is the conflict itself, and many people often take it personally and emotionally.

Stephen Robbins (1990) said: "Conflict is a process in which an effort is purposely made by 'A' to offset the efforts of 'B' by some form of blocking that will result in frustrating 'B' in attaining his or her goals or furthering his or her interests."

There are two views of conflict: Traditional and interactionist. The traditional view of conflict assumes all conflicts are bad. Any conflict, therefore, has a negative impact on an organization's effectiveness. The traditional approach treats conflicts synonymously with such things as violence, destruction and irrationality.

Consistent with this perspective, one of management's major responsibilities is to try to ensure that conflicts do not arise and, if they do, act quickly to resolve them, like a fire extinguisher.

A different view is held by the interactionist, who believe that an organization totally devoid of conflict is probably also static, apathetic and nonresponsive to the need for change. Conflict is functional when it initiates the search for new and better ways of doing things and undermines complacency within the organization.

As we known, in the global competition, change doesn't just pop out of thin air. It needs stimuli. That stimuli is conflict. There must be some dissatisfaction with the status quo before conditions are right to initiate change. So an organization that is completely content with itself -- that is, one that is conflict free -- has no internal force to initiate change.

Organizational conflicts are generally caused by two factors -- incompatible personalities and organizational structure. The first factor is more psychological and personal and about "chemistry" problems, while the second is more organizational, such as mutual task dependence, dependence on scarce resources, different evaluation criteria and reward systems (commonly for sales and marketing people versus back office staff) and communication distortion.

From my experience conducting training sessions and consulting in HR management, the biggest source of conflict is communication distortion.

The following tips may be useful if you find yourself in a conflict with colleagues or family members: * Control your self and keep cool even if the situation is getting worse. If you can control your mind, emotions and energy you can also control your breathing and blood pressure, and you can think how to handle the situation. If you succeed in doing this, you are very lucky because God will give you a "bonus" of a longer life. * Try to find out the source of conflict and focus your energy on solving it by facing the conflict. Don't escape or hide from the conflict. Build a good rapport and try to build communications. * Build good interpersonal relationships with everybody in your organization, from the bottom to the top. This is very important, and I think its a universal approach. Sometime a serious conflict can be solved by personal visits. And I think if you have a good interpersonal relationship, and you can also control your self, you have already solved more than 75 percent of the conflict.

(The writer is managing partner of SJS & Associates)