But we cannot avoid conflict, conflict with society, other individuals and with oneself. Conflicts may be sources of defeat, lost life and a limitation of our potentiality, but they may also lead to a greater depth of living and the birth of more far-reaching unites, which flourish in the tensions that engender them.
The amount of entropy in corporate America has increased substantially because of two basic reasons. The first involves the immigration of a large and continuous population of ethnic, migrant workers from different corners of the world. These knowledge workers are products of varying, and at times diametrically opposing environments that in turn, affect their perceptions and subsequently the formulation of their opinions and beliefs. This may be illustrated in a comparison between two coworkers; a wealthy Swede and a lower-middle class Pakistani (first world and LDC comparison) working on the same project simultaneously. Their perspectives on several issues will vary, as their upbringing is mirror opposite.
The second reason may be attributed to the era of globalization, which has created a favorable environment for mergers and acquisitions. The acquisition of smaller companies by a large firm creates large amounts of conflict within the organization, as the acquired company becomes a mere sub culture within the larger firm. A collection of these sub cultures causes cross-cultural conflicts between employees as each employee has their own fixed mindset. However, they now have to adopt a new set of (conflicting) goals, work in a different environment under a separate management team. The resultant conflict is harmful to the existing organizational environment, and unless rectified, produces a self-destruct climate that does not support the long-term goals of the corporation.
As corporate America enters the next millennium, it is faced with the increasingly difficult task of integrating these varying opinions, climates and management styles to produce an environment that supports the company’s long term’s goals. This process of integration is better understood by studying the science of conflict management.
A Conflict is a process that encompasses all kinds of antagonistic interactions (passive resistance to overt aggression) among people, designed to inhibit the attainment of goals of another party that has dissimilar and incompatible objectives.
Conflict management involves resolving these negative processes through communication and compromise. It is the art of persuading two antagonistic parties to come to a workable solution on a debatable subject to attain a common goal.
This paper performs an acute dissection of organizational conflict. It emphasizes that a certain amount of conflict is necessary for corporations to constantly innovate and survive in a turbulent environment. Particular attention is devoted to organizational metamorphoses in mergers and in trade negotiations between the U.S and Pacific-rim countries, as they both present cases of differing organizational cultures and ideologies.
PERSPECTIVES IN CONFLICT ANALYSIS
Conflicts can be analyzed from five different perspectives, beginning from the individual level, up to the organizational level. It starts at the individual level (Intra-indvidual conflicts) where individuals are confronted with moral dilemmas or ?deadly quarrels’ .
The next level involves conflicts between individuals (Inter-individual conflicts) that occur because of communication gaps and differences in opinion. Individual-group conflicts are ones where individuals find themselves sparring with groups. This may occur when an individual breaks a norm. They usually occur with newer employees who are not familiar with the norms of the organization. A rung above this level of conflict involves conflict between groups, which include conflicts between all aggregations of people, regardless of size. It encompasses conflicts across departments of a firm as well as conflicts between different firms. Inter group conflicts are most commonly found in acquired companies where cultural differences exist between old and new employees. The best way to resolve these conflicts involves setting up work teams within the troubled zones, whereby grievances are openly aired and defensive routines (not discussing the undiscussability of the undiscussable) are avoided.
While studying an acquisition between Compaq and Tandem computers, I proposed that the establishment of work groups across all levels of the organizations consisting of Compaq and Tandem employees would be the most effective way of diffusing tension and subsequently reducing conflict between employees. Communication in small groups enable peers to interact with each other, increasing their understanding of each other which in turn increases interpersonal coordination.
SOURCES OF CONFLICT
Conflicts usually spring from the following sources within an organization.
1. Limited Resources: Basic economics state that all resources are finite, and this promotes conflict among individuals and groups.
2. Interdependent Work activities- Differences in opinion regarding the usage of these scarce resources result in conflict as people have differences in perspective.
3. Communication problems- inadequate channels of communication between opposing parties result in the escalation of conflict.
4. Environment of the organization- this is applicable to the creation of an organizational climate in a corporation that has recently acquired other firms. Cultural differences coupled with poor communication between managers create conflict between all employees. Frequent changes in a firm’s environment, or the amount of turbulence in the environment often promotes conflict among members. An example is the change in importance from hardware to software in the computer industry, and the subsequent actions IBM had to take in the early 1980s.
Conflict is good! Stimulating conflict can provide several benefits to the organization. They provide the organization a means to introduce radical change. Management can drastically change the existing power structure and attitudes.
While it is argued that conflict increases hostility between group members, external pressures and threats tend to make the unit more close knit.
Intergroup conflicts raise the extent to which members identify with their own group and increase feelings of solidarity, while, at the same time, internal differences and irritations dissolve.
Additionally, Conflicts improve group and organizational effectiveness by encouraging innovation through diversity of opinion and through the creation of a ??more constructive level of tension’ . Low-tension levels signify insufficient motivation within the group. The introduction of a conflict activates people’s gray matter and this is beneficial for the organization.
Recent studies show that the ?right amount’ of conflict maximizes organizational performance (See Appendix A). Although conflict does not facilitate efficiency in decision making, it prevents groupthink. Differences in opinion prevent wayward decision making as they provide a natural system of checks and balances for the group. America’s intervention in the Vietnam War is the perfect illustration of the negative effects that the lack of conflict has on the eventual decision. Recorded below are transcripts of four successive American presidents regarding the importance of America’s intervention into the Vietnam War.
EISENHOWER, August 4, 1953:
…So when the United States votes $400 million to help that war, we’re not voting for a giveaway program. We’re voting for the cheapest way that we can prevent the occurrence of something that would be of the most terrible significance to the United States of America, our security!
KENNEDY, September 2, 1963:
…If we withdrew from Vietnam, the Communists would control Vietnam. Pretty soon Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya would go.
JOHNSON, August 2, 1965:
…If this little nation goes down the drain and can’t maintain her independence, ask yourself, what’s going to happen to all the other little nations?
NIXON, March 22, 1971:
…If the United States now were to throw in the towel and come home and the Communists took over South Vietnam, then all over Southeast Asia, all over the Pacific, in the Mideast, in Europe, in the world, the United States would suffer a blow. And peace — because we are the great peacekeeping nation in the world today, because of our power — would suffer a blow from which it might not recover.
Their unanimous agreement over the importance of America’s participation in the war was not questioned at any cost. That negligence on America’s part would create a domino effect in south East Asia had become the underlying assumption that was never questioned. The lack of dialogue on a topic of such magnitude points to the fact that groupthink arises from a lack of conflict. It was this lack of conflict and diversity of opinion that lead to a faulty foreign policy decision and a subsequent escalation of commitment by President Lyndon B Johnson. In a sample study to prove the effectiveness of conflict in work groups,
?Groups were formed to solve a problem. As in the typical experiment, there were experimental and control groups. The experimental group had a ?planted? member who job it was to challenge the majority view; the control groups had no such member. In all cases, the experimental groups came up with better solutions to the problem than did the control groups.
However, excess conflict has a diametrically opposite impact on organizational performance (See Appendix A). It hinders team development, promotes aggression, causes indifference and has negative consequences on team spirit. Consider the National Democratic Alliance, India’s ruling party that comprised of 15 coalition members. After being elected into government in early 1998, it was toppled over within a year due to a terrific amount of friction between the coalition members. The coalition parliamentarians could not agree on a single issue and this complete lack of coordination lead to the downfall of the government and subsequently to fresh elections.
Conflict is inevitable since people from different cultures have to produce results while coordinating with each other in turbulent environments. The creation of mega corporations through mergers and acquisitions has increased the importance of conflict management. It can be studied under two broad approaches; Conflict Stimulation and Conflict resolution.
Conflict Stimulation is the process whereby conflict is encouraged within work groups. Listed below are effective strategies for promoting conflict stimulation.
? Openly stating the importance of tranquil, harmonious conflict. For example, departments run by individuals who discourage their subordinates should be replaced by those who encourage conflict. This involves adopting Argyris’ Model II Behaviour; fewer defensive routines and more dialogue, less discussion.
? Outsiders such as consultants and people from different organizations can be brought in to question practices and beliefs within the organization. They are particularly useful because they don’t have any biases or preconceived notions about the organization.
? Organization restructuring is another possibility. This results in the development of new relationships among people from different departments and is a sure fire way of preventing groupthink
? Management can implement programs that are specifically designed to increase conflict and competition. Examples of such programs may be seen in awarding car salesman prizes for the maximum cars sold their way. This leads them to innovate and innovation is a factor that can lead to positive conflict.
This is an effective way of solving conflicts as it encompasses the structural alteration aspect of the corporation as well as obtaining a macro perspective of the organization.
Conflict Resolution involves resolving conflicts through varied techniques such as
Forcing- this is the quickest form of conflict resolution, thought it does not provide an effective long-term solution. It may be understood further in an employer telling two arguing subordinates to keep quiet.
Smoothing- it involves using tact by the peacemaker. It can be an effective strategy in most cases. However, it does create an impression of favoritism, which has negative consequences in the long term. Consider the following situation
The same two arguing employees, X and Y, approach their boss for his opinion on the problem. Their employer chooses X’s argument over Y. This naturally leads Y to believe that their employer is biased towards X.
Majority rule- although voting is an important element of democracy; votes usually lead to suppression of important facts. Once again, the losing party feels that it has been cheated and this leads to cooperation problems in the future.
Compromise- this is probably the most widely used technique that provides all parties some sort of benefit. It is most widely seen in labor union conflicts with management. However, a major disadvantage of this system occurs when both/either of the two parties exaggerate their demands in anticipation that they will get more than what they realistically hope for by inflating the initial demand.
Consensus- This requires conflicting parties to work together to find the best solution to their problem. This is the most useful tool thought it often is the most tedious.
Voting and horse-trading should not be allowed, while equal airtime for all and a certain level of unanimity must be reached.
Confrontation- this involves opposing parties to come face to face and discuss their needs, wants and demands. Its disadvantage lies in parties not stating the central issue and instead skirting around the target problem. This is often seen in husband-wife arguments.
Integration- this technique requires the conflicting parties to collaborate in order to resolve the conflict at hand. Both parties must possess the attitude that although in conflict, a workable arrangement can be reached through compromise.
(A model for conflict resolution is listed in Appendix B)
The following case study provides an insight into the dynamics of conflict in international trade. The difficulties arise due to powerful lobby groups and vested interests. Successful cross-cultural trade provides a perfect illustration of the dynamics of conflict management and the following example is an instance where this succeeded.
The Otis Elevator Company’s entry into the Chinese market is a prime example of how conflicts can be resolved through integration, compromise and positive confrontation. The Otis Elevator Company wanted to gain access and participate in the Chinese market It would use the cheap, skilled labor to its advantage to have a competitive advantage over its competitors. China’s primary objectives behind allowing the Otis Elevator Company into its market were to acquire advanced technology, earn valuable foreign exchange and gain management expertise. During negotiations, three major hurdles were encountered.
The first hurdle involved China’s demand to produce advanced products to substitute for imports and save valuable Chinese’s foreign exchange. Otis on the other hand wanted to initially transfer their more primitive technology since they could meet the demands of the market. Over a period of time, the latest technology could be transferred as they gained experience in the technology. Through compromise, the Chinese drew up a technology transfer schedule that entailed the transfer of the latest technology over a period of time. Otis compromised on the second Chinese demand- shared management. The contract specified that Otis’ assent would be necessary for major management decisions within the firm. This reflected Otis’ willingness to integrate their needs with the Chinese demands. The most difficult issue related to foreign exchange. The Chinese currency, the renminbi (RMB) is non-convertible and the government seldom converted foreign business earnings into foreign exchange. After much bargaining, Otis and the Chinese government agreed to a solution whereby Otis was not required to buy a fixed amount of products and the Chinese government did not have to guarantee conversion of RMB earnings.
This is an excellent example of how conflicts can be successfully navigated and resolved through mutual compromise to produce a symbiotically beneficial agreement. Had their not been conflict between the two parties, it would have been a case of pure exploitation by one party against another. Through conflict management, they innovated to constitute a fresh agreement that would suit both their needs along with turbulence in the environment.
I would like to conclude by reiterating the importance of constructive conflict and its management in this day and age. Conflicts are beneficial if they are harmonious and tranquil. They promote intellectual dialogue and prevent groupthink. In an age where mergers become more common by the day, conflict management holds the key to saving millions of dollars by increasing interdepartmental coordination by reducing friction between employees. Conflicts should be used as opportunities to refine behavioural patterns and constantly innovate in a changing world.
We find comfort among those who agree with us. Growth among those who don’t.
My sentiments precisely.