Organisational stress, according to senior health policy analyst Frank Darby in an OSH policy paper last year, implies that an organisation is not functioning well. And recent World Health Organisation report concludes that workplace stress is more related to the work environment than any individual psychological characteristics.
The work environment is fundamentally about how people relate, communicate, resolve disputes, how much control they have over their job, and how much support and commitment they get from management.
This article looks at the role of intra- organisational conflict in creating stress, and suggests an approach to developing more organisational competence to manage the conflict and prevent unnecessary stress.
Stress and conflict are intimately linked. “Conflict creates stress, which increases sensitivity and susceptibility to conflict, which in turn increases stress.” High stress often leads to more destructive conflict. Stress prevention can, therefore, be important when it comes to resolving conflict. It becomes vicious cycle that many organisations need to address more systematically.
How organisations view conflict
The following observations about conflict in the workplace are based on our experience training public sector organisations in conflict management.
Conflict has bad name. People view conflict as something negative, an enemy to organisational performance. They see it as competitive or as struggle leading to win-lose result. Clients seldom see conflict as cooperative where people share common goals. Organisations where conflicts are discussed cooperatively arrive at solutions that increase efficiency and reduce costs, according to Dean Tjosvold, author of Learning to Manage Conflict.
Conflict can be positive activity within an organisation. Conflict can “promote new ideas, encourage better understanding, strengthen personal relationships, stimulate individual growth, and facilitate more effective solutions to problems”, wrote Gregory Tillet in his book Resolving Conflict. Becoming more effective at managing conflict is fundamental to becoming learning organisation.
Clients usually assume conflict is about opposing interests. In both internal and external negotiations people seldom have totally opposing interests or needs. They may have opposing positions, however this reveals little about why something is important. If people always work on the assumption of opposing interests this makes the resolution of conflict difficult. Morton Deutsch, in his book The Resolution of Conflict talks about conflict in terms of incompatible behaviours and strategies rather than incompatible needs. By changing assumptions to focus on common interests people can work on the relationship and the process that allows them to achieve joint goals.
The most common strategies for dealing with conflict are avoidance and accommodation. Denying the existence of conflict does not make it disappear; it just gives it more covert power. Always accommodating others’ wishes often means that your own needs may not be well met. Avoidance and accommodation may be useful at times but as general strategy they do not deal with the cause of the problem.
Different organisations produce different cultures of conflict. These cultures of conflict which are often not formalised nevertheless set the unspoken parameters for how people respond, say Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith in their book Resolving Conflicts at Work. They alter how we see our opponents and ourselves, what is acceptable and what is not.
Many people have attributed organisational conflict to difficult relationships, personalities or behaviours. These are typically just the symptoms of the problem. The conflict often comes back to organisational structure, policies, procedures and management. According to Chris Watkin, writing in the UK publication People Management last year, the key factor in working with organisational conflict is how to improve the organisational climate.
As conflict is dynamic ingredient of any organisation it behoves management to be more explicit about how to address it. Conflict can lead to constructive change, it can sort out what is important and what we value and it can help us understand and work with difference. Conflict in an organisation is not the problem; the problem is unresolved conflict that festers, affecting productivity, working relationships, morale and attitudes.
How organisations need to view conflict
Organisational managers need to view the management of conflict as systematically as they view the management of financial systems, information systems, even human resource systems, according to Danny Ertel, writing on negotiations and conflict resolution in Harvard Business Review. The conflict management system has an effect on the successful operation of every other system. Managers need to change their mindset from managing conflict as “one-off” event or situation, to seeing it as an ongoing opportunity to learn and improve. Managers often fail to appreciate the long-term costs of not dealing with conflict.
In building organisational capability and capacity to manage conflict we usually focus on negotiation and mediation, mainly because they maximise the power and control of the parties to determine their own resolution. Each person negotiates every day, irrespective of his or her role in the organisation. In managing difficult internal issues, employees often get poor results because they fail to consider internal interactions in terms of negotiated processes.
If organisations want to embrace conflict as process to enhance performance and the ability to manage change, then they must rethink the view that conflict management training is the only answer. Training by itself seldom leads to long-term change unless organisations have the mechanisms in place to support the outcomes. Below is model for thinking more systematically about organisational conflict and trying to prevent the stress that arises from it.
A model for developing conflict competence
New challenges in society such as increasing diversity, globalisation, information technology and new political and social agendas are resulting in organisations changing at an accelerating rate, becoming more fluid, dynamic and less hierarchical. These challenges will continue to put increasing pressure on organisations to develop new systems and competencies in managing conflict, says Robert J Robinson in The Conflict Competent Organisation.
Developing ‘conflict competent organisation’ (CCO) has six key components. First is an understanding of the new social pressures and how they can change organisational operations. Organisations mirror the challenges that we face in wider society. If we understand the way society is changing, then we can begin to plan for how organisations will cope.
Second is whether we are open to new ways of thinking. New challenges often require new competencies and the need to test whether old methods and skills can provide the solutions we need. This involves challenging the underlying assumptions and values we have about managing conflict. Competitive values about the “other party” will lead to different results than collaborative values.
However we can’t just change the values, we need to translate these values into new conflict management strategies such as how we define successful negotiation outcomes in an organisation. If the organisation focuses solely on financial measures then negotiators will focus on cost issues; it is as simple as that. The problem is that very narrow definition of success overlooks opportunities for mutual gain and being creative.
From there we need new operating systems which can support ongoing learning and capacity building. For example, has your organisation got the following systems in place?
• Systems for ongoing learning;
• Systems for helping staff to know what methods of