Conflict Management and Negotiation

AuthorDavid Victor, Patricia Lanier

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The term conflict refers to perceived incompatibilities resulting typically from some form of interference or opposition. Conflict management, then, is the employment of strategies to correct these perceived differences in a positive manner. For many decades, managers had been taught to view conflict as a negative force. However, conflict may actually be either functional or dysfunctional. Whereas dysfunctional conflict is destructive and leads to decreased productivity, functional conflict may actually encourage greater work effort and help task performance. Borisoff and Victor (1998) point out, "We have come to recognize and to acknowledge the benefits dealing with conflict affords. Because of our differences, we communicate, we are challenged, and we are driven to find creative solutions to problems."


The early approach to conflict management was based on the assumption that all conflict was bad and would always be counterproductive to organizational goals. Conflict management, therefore, was synonymous with conflict avoidance. This left the people experiencing the conflict with essentially only one outcome: a win-lose scenario. In such cases, the loser would feel slighted and this, in turn, would lead to renewed belligerence. Therefore, most managers viewed conflict as something they must eliminate from their organization. This avoidance approach to conflict management was prevalent during the latter part of the nineteenth century and continued until the mid-1940s.

Nevertheless, conflict avoidance is not a satisfactory strategy for dealing with most conflict. Conflict avoidance usually leaves those people who are being avoided feeling as if they are being neglected. Also, conflict avoidance usually fails to reconcile the perceived differences that originally caused the conflict. As a result, the original basis for the conflict continues unabated, held in check only temporarily until another confrontation arises to set the same unresolved tensions into motion again. Therefore, conflict avoidance strategies are not especially useful in the long run.

The human relations view of conflict management dominated from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s. This viewpoint argued that conflict was a natural and inevitable occurrence in any organizational setting. Because conflict was considered unavoidable, the human relations approach recommended acceptance of conflict. In other words, conflict cannot be eliminated and may even benefit the organization. It was during this time period that the term "conflict management" was introduced, according to Nurmi and Darling.

Since the mid-1970s a new position on organizational conflict has emerged. This theoretical perspective is the interactionist approach. This viewpoint espouses not only accepting conflict, but also encouraging it. Theorists are of the opinion that a conflict-free, harmonious, and cooperative organization tends to become stagnant and nonreponsive to market change and advancement. Therefore, it is necessary for managers to interject a minimum level of conflict to maintain an optimal level of organizational performance. For example, Shelton and Darling suggest conflict is a necessary condition for both individual and organizational progression. They encourage managers to "embrace conflict and use it for continuous transformation."


According to both Daft and Terry, several factors may create organizational conflict. They are as follows:

Scarce Resources. Resources may include money, supplies, people, or information. Often, organizational units are in competition for scarce or declining resources. This creates a situation where conflict is inevitable.

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Jurisdictional Ambiguities. Conflicts may also surface when job boundaries and task responsibilities are unclear. Individuals may disagree about who has the responsibility for tasks and resources.

Personality Clashes. A personality conflict emerges when two people simply do not get along or do not view things similarly. Personality tensions are caused by differences in personality, attitudes, values, and beliefs.

Power and Status Differences. Power and status conflict may occur when one individual has questionable influence over another. People might engage in conflict to increase their power or status in an organization.

Goal Differences. Conflict may occur because people are pursuing different goals. Goal conflicts in individual work units are a natural part of any organization.

Communication Breakdown. Communication-based barriers may be derived from differences in speaking styles, writing styles, and nonverbal communication styles. These stylistic differences frequently distort the communication process. Faulty communication leads to misperceptions and misunderstandings that can lead to long-standing conflict. Additional barriers to communication may emerge from the cross-gender and cross-cultural differences of participants. Such fundamental differences may affect both the ways in which the parties express themselves and how they are likely to interpret the communication they receive. These distortions, in turn, frequently result in mis-reading by the parties involved. Moreover, it is common for the parties involved to be oblivious to these false impressions. The resultant misunderstandings...

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