MANAGING CONFLICT

A woman with a lot of experience, expertise and credentials still don't get trusted, or their opinion isn't valued as much as if it was a man saying it - and I find that very frustrating.

About conflict 

 

Workplace conflict is a common and often unavoidable part of working life. But there are ways to manage conflict more effectively. Conflict has been defined as a state of discord caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needs, values, and interests. It can be internal (within oneself) or external (between two or more individuals) [1].

 

When conflict is poorly handled or remains unresolved, it can lead to negative outcomes. These include toxic relationships (e.g., lack of respect, bullying, incivility, insults), psychological strain, poor teamwork (e.g., team members who refuse to work together), and low productivity [2][3][4].

 

Conflict can take on many forms. Relationship conflict [5] emerges from negative emotions and interpersonal relationships between team members that are not associated with the task at hand [6]. As a consequence, it can interfere with team effectiveness or result in poor project outcomes, such as delays. Status conflict [7] – disputes over people’s relative status in the group’s social hierarchy – can also negatively impact group performance, through encouraging competitive behaviours and diminishing the quality of a group’s information sharing. 

 

Certain types of conflict, however, can be beneficial to team performance. For example, task conflicts [5] increase team member’s tendency to thoroughly inspect task issues and to engage in deep and deliberate processing of task-relevant information [8]. Minority dissent in teams promotes cognitive complexity and increases individual creativity, which can lead a team to become more innovative [9]. Similarly, process conflicts [10] can also enhance team performance through improving individual development, boosting motivation and supporting positive communication among team members.

Avoiding conflict avoidance

Most people dislike conflict, and so go out of their way to avoid it. Our strategies for avoiding conflict can be mapped according to who wins or loses in each situation [1]:

Concern for others

Dominating

The focus is more on ending conflict than on maintaining relationship.


-> High concern for self, low concern for others

Concern for self

Avoiding

The problem is avoided or ignored.


-> Low concern for self, low concern for others

Integrating

Conflicting parties work together to find mutually beneficial solutions.


-> High concern for self, high concern for others

Obliging

One conflicting party surrenders to end the conflict and/or maintain the relationship.

-> Low concern for self, high concern for others

Compromising

Conflicting parties find a middle ground to agree upon and end the conflict.
-> Moderate concern for self, moderate concern for others

Of these styles, Integrating usually provides the best outcome, with success being achieved  through building a relationship based on trust and mutual gain [11]. However, in some cases other forms of negotiation are more effective. For example [12]:
 

  • Avoiding: this strategy may be best in a low-stakes situation, or if you find yourself in an unexpected situation that you’re unprepared for.

  • Obliging: this is effective when you highly value the relationship with the person you’re in conflict with. People who accommodate are often very well liked by colleagues.

  • Dominating: this can work when you want to get results quickly and you have non-negotiable factors.

  • Compromising: best to deploy when time is limited and you’re dealing with someone that you can trust.

Gender differences in conflict  

 

Men and women may have different approaches to workplace conflict. A 2013 study examined the behaviour of male and female managers as third parties in dispute resolution [13]. Results showed that women, compared to men, who took on the role of a third party were better able to facilitate an outcome that was both acceptable to disputants and met organizational interests. Women managers also showed less influential, powerful, and autonomous behaviours, adjusting behaviour according to the authority embedded in their organizational role. This research demonstrates that when women negotiate, they are sensitive to their immediate leadership context. When resolving disputes, they show empathy and respect, which facilitate conflict resolution [14]. They effectively adapt their behaviours to avoid social sanctions from masculine leadership approaches.

 

Prior research also shows women’s unique strengths in leadership. Women are often seen as the “peacemakers” within organizations [15][16], tending to choose conflict avoidance strategies because they don’t want to be perceived as aggressive. A 2005 meta-analysis reports women are more likely to endorse compromising conflict-resolution styles than men. In contrast, men are more likely to report using a forcing style of conflict resolution [17].

 

Women experience greater anxiety and discomfort from conflict than men [18], and also have a lower tolerance for disagreement [19]. This may be due to socially constructed gender norms. Femininity norms suggest that women are more conflict averse, other-oriented, and socially conforming than men, who tend to be more aggressive, self-interested, and independent [20]. These gender differences are also reflected in differences in communication styles. Women tend to be more intimate and relational in conversation, whereas men tend to use more assertive, direct, and powerful communication [21]. Furthermore, being conflict avoidant is beneficial for men, as it decreases their emotional exhaustion; however, women show increased emotional exhaustion from performing conflict avoidant strategies [22].

 

A final point to note is that the social environment can influence the behaviours that men and women adopt when managing conflict [23]. Women are more likely to adopt male behaviours in a male-dominated or masculine working environment, and vice versa.

Practical tips for dealing with conflict

What can you do to better manage conflict at work? The Center of Creative Leadership has identified seven constructive behaviours to competently resolve conflict [26]:  

Active constructive behaviours:

Taking the position or viewpoint of another person, or engaging empathetically with their position.    

Perspective

taking

Creating

solutions

Using brainstorming, engaging others in developing solutions, considering historical solutions, and seeking out innovative or creative approaches to problems.

Expressing

emotions

Remaining calm, avoiding escalating the conflict by showing emotion; instead, engaging in behaviours such as lowering your voice and keeping direct eye contact.

Reaching 

out

Addressing negative emotions caused by conflict, reducing tension between parties involved in conflict, enabling all parties to fully engage in the process of conflict resolution.

Passive constructive behaviours:

Reflective

Thinking

Noticing your own actions, reflecting on the impact you have had on others, and thinking about the most appropriate way to proceed.

Delay responding (“time-out”)

Pausing communication for a moment to gain distance from the conflict; allowing time to change the flow of the conservation; pausing to avoid a conflict spiralling out of control.

Adapting Behaviour

Having an optimistic and flexible mind-set, being willing to consider new alternatives or approaches to the conflict resolution process.  

The National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council has further identified dispute resolution processes e.g., negotiation [27], mediation [27], and arbitration [27] (ADR: alternative dispute resolution [28]). Using ADR processes can resolve issues, provide a fair process, and help to achieve outcomes that work for everyone involved in the dispute.

 

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