Managing Conflict in Your Organization

We all have conflicts with the people we work with. Some conflicts are constructive. They can lead to better decision making and faster implementation. Other conflicts are destructive. They cause entropy to rise and prevent work from getting done.

According to organizational development expert Dr. Ichak Adizes, while there are both an art and a science to managing and harnessing conflict, the fact is that every conflict is an expression of one (or a combination) of only three fundamental types1. They are:

  1. Conflict of Competing Interests
  2. Conflict of Behavioral Styles
  3. Conflict of Vision and Values

The next time you’re involved in a conflict, ask yourself, “Is this a conflict of interests, styles, or vision and values?” If you can begin to discern the underlying type of conflict you’re dealing with, this will improve your effectiveness in interpersonal relationships as well as your capabilities as a manager and leader.

Conflict of Competing Interests
Conflict of competing interests occurs when change is perceived as a gain for one group and a loss for another. For example, management views a sales incentive plan as a positive gain, while sales staff sees it as a negative loss. It is relatively easy to manage a conflict of competing interests as long as the parties involved have a sense of shared trust. In fact, if harnessed correctly, a conflict of competing interests can actually lead to faster implementation.

Conflict of Behavioral Styles
Conflict of behavioral styles occurs because individuals respond to change differently. For example, a visionary entrepreneur may feel excited about a new opportunity while a process-oriented manager will see the myriad details standing in the way. A conflict of styles can be managed effectively if all parties have a shared sense of respect among them – that is, they can disagree without being disagreeable. If managed correctly, a conflict of styles will lead to better decisions.

Conflict of Vision and Values
Conflict of vision and values occurs when individuals or groups have fundamentally different world views. For example, capitalism and communism have conflicting visions and values and if one imposes itself on the other, the resistance to change will be so great that this will usually result in war. Unlike a conflict of interests and styles, if you have a true conflict of vision and values, be forewarned that there’s not much you can do to manage the conflict and implement change. The resistance is going to be too great unless the parties find common ground between them.

How to Manage Conflict
The three levels of conflict are always at work to some degree within your organization. If left unchecked, they can quickly become destructive and lead to poor decision making, increased resistance to change, and slower implementation. In Organizational Physics, we have a general rule of thumb about managing conflict called “gather the mass.” Gathering the mass is much like rallying the troops. Essentially, you identify whoever is going to be impacted by a decision downstream, and involve them upstream in the decision-making process. When you do this, you give yourself the best chance of allowing natural conflicts to emerge and to become constructive rather than destructive. The result is better decision making, reduced resistance to change, and faster implementation across the board.

1. Ichak Adizes, Mastering Change: The Power of Mutual Trust and Respect (Santa Barbara: Adizes Institute Publishing, 1992) and Managing Corporate Lifecycles (Santa Barbara: Adizes Institute Publishing, 2004).

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