Conflicts in the workplace are a serious threat to productivity. According to a recent report by CNN (Zupek, 2008), human resource managers are forced to dedicate between 24 and 60 percent of their time mediating disputes between employees. Imagine the difference in hiring and retention rates if this time were in less demand. Tension between coworkers is one of the major causes of work-related stress. Some employees become so frustrated with their ongoing quarrels with coworkers that they eventually leave their job. The rising rates of violence in the workplace are even more alarming (Zupek, 2008).
Workplace disputes are no longer yelling matches in the boardroom. Many have erupted to physical assaults, which can endanger the entire organization. There is no way to eliminate conflict completely, nor should this be the goal. It is a natural consequence to the interaction of human beings, who are diverse and emotional creatures. Ideas will differ, personalities will collide, but properly managing these disputes is an important key to building and maintaining a successful business.
Communication, at its many different levels, is the key to the management of conflicts in the workplace. Section 1
According to Rahim (2002), the first step to managing any workplace conflict is diagnosing the problem. Managers and business leaders must dissect the problem and identify its root cause. Workplace problems are generally classified according to three realms: interpersonal problems, intragroup problems, and intergroup problems. Once the type of problem causing the conflict is identified, the question should be raised whether or not an intervention is necessary.
Some problems will resolve with time or more effectively without the direct involvement of management. If intervention is necessary, the goals should be clear.
Intervention should reduce the affectivity, or emotion, involved in the conflict. This should restore productivity and maintain and cooperative work environment for all employees. When at all possible, employees should be empowered to select the effective conflict management strategies independently for their own use to solve problems. This option can be made available through education, support, and encouragement to address problems and handle them in a professional manner. An important component in the education of workers on the causes and potential solutions for conflicts is the recognition of cultural differences.
Experts estimate that approximately 2/3 of all communication is nonverbal (Chaney & Martin, 2005). Even when a person is completely silent, they cannot stop “speaking” their cultural language. The way we eat, the facial expressions we use, and the tones of voice to indicate emotion are all reflective of cultural background (Chaney & Martin, 2005). Most agree that it is important to avoid defensive body language when handling professional matters (Hamilton, 2004). This seems like a straightforward theoretical piece of advice, but it is nearly impossible to define what universally defensive behavior looks like.
Behavior speaks volumes and the styles of different cultures are often the spark that ignites workplace disputes. Employees often misidentify the cause of these disputes and fail to recognize the importance of considering culture differences throughout the mediation process. Effective business leaders must learn to communicate across many different cultures. At the same time, they must develop a deeper awareness of the many meanings their own messages could be sending to others (Chaney & Martin, 2005).
This inclusive attitude towards the acceptance of diversity must start from the top of an organization if employees are expected to apply the approach to their everyday interactions with colleagues. Most people aim to avoid conflict, but the complete omission of conflict from the workplace can lead to dangerous and costly consequences. Groupthink is defined as a premature decision reached by a group because members of the group ceased the entertainment of different ideas in an effort to avoid conflict (Hamilton, 2004).
Some of history’s worst group decisions have been blamed on groupthink. It is a shortcut that can cause serious loss of opportunity or idea development. It squelches creativity and unnaturally expedites consensus. Employees should be supported to assertively, not aggressively, voice their differing opinions. Alternative perspectives should be praised and valued and groups should not be penalized for taking the time to make thoughtful and well-planned decisions. Another explanation for groupthink, proposed by Chapman (2006), should also be considered.
Chapman (2006) conducted a study to investigate the role of anxiety in the groupthink phenomenon. Anxiety appears to play an important role in people’s rush to agree with the group-even against their better judgment. Chapman implores leaders and managers to recognize signs of anxiety and provide training on how employees can alleviate their anxiety throughout the day. Groupthink is a powerful indication of the need to deal with conflict in a way that promotes productivity, safety, and the generation of innovative ideas. Conflict should be managed rather than eliminated.
Section 2 The study of the theories behind communication, conflict management, and group decision making is interesting, but vastly different from the experience of these issues in real world working situations. Textbooks, videos, and even the best lectures cannot capture the effect of emotion in a conflict. Emotion experienced in the workplace is complicated by the pressure and expectations to conceal feelings and maintain a calm and professional demeanor. Just as conflict should not be eliminated, there is also a place for emotions in the workplace.
In relation to the negative impact workplace conflicts can have on productivity and worker satisfaction, I have at times struggled to maintain my own composure. A person’s harsh tone, a disruptive comment, or a smirk has resulted in my stomach tying in knots, sweaty palms, and sometimes my refusal to contribute my ideas to the group. It is nearly impossible to concentrate under such conditions and the smallest distractions can take over the day. It is also entirely too easy to become lost in the details of the argument or disagreement.
Categorizing the cause of a conflict into the three groups defined by Rahim (2002) seems organized, but it fails to consider the overlap that is present in many disputes. At times intercultural conflicts are also interpersonal. It has been difficult for me to understand the instructions of a supervisor because he spoke quickly with an accent and made little eye contact. I recognized that this communication difference might be related to our cultural backgrounds so I tried to embrace an accepting attitude when we conversed.
I consciously told myself that his lack of eye contact was not a sign of disrespect, but I began to notice that my feelings of defensiveness were also tied to my supervisor’s habit of interruption paired with some rude remarks. It is inaccurate to blame the entirety of many work conflicts on cultural differences. It is even more challenging to categorize conflicts into boxes when most, if not all, fit into many different categories. I do recognize the value of identifying the cause of a dispute, considering cultural differences, and targeting the problem with an intervention.
While research can explain this route using clear and distinct steps and paths, real life application is considerably more complex and convoluted. My own area of growth as a professional related to conflicts lies not in the ability to resolve them, but with the confidence needed to assert myself and openly engage in constructive conflict. The theory and research related to groupthink has enacted a major realization that many of the decisions I have helped to make have likely been affected by this shortcut.
It is difficult to know which battles are worth fighting and how to submit an idea that is in direct opposition to the others brought to the table. This challenge is even greater when my idea represents the vast minority. The work of Chapman (2006) has allowed me to recognize anxiety as a major culprit in my own hesitation to differ from the group. Learning and practicing relaxation strategies, especially before an important meeting, phone call, or presentation, could empower me to facilitate creativity and open communication. I have also set a goal to become more comfortable in the midst of conflicts.
As a leader, it will be important that I do not overly avoid disagreements because my help and support will be needed to resolve them. The rewards of conflict management are vast. Organizations enjoy happier workers and more productivity. From this theoretical and practical analysis, the individual and organizational components of reaching this goal are clear. It takes a team approach to solve problems that are destructive to the group and nurture the atmosphere that will sometimes breed a healthy conflict in hopes of fueling new and innovative ideas. References Chaney, L. & Martin, J. (2005). Intercultural business communication (4th ed).
Prentice Hall. Chapman, J. (2006). Anxiety and defective decision making: An elaboration of the groupthink model. Management Decision, 44(10), 1391-1404. Hamilton, C. (2004). Communicating for results: A guide for business and the professions (8th ed). Wadsworth. Rahim, M. A. (2002). Toward a theory of managing organizational conflict. International Journal of Conflict Management, 13(3), Retrieved from Social Science Research Network. Zupek, R. (2008, January 2). Six tips to managing workplace conflicts. Retrieved March 6, 2009, from CNN. com/Living. Website: http://www. cnn. com/2008/LIVING/worklife/01/02/cb. work. conflict/index. html.
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