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From conflict to creative tension

/ 11:26 PM October 01, 2011

Conflict is so real in our lives we have accepted it as a sine qua non to human existence.

Conflict on a large scale escalates into wars. And the costs are unimaginable on life and property. And even on our ability to believe that the central principle in life is peace rather than war, harmony rather than conflict.

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Throughout history, the warrior and the general have been elevated to the pedestal; their exploits immortalized in books on strategy and drama—or what they call the “theatre of war.”

So, books on “marching to a different drummer”—not the drummer that beats the gongs of war, but the little drummer boy that sings of the march for peace have burst into the scene to declare that we now live in the age of peace—and peace is possible.

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This book, “Capitalizing on  Conflict,” written by two legal scholars, steeped in legal education, is one of those books that, first, stare conflict in the eye—and then, declare, that conflict is not necessarily bad—that it is actually aimed at driving a creative process: a by-product of peace.

At the onset, the authors say that this is not “about management resolving conflicts.”

“Thinking in such terms presumes conflict is linear, static, and always negative, and that management’s actions to deal with it should be reactive rather than purposeful,” they argue.

They do not see conflict as bad in itself. “Conflictive behavior in the workplace can range from very positive at one extreme and very counterproductive at the other.”

The authors spring their first surprise in this book.

Their thesis is that, “properly managed, conflict can enhance creativity through constructive challenge and interchange, improve decisions by introducing more information and perspective, and foster learning through mutual problem solving.”

Viewed that way, then conflict is truly a welcome development in the workplace and somewhere else. I recall one remark, which runs: “If there is always harmony among two people, surely one of them is not thinking!”

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This statement does not want a “yes” person as company. Nothing new, nothing challenging will come from such a relationship.

The book has a wealth of examples to offer. “A challenge to an organizational policy will result in improving it,” the authors say simply, and yet this statement leads us to recall of many policies that have to change in corporations and even in the State.

Even in product development, “a disagreement between engineers over product design can lead to improvement in the operation and marketability of the product in a healthy organization.” But, in another organization, this conflict  can lead to backbiting, low morale and mutually destructive behavior.

The book’s view of conflict accepts that troublemakers, deviants, and ignorance may cause some counterproductive conflict. But, it also acknowledges divergent interests, accepts that some counterproductive conflict is natural and inevitable, and even suggests that management and its systems cause much workplace conflict.

The two lawyers are good at negotiation and psychology. They say, “A zero sum pay program in which one employee gets less when another gets more causes unhealthy competition and failure to communicate.” They strike at the core principle of managing conflicts: Go for a win-win solution. It should not be a winner-take-all game.

The book makes it easy on the reader to digest the points raised by the authors. Part 1 provides perspective on conflict, and walks the reader through the various types of conflict one usually meets. It reads like a textbook, but, take heart, you are reading two lawyers speaking like sociologists and psychologists. It is a well-rewarded attempt.

Part 2 speaks of the company’s management and its systems as key factors in either causing or minimizing counterproductive conflict. In this section, some measures are discussed on minimizing “the overall conflict level” in an organization.

Otherwise litigious or adversarial lawyers are now talking about developing a “trusting environment—what a refreshing statement from experts of bar and bench. They say more: “Avoid policy-driven conflicts.”

The authors say that a company’s policy has land mines in potential conflict. They cite this situation—which is really a misreading of the evolving values in an organization:

“Policies intended to ensure workplace effectiveness, justice, and peace instead cause counterproductive conflict and present essentially irreconcilable dilemmas.

“They provide centralized management control, when employee initiative and empowerment are what is really needed.

“They foster nondiscrimination and equality when people want to be acknowledged and treated as individuals.

“They encourage stability when flexibility and change are needed.

“So instead of preventing conflict, policies often just recast it into another form of conflict.”

The book offers what it calls the “Conflict Management Cycle,” which is made up of minimizing potential or actual conflict, surfacing the conflict, resolving the conflict, and learning from the conflict. It is a very tidy framework. The authors briefly discuss the process. They extol the virtues of a “learning organization,” that is learning from mistakes and conflicts.

As you manage conflicts, the authors emphasize, the solutions must still be ethical, moral and legal. There is no excuse for crossing the boundaries of what is lawful and what is right.

“The law must not be broken. It must embody moral arguments, and decisions must fairly, honestly and impartially address the interests of everyone,” they prescribe. This is easier said than done, and yet efforts should not deteriorate into wrongdoing.

Expectedly, the authors cite the importance of communicating consistently and with one voice. And while in the process of communicating, the managers must continue to “build management’s trustworthiness” as key to managing conflicts.

The book devotes a section on the use of power in conflict management. It cites: (1) Coercive Power, which is forcing one’s cooperation without willing agreement, (2) Utility Power, which is buying what one wants by bestowing rewards to influence behavior, and (3) Collaborative Power, which is using the hearts and minds of all parties to accomplish common objectives. They add that these uses of power can be combined.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

The book devotes a section on “Alternative Dispute Resolution” (ADR), which covers a wide range of non-litigious options that can be part of a dispute resolution strategy.

I met a lawyer a few months ago, who has been offering this process as an alternative route to litigation.

A few of the ADR options discussed are:

Open-door policy. This is a face-to-face unstructured meeting that leads to agreed resolution of conflicts. This process assumes that an early conversation will resolve a potential conflict before it evolves into a major dispute.

Facilitation. It helps people resolve disputes in a relaxed and in an informal setting, to be handled by a highly trained facilitator.

Coaching, dialogue

Mediation is another route. It is a voluntary or a requirement before escalating a dispute to other resolution processes—such as arbitration or litigation.

Other “transformative” mediators concentrate more on helping the parties improve the overall workplace climate by empowering themselves and building self-esteem with resolution of the specific disputes seen largely as a byproduct of the process.

The book suggests that a company must adopt an ADR Policy, which is a formal ADR policy statement that establishes the rules for resolving disputes, provides due process and fosters a full understanding of the dispute resolution options available to the parties.

Overall, the thesis of the book is that a conflict per se is not at all bad. A measure of conflict is needed to challenge a status quo, a mind-set, a policy—which should be the beginning of continuous improvement in a workplace.

I was hoping the book will cover conflict in communities, especially when corporations set up facilities that are perceived be threats to the otherwise pristine environment of the place. Another book is indeed necessary to cover such a subject.

And yet, here is a book that provides a systems approach to managing conflicts. As we sue for peace. As we end up in harmony. It’s worth the price, as long as we manage the conflict—or the “creative tension”—so that costs are not irreparable. ([email protected])

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