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Diagnosing organisational conflict: Key questions to ask

Organisations worldwide are inherently conflictual. During any time of transition and uncertainty, organisations are especially subject to stress and — if conflict is managed well — to significant growth. To survive, organisations need long-term strategic planning, involving all their people in charting their future. Karin Osler reports

In volatile times, how we deal with conflict in organisations will have a direct impact on society in general. When diagnosing organisational conflict, one cannot look at the symptoms alone. The conflict should not be seen in isolation from other organisational issues such as leadership styles, the organisation’s value system, what it stands for and what it wants to achieve. There is no ‘quick-fix’ or ‘miracle cure’ — each conflict requires a specific contingency solution and approach. Yet the starting point is to ask— for all in the organisation to ask — the correct questions:

Who are the main parties in the conflict, and what are their real interests? Often parties have a stake in perpetuating the conflict — some may gain recognition, for instance, whilst others hide behind the conflict. Though often difficult, one needs to try to differentiate between personal interest, and group or organisational interest.

Does the organisation have a clear sense of where it is, and where it wants to be in the future? Does it have an explicit mission/vision/purpose developed with the participation of all in the organisation? Have individual values, goals and aspirations been considered, and has there been a process of matching individual and organisational value systems? Do people within the organisation believe in these value systems and live them in their jobs?

Is the conflict around organisational resources (such as assets, money, space or material), or is it around deep human needs for acknowledgement, status, recognition and the need for development? Often the former masks the latter.

What are the roots of the conflict, or what precipitated it? Organisational conflict results not from immediate single causes, but rather from many variables impacting on each other over a longer period of time, such as a history of ‘separate development’.

What is the dominant leadership and management style of everyone in the organisation — not just people at the top? Are the leaders at the various levels autocratic, or do they actively seek everyone’s participation in decision making? Do leaders have a concern for the job, or do they have a co-operative style that shows concern for individuals? Do they practise what they preach?

Are the organisational structures conducive to conflict? Are individuals or departments competing against each other, or ‘building empires’? Signs of this could be people in different parts of the organisation not communicating, having distorted perceptions and negative stereotypes of others, not knowing what other groups are doing, or even overtly sabotaging the efforts of others.

Are organisatlonal policies such as reward systems causing the conflict? Are people rewarded for working as individuals, or are they rewarded for working together in teams, towards a common goal?

Are lines of communication accurate, clear and open? Does the organisation have a system of regular meetings where all employees get a chance to contribute in a constructive and positive manner? Do people in the organisation actively listen to each other and reflect, before merely ‘shooting from the hip’? Is there a balance between formal and informal communication channels that promote real dialogue and discussion?

Are the power or status differences between individuals or groups contributing to the conflict? Often power cannot be equalised in organisations, but one can achieve psychological equality by making all employees realise that they are interdependent, and need mutual support towards a common goal.

Are we dealing with functional or dysfunctional conflict? Is the conflict adding to or detracting from organisational performance? Many people see organisational conflict as something negative which must be resolved completely. Yet conflict is inevitable, and indeed in certain amounts extremely useful, by energising people into realising that they need to change or move forward. In organisations where there are too many ‘yes-men’, where there is a sense of complacency with no diversity or new ideas, it can help to stimulate conflict by altering structures or incentives, or bringing in contentious outsiders. Conflict can be used as a source of creative tension to enhance decision making, increase levels of productivity, and help the organisation move forward.

This feature: Karin Osler (1993) Diagnosing organisational conflict: Key questions to ask. The Child Care Worker, Vol. 11 No. 9 September 1993. p. 15