An introduction to public leadership
An introduction to public leadership

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An introduction to public leadership

3.2.2 Understanding conflict preferences

Have you ever experienced conflict at work? You would be unusual if you said no to this question. Conflict may be low-grade (hassles between colleagues) or high-octane (shouting, bullying, people not speaking to each other). Conflict can occur between public servants and the users of their services (for example, some aspects of public order policing, or tensions within a mental hospital). It can occur between professions and between departments within the same organisation. Conflict can arise when a major change is proposed (e.g. the threat of hospital closure) or when elected politicians and local communities clash over the distribution of resources or the strategy being adopted to bring about change. Conflict seems to be everywhere.

Can conflict ever be constructive? While conflict is often thought of as being destructive to emotions, teamwork and performance, there can be situations where it may be productive. For example, conflict at work may lead to greater clarity about key values or goals. It can also help to ensure that leaders are not surrounded by people who always agree with them and who don’t challenge the assumptions they make or decisions they take.

But all this will depend on how an individual in a leadership role responds to conflict. This animation explores five typical approaches that leaders can adopt when dealing with conflict.

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Here are five typical approaches to conflict situations adopted by individuals which influence the way that they may handle conflict if they find themselves in a leadership role.
Style 1: competing. You tend to be very assertive about your own goals, values and priorities. And you are clear with other people about why these are important. You are less concerned about what the other party wants to achieve and you are inclined to get competitive, even getting in battle mode to win the argument or achieve the outcome you want.
In a conflict, the focus is on win-lose, and you want to be the winner. You want the other party to submit, or give up their concerns. You may emphasise your formal authority to enforce your approach where you have the power over the other person.
Style 2: collaborating. You are clear about your own goals, values and priorities and you are also interested in what the other party's goals, values and priorities are. You are curious about why their goals are different from yours and you want to explore why that might be the case so that you can think about similarities and differences and can problem solve to find a mutually-satisfactory way forward.
You can live with the uncomfortable nature of exploring differences because you are aiming to find a solution that is advantageous for both parties. You are looking for win-win and know that it might come from a different quarter than either party's initial position.
Style 3: compromising. You want to achieve your goals, but also pay attention to the other party's goals, and so you look for trade-offs. You are trying to reach a compromise by having each party give up some of its goals and interests in order to achieve a solution. You negotiate to get acceptable solutions for both parties based on finding areas of similarity and difference and getting each party to give up some of its goals, values and interests.
Style 4: avoiding. You don't feel comfortable with conflict. You would prefer it not to happen. And if it threatens to arise, you tend to ignore it and hope it will go away. You hope the problems will sort themselves out or that the parties involved will cool down and realise they can come to an agreement without any conflict. You find colleagues who express conflict or anger quite hard to deal with and you sometimes edge around difficult issues or avoid controversy, rather than bring conflict into the open.
Style 5: accommodating. You don't feel comfortable with conflict, mainly because of its effects on relationships, which you want to keep on an even keel. You tend to give up your own interests in order to stay friendly with the other party. You will let the other party have their way. If the other party's concerns are important to them, you will tend to meet their goals. You are considerate to the other party, but sometimes relinquish your own goals in the process.
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In a famous study of managers, Thomas (1977) found five styles for handling conflict. He explored the idea that certain people may have preferences for particular ways of handling conflict. A preference does not mean that someone always uses that style or even thinks that it is the best style to use, but rather that they have a tendency to act in that way and will tend to use the other styles less or not at all.

So, what are those styles?

Two dimensions underpin conflict-handling styles.

The first dimension is how assertive the person is in pursuing their own interests in a conflict – from being very unassertive (not expressing one’s own needs or goals) to being very assertive (being clear and expressing one’s own needs and goals). Pause for a moment to think about that dimension. Does it make sense to you? Can you think of people in your workplace or team who are relatively unassertive? Can you think of others who are assertive?

The second dimension is how cooperative the person is in helping to satisfy the interests of the party they are in conflict with. Is the person motivated to help the other person achieve their goals or concerns, or is that not of interest to them? Again, pause for a moment to think about that dimension. Can you identify where people you are familiar with are placed within it?

The two dimensions of assertiveness and cooperation can be combined to provide a two-dimensional conflict-handling space as shown in Figure 4. The two dimensions provide the five conflict-handling preferences.

A situational approach

Having now examined personal preferences for conflict management, it is useful to examine what the situation might call for. Certain modes of handling conflict might take a leader out of their comfort zone but still be very useful for the situation in hand.

For example, you may initially think that an ‘avoiding’ mode might be problematic, in that it doesn’t immediately address the conflict problem and, if unattended, the conflict could get worse. However, sometimes avoidance is a wise strategy. For example, if you have two colleagues whose tempers have flared, then suggesting a break while they cool down before discussing the matter can be very beneficial. Also, most of us learn the hard way that responding immediately to an email that angers us generally ends in regrets. Better to leave the matter overnight where possible, when a reply might be calmer and more constructive.

The table below shows that conflict handling can be thought of in situational and not just personal preference terms. Each mode of conflict handling can have both advantages and disadvantages for conflict management and resolution. The effective professional is able to move out of their preference into assessing what would work for the situation or the relationship, and is able to think about the long term, not just the immediate short term. Issues, relationships and timing are key aspects which can help you make a choice according to the context you are in.

Table 1 When to use the five conflict-handling orientations

Conflict-handling orientation Appropriate situations
  • when quick, decisive action is vital (e.g. in emergencies)
  • on important issues when unpopular actions need implementing (e.g. in cost-cutting, enforcing unpopular rules, discipline)
  • on issues vital to the organisation’s welfare when you know you're right
  • against people who take advantage of non-competitive behaviour.
  • to find an integrative solution when both sets of concerns are too important to be compromised
  • when your objective is to learn
  • to merge insights from people with different perspectives
  • to gain commitment by incorporating
  • to work through feelings that have interfered with a relationship
  • when goals are important, but not worth the effort or potential disruption of more assertive modes
  • to achieve temporary settlements to complex issues
  • to arrive at expedient solutions under time pressures
  • as a backup when collaboration or competition are unsuccessful.
  • when an issue is trivial, or more important issues are pressing
  • when you perceive no chance of satisfying your concerns
  • when potential disruption outweighs the benefits of resolution
  • to let people cool down and regain perspective
  • when gathering information supersedes immediate decision
  • when others can resolve the conflict more effectively
  • when issues seem tangential or symptomatic of other issues
  • when you find you are wrong – to allow a better position to be heard, to learn, and to show your reasonableness
  • when issues are more important to others than yourself – to satisfy others and maintain cooperation.
  • to build social credits for later issues
  • to minimise loss when you are
  • when harmony and stability are especially important
  • to allow subordinates to develop by learning from mistakes
(Source: Thomas, 1977)

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