Conflict is everywhere. If you are often frustrated by conflict in your workplace, you are a typical manager or entrepreneur. Wherever there are people, there is potential conflict. The results of conflict can range from minor inconveniences to major losses, even company failures. In American business, the workplace contains a greater amount of conflict today than in the past, mainly because of the movement of America from an industrial to a service-dominated economy. The service sector of the U.S. economy accounts for approximately 78 percent of all jobs. Most of the jobs created between now and 2008 will be in service areas. Because of this increased conflict potential, the workplace is badly in need of both managers and employees who can handle conflict realistically and deal with it in a helpful manner.
Conflict has been defined in many ways. However the word is defined, though, several common aspects are involved.
• Conflict must be perceived by all people involved in it, because whether or not there is a conflict is often a matter of perception.
• Nearly all definitions involve opposition or incompatibility.
• Some type of interaction is going on, or all parties would be avoiding conflict.
For our purposes here, I will define conflict as a process that begins when one person sees that another person has damaged something that the other person cares about—or is about to damage it. Someone might simply perceive that damage is a possible outcome, and that perception itself can begin a conflict. The damage or perception of attempted damage does not have to involve a physical object; it can mean damage or threat to ideas, values, or goals.
Generally speaking, there are three possible solutions to a conflict: win-lose, lose-lose, and win-win. The first two tend to produce a negative, side-taking mentality, and are not likely to solve the problem. They serve as a Band-Aid only, leaving the real problem ready to raise its ugly head again. Yet sometimes, because of time constraints and unwillingness to work towards a win-win solution, you may be forced to use win-lose or lose-lose tactics.
This strategy allows one side of a conflict to win at the expense of the other. It works as a quick-fix conflict solution that sometimes must be chosen when a win-win approach isn’t feasible. One win-lose approach is the democratic vote. Democracy sounds like a wonderful approach to conflict resolution, and it is, in a political system. Unlike a political system, though, most organizations don’t contain a series of checks and balances, off-year elections, political rallies, or campaigning. The majority vote leaves a minority of unhappy people without any real recourse; and these are the people who are likely to bring the problem back, perhaps in another form.
Another win-lose approach is the arbitrary approach. With this method, the conflict manager states which side is right and which is wrong. This approach produces a situation in which the losers tend to have hard feelings against both the winning side and the leader. A skillful conflict manager can soften the effect of the arbitrary approach by using persuasive explanations. Usually, however, the gains from win-lose are short-term gains at best, and problems will continue.
In the lose-lose strategy, everyone gives something up. The main approach in lose-lose is compromise—compromise in the sense that neither side gets what they want, but everyone can live with the decision. Like win-lose, this method usually fails to solve the underlying causes of the conflict. Unlike win-lose, the lose-lose strategy produces unhappy people on both sides of the issue. In the lose-lose strategy, the arbitrator gives little attention to tracing the development of the conflict, and thus the solutions are, again, mostly short-term.
A win-win solution is one in which both sides feel they have come out on top. One might ask how both sides in a conflict could end up feeling like winners. Most conflicts stem from multiple sources and reasons; because of this complexity, win-win is possible. People in conflict almost always have more than one reason for being involved in the dispute. Also, people tend to attach different priorities to each of those reasons, and will, as a rule, be satisfied with less than the entire package of results they are fighting for. The key to the success of the win-win strategy is to satisfy as many of the needs as possible on both sides on the conflict. In next issue of CBN, we will discuss how to negotiate a win-win solution.
Lowell H. Lamberton is professor of business at Central Oregon Community College. For more information, feel free to contact Professor Lamberton at 383-7714 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.