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Helping clients reach collaborative conflict solutions in the workplace

Pamela Gordon, Susanne Beier & Brett Gordon July 8, 2013

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(Photo:Flickr/Kris Krug)

Conflict regularly occurs within the organizational setting. Whenever two or more employees are together, the potential for disagreement arises. At the basic level, conflict simply means a difference of opinion. While an initial impression might suggest resolving the conflict, a more effective approach may be to manage it.

Professional counselors working with individuals and groups in the corporate organizational setting need to be well versed in the different types of conflict and conflict management techniques required to successfully coach employees toward positive outcomes.

 Types of conflict

When the word conflict is mentioned, it conjures up images of turmoil, fighting, harsh words and resentment. Generally, a winner-takes-all attitude arises. Each party is so intent on arguing his or her point of view that very little listening occurs. Unsettled disputes of this type negatively affect the organization. They can lead to increased employee turnover, decreased productivity and, ultimately, threaten the very survival of the firm. This certainly describes the common interpretation of destructive or dysfunctional conflict.

There is, however, a positive side to conflict. Diverse viewpoints promote a variety of perspectives, which can lead to innovation. Managed correctly, conflict can transform a stagnant organization into one that inspires change and creativity. Constructive or functional conflict can also prevent groupthink, which is a dangerous form of standardized thinking that encourages a go-along-to-get-along mentality.

Conflict management styles

There are five commonly used conflict management styles: avoiding, accommodating, competing, compromising and collaborating. Each style is appropriate in certain situations. The following overview provides the positive and negative aspects of each style. One style emerges as the most productive technique for counselors to use as they coach employees toward functional conflict outcomes.

Avoiding: In some instances, a cooling off period is needed, and suggesting the avoidance technique is a recommended action. Unfortunately, avoiding the issue does not help the employees toward resolution. Counselors should use this strategy as a short-term technique to diffuse a highly volatile situation. This is a beginning step and not a long-term solution.

Accommodating: The accommodating strategy means that one party forfeits his or her stance on an issue in order to accept the other party’s viewpoint. This technique only works if the accommodating party does not have a strong interest in the outcome and is willing to forgo his or her initial stance regarding the issue. Counselors should be aware that this technique promotes a stronger-vs.-weaker mindset of conflict management and does not lead to creative outcomes.

Competing: This technique is the flip side of accommodating. Competing is characterized as a power-play technique in which one party becomes dominant in forcing his or her viewpoint upon others. This is a less effective conflict management style and generally leads to destructive conflict.

Compromising: Encouraging compromise between conflicting parties may sound like a positive option. However, it is not necessarily the best choice. Although both parties enjoy acceptance of some aspects of their viewpoints, neither party fully achieves his or her desired goals. Counselors may want to use this strategy as employees reconvene after the cooling off (avoidance) period. As with avoidance, this style is used as an interim technique.

Collaborating: Numerous research study results indicate that in the business setting, collaboration is the most effective conflict management style. It embodies all of the aspects of functional conflict. Unlike compromise, collaboration does not force either party to forfeit goals. Collaboration is the only conflict management style that embraces the concept of shared opinions and synergistic outcomes. Counselors should create a mediation environment that is conducive to an open exchange of ideas and information.

How can counselors help?

Counselors can train clients in a process called UNITE. Using this approach, their clients will reach collaborative solutions to workplace conflicts.

  • U – Understand and clearly help clients identify the conflict issue.
  • N – Negotiate and mediate client discussion efforts.
  • I – Invite clients involved in the conflict to share concerns and possible solutions.
  • T – Target a combined solution and promote a win-win outcome for all involved clients.
  • E – Evaluate results to ensure a collaborative solution was achieved.

The dichotomous aspect of conflict poses a challenge to counselors as they mediate disputes and coach employees. The goal should be to promote strategies that drive functional conflict and positive outcomes. An understanding of the five conflict management styles helps to underscore the importance of managing conflict in a way that encourages constructive outcomes for all parties. The collaborating style emerges as the most effective technique to use within the corporate setting when managing employee conflicts.

Pamela Gordon earned her doctorate in business administration with a specialization in management from Northcentral University. She currently works for University of Phoenix to foster faculty development. Her research interests are in the areas of management, organizational behavior, marketing, and human resource management. Contact her at pam.gordon@phoenix.edu.

Susanne Beier is a licensed professional counselor (Pennsylvania and New Jersey) and a diplomat in clinical forensic counseling. Susanne has 10 years of teaching and educational administration experience as well as 15 years of clinical counseling experience.  She has been featured in New Woman, Working Woman, SELF and Cosmopolitan magazines for her work with corporate relocation clients. Contact her at bsusanne847@gmail.com.

Brett Gordon earned his degree in organization and management in 2002 after spending 11 years in the pharmaceutical industry in the areas of sales and marketing and corporate training. He currently holds faculty positions at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, University of the Rockies, Keller Graduate School of Management, University of Phoenix and Northcentral University. Contact him at brett.gordon@erau.edu.

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