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Conflict, Culture and Problem solving


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Conflict, Culture and Problem solving

Text Box: This chapter includes 

• The need for a successful manager to reconcile the divergent interests and differences between individuals and between groups
• Explanations on how conflicts are borne and managed
• An exercise to evaluate the extent discontent is likely to be a problem in your organisation

Organisational Conflict

Professor Handy in his famous work “Understanding Organisations” ascertains that “there is no perfect organisation” and it would be naive to think that any organisation can achieve a perfect match between what is best for it and best for each individual in it. Individual's interests may not be identical to that of their organisation. The issues and interests, organisational or personal, are viewed from different perspectives. This inevitably gives rise to the emergence of differences.

Organisations are inevitably involved in finding compromises, reconciling differences and living with what is possible rather than what might be ideal. The resolution of differences or potential differences takes up the longest single chunk of managerial time.

A study of managers revealed that managers:

felt hat conflict was very seldom coped with, and that when they were, the attempts tended to be inadequate.

thought conflict was due to management's inability to overcome intergroup rivalries, lack of co-operation and poor communications.

believed that ineffective aggressive communication was a problem which existed in middle management.

The successful managers, both in personal and organisational terms, ought to reconcile the divergent interests and differences between individuals and between groups. Analoui (1993) refers to this as ability to apply pluralistic attitude to work and others.

Symptoms of Organisational Conflict

Poor communication.

Intergroup hostility and jealousy.

Interpersonal friction.

Escalation of arbitration.

Proliferation of rules and regulations.

Low morale of the type expresses in frustration and inefficiency.

Causes of Organisational Conflict

It is believed that most conflict situations stem from two underlying and fundamental issues:

Objectives and ideologies.


Objectives and Ideologies:

Divergence of formal objectives: sale/production. Different departments are set up to achieve different objectives, which may be in conflict to another.

a) Agreement on a super-ordinate objective (for example: profit).

b) Discovery of alternative ways of achieving the above.

c) Improve communication.

d) Trust in other party.

e) Achieving both objectives.

Divergence of roles definitions: Roles specifying the function and stipulating the code of conduct. Each group of individual role occupier creates their own code. (Professional) references and norms concerning acceptable behaviour. This may create a basis for the emergence of conflict.

The contractual relationship is unclear. Unclear job description conflicts lead to poor commitment and the ambiguity in terms of perception of the priorities and the objectives.

Overlapping nature of roles: Identical roles in different departments and in the same department leads to problems in power sharing and inevitably conflict.

Presence of concealed objectives: Unshared organisational objectives means that different groups may strive towards achieving a greater share in decision making, influence and increased status.


The concept of 'territorial behaviour' is also used to explain the emergence of conflict between individuals, individuals and groups, and groups and groups within the organisation.

A territory is an area of space, whether of water, earth or air, which an animal or group of animals defends as an exclusive preserve. The desire to possess, acquires or preserve territory and territorial right.

Robert Andery in 'Territorial Imperative' (1987) extended the principle of territory to domain and organisations. In this instance, territory will  be interpreted psychologically rather than physically.

An individual's psychological territory is his sphere of influence.

‘Territory’ and roles are often two metaphors for describing the same phenomenon. Metaphors are merely an aid to diagnosis.

a) Ownership of territory is partly conferred by deed (job description), partly by precedent, by squatting or staking a claim.

b) The boundaries of the territory are set in different ways, for example, physically (walls); procedural (membership); socially (groups)

Territory as a Source of Conflict

Territorial violation.


Territorial jealousy.

Management of Conflict

Conflict in an organisation may not be totally eradicated, but it can be managed.

Identification of the sources of conflict, people involved, issues concerned (personal, organisational, ideological).

Devising appropriate strategies that may be agreed by the parties involved.

Implementation of the strategies sought.

A. Transforming conflicts of interests into fruitful competition or purposeful argument.

a) Management by objectives/results.

b) Quality circles.

B. Controlling conflict.

a) Arbitration

b) Rules and procedures

c) Co-ordinating devices

d) Confrontation

e) Separation

f) Neglect

The larger the conflict, the greater the potential for conflict, the more complex the network of work relationships, the greater the need for the manager to acquire interpersonal skills. Conflict is the spice of life. However, too much of it spoils the broth. Much of the organisation's resources and energies are consumed in conflict. Better management of differences results in a more productive relationship as well as making the work place a pleasurable place to live and work in.

There are three principal ways of resolving organisational conflict.

Peaceful co-existence

The aim here is to smooth out differences and emphasise the common ground. People are encouraged to learn to live together; there is a good deal of information, contact and exchange of views, and individuals move freely between groups (for example: between headquarters and the field, or between sales and manufacturing).

This is a pleasant ideal, but it may not be practicable in many situations. There is much evidence that conflict is not necessarily resolved by grouping people together. Improved communications and techniques such as briefing groups may appear to be good ideas but are useless if management has nothing to say that people want to hear. There is also the danger that the real issues, submerged for the moment in an atmosphere of superficial bonhomie, will surface again at a later date.


The issue is resolved by negotiation or bargaining and neither party wins or loses. This concept of splitting the difference is essentially pessimistic. The hallmark of this approach is that there is no `right' or `best' answer. Agreements only accommodate differences. Real issues are not likely to be solved.

Problem - solving

An attempt is made to find a genuine solution to the problem rather than just accommodating different points of view. This is where the apparent paradox of `creative conflict' comes in. Conflict situations can be used to advantage to create better solutions.

If solutions are to be found by problem-solving, they have to be generated by those who share the responsibility for seeing that the solutions work. The sequence of actions is:

First, those concerned work to define the problem and agree on the objectives to be attained in reaching a solution

Second, the group develops alternative solutions and debates their merits; third, agreement is reached on the preferred course of action and how it should be implemented.

Conflict is an inevitable concomitant of progress and change. What is to be deplored is the failure to use conflict constructively. Effective problem-solving both resolves conflicts and opens up channels of discussion and co-operative action.

Case study

In our organisation people are working in a nice environment. We know what our boss is expecting from us and how things are usually done. However, one day, every thing changed. I was no longer certain about what I believed in and I was filled with anxiety and discomfort.

What really happened was that Mihai, Marius and I were working hard and late and had been doing so for five days for a very urgent project which had been assigned to us, about five days before, by the Director General himself. We were about ready and happy with the professional result of our work, especially because we were in time. A great deal of effort was needed to statistically process a huge amount of data from the regions. We were seeking to please and surprise our boss.

Unfortunately, when time came - we really did surprise our boss – “What is this report about?” he asked angrily. Eventually, he remembered his initial request but things had changed few days before and the report was no longer needed. We were dismissed from his office and advised to start the new report immediately.

No thanks for our previous efforts and no explanation for giving up that task. I was really angry and that day it was impossible for me to start the new work. Mihai was just laughing at me and tried to encourage me to calm down and get on with my work again. I realised that not only he was not helping me with the previous task, he also did not seem to be very enthusiastic about the new task.

“What does it mean?” - I asked myself. Mihai is one of my best friends and colleagues and I have always thought that we can make a perfect team. However, there was something strange about his behaviour that I could not understand and I coulf not agree with.

I started to ask myself the following clear questions:

I am very angry about our wasted efforts while he is not;


I am no more enthusiastic about the new task while he seems to be;

I intend to ask for explanation so that what happened can be avoided in the future.


A. Looking at this particular situation, which of the following symptoms of organisational conflict are applicable to the actors invovoled? Please explain in detail.

Poor communication

Interpersonal friction

Proliferation of rules and regulations

Low morale of the type expresses in frustration and inefficiency.

B. I  s Mihai a really contented person? Please explain your opinion.

C.  What is the major difference between their behaviours?

Solution and Guide Lines:

Read carefully the case study and try to identify what theoretical concepts were presented in the Communication Chapter which could be applied in that situation;

As the answer to the first question could be that poor communication is major issue in an organisation and lack of it may lead to waste of effort and general discontent;

Another result of poor communication could be the low morale of the type expressed in frustration and inefficiency – this is the case for Mihai;

As a potential answer for the second question, you could identify that previous similar experiences led to Mihai’s actual low morale and frustration;

As a potential answer for the third question you could identify that, from the discontent three-dimensional matrix point of view, Marius has a typical I.O. (Individual Open) behaviour while Mihai has a typical I.C. (Individual Cover) behaviour.



Your Organisation

This questionnaire has been developed by Dr. Farhad Analoui (1989). It will help you to determine the extent to which discontent is likely to be a problem in your organisation. The questionnaire contains twenty statements. Read each carefully and allocate a score between 0 and 5 points to each according to how true you find the description to be of your own workplace. Try to be as objective as possible.

The emphasis is on a strong and decisive leadership that expects unquestioning loyalty from its subordinates.

Not true   Very true

Managers tend to treat new ways of doing things with suspicion, especially if the idea comes from subordinates.

Not true   Very true

In my organisation it is believed that a good subordinate is one who is 'all for the organisation'.

Not true   Very true

Procedures are laid down for getting things done, but the boss may change the rules if it suits him, or when under pressure.

Not true   Very true

In my organisation it is continually said that no one, of any rank, is indispensable.

Not true  Very true

People at the top avoid responsibility and often pass the buck to subordinates. This is done under the disguise of delegation and allocation of responsibilities.

Not true  Very true

Every so often someone is made a scapegoat for doing something that everyone else does, but which is not formally allowed.

Not true  Very true

The present procedures for handling grievances and conflict are lengthy and cumbersome. Even worse, people with a grievance are indelibly labeled as troublemakers.

Not true  Very true

There seems to be little commitment, especially on the part of subordinates and junior management, to the long-term objectives of the organisation. 'Getting by' seems to be the most favoured attitude.

Not true  Very true

Almost everyone is aware of the current difficulties with which the company is faced. These are often discussed, but are never communicated to the top. The argument is that 'no one is interested enough to take them on board’.

Not true  Very true

Individuals or groups are encouraged to use their initiative, even if it means bending the rules a little, to achieve the organisation’s objectives. So long as nothing goes wrong, nothing is said; but if it does, they are blamed for not sticking to the rules.

Not true  Very true

The pay system is inadequate and unfair. Rewards are allocated through favouritism rather than according to competence.

Not true  Very true

People are primarily controlled by censure and punishment and motivated by pay and fringe benefits.

Not true  Very true

Employees' real interests lie outside the work environment; work merely provides a means to an end and is not the end itself.

Not true  Very true

Seniority is assessed by length of employment with the company rather than by how many courses you have taken. In reality formal qualifications are more of a handicap than an advantage.

Not true  Very true

Change is often talked about but rarely attempted. The middle management prefer the traditional way of doing things.

Not true  Very true

We seem to be always one step behind our main competitors.

Not true  Very true

There is a strong feeling of 'them' and 'us' between management and employees.

Not true  Very true

Most people within the organisation see their involvement as a job rather than as a career. What is more, the powers that be show little interest in the development of the individual and his or her future career.

Not true  Very true

No steps are taken to prevent problems from occurring. When problems do emerge, they are dealt with by 'fire fighting' methods.

Not true  Very true


How to interpret your score

Add up the scores. The total indicates the likelihood of people in your organisation resorting to getting even.

This score is representative of healthy work relationships, with a management which is aware of the need for effective two-way communication between themselves and their staff. The dominant managerial style can be characterised as 'selling' rather than 'telling'. This style has probably already encouraged innovation and a shared concern for efficient production and service.

Occasional disagreement will be dealt promptly and constructively. Both formal and informal channels of communication are used to avoid the escalation of discontent. The causes of disagreements and possible conflict situations, no matter how trivial, are taken seriously.

The likelihood that people in your organisation will resort to unconventional practices is relatively small. Discussion and negotiation in a friendly environment seem to be the order of the day and are routinely used to resolve differences. Occasional and of non-co-operation and misuse may be observed but these are often attempted by new recruits who have not yet become fully socialised into the system.

The prevailing style for conflict-expression is open, and while the danger of destructive practices is minimal, the management should not succumb to over-confidence.

This score indicates that differences between individuals and groups on both sides, management and staff, have led to the occurrence of 'accidents'. Institutionalised channels of conflict-resolution are viewed as inadequate or unworkable. The nearer your score is to 50 the more likely this is to be true of your organisation.

The established procedure for conflict-resolution is probably lengthy and time-consuming. The distance that is created between management and staff has probably led to the gradual formation of a ’them' and 'us' situation. This unhealthy state of affairs will probably be aggravated by a lack of concern and urgency on the part of senior managers for increased involvement of the staff in the management of the work organisation. Training and development needs to be introduced at both the operational and top management levels in your organisation.

The low incidence of institutionalised conflict-expressions such as strikes and absenteeism does not necessarily mean that all is well. Indeed this may indicate the possibility of the formation of an informal procedure and of the kind of culture that approves the use of covert unconventional practices in order to remedy the ills of the organisation. Unconventional practices such as pilferage and misuse are already on the menu. However, minor cases of destructive practices should act as warning signs of trouble ahead.

This score clearly indicates loss of control and the presence of an ineffective work design. Phrases such as 'We still manage' indicates that the management is resorting to ad hoc strategies to retain some control. Scapegoating is used to deter others from unconventional practices. This often only makes things worse.

Scores within this range are a clear sign that your organisation is in hot water. Production-orientated leadership, lack of concern for people, inflexibility and ineffective communication have created a statement in which trust between managers and staff has either been lost or is in the process of disappearing. Excessive exercise of control and the use of one-way communication ('telling' rather than 'selling') have created a tense and frustrating work environment.

Organisational Cultures and Conflict

Professors Wilson and Rosenfield (1990) in their book “Managing Organisations” suggest that organisations are complex social systems which can be defined and studied in a number of ways. Organisations can be viewed as machines, Organisms and Brains (see Perspectives on Management).

One of the most interesting metaphors used to explain organisations is that of cultures.

“Organisations as complex system, made up of their own characteristics, sets of ideologies, values, beliefs, rituals and systems of beliefs and practices. Attention to specific aspects of social development helps to account for variation amongst organisations.


Work Cultures

Roger Harrison has identified four work cultures, which may co-exist with the organisation. Each with its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Professor Handy believes that all four cultures are necessary and are suitable for different organisations, depending on factors such as size, tradition, nature of the task and geographical position.

It is also argued that those who have a tendency and preference for a particular culture usually feel satisfied and happy to work in an organisation with dominant culture which is similar to them. However, the individual who finds them in an organisation that is not identical to theirs often experiences conflict and dissatisfaction at work.

For effective project management it is essential to ensure that the project organisation is designed based on “task-culture” rather than the “role-culture”. Project managers who prefer to work in task or power cultures often make a suitable project manager. Can you guess why?

Organisational Cultures

Culture   Symbol Description

Power Web or Wheel Control exercised from the centre. Decisions taken on influence rather than procedural grounds. Few rules. Individual more important than position.

Role Temple Organisation rests on functions or specialities. Role more important than individual. Many rules and procedures. Provides security, predictability and accountability

Task Net Culture based on fulfilment of specific goals. Free of rules and procedures. Expert power important. Flexible team culture but difficult to control.

Person Cluster Organisation exists for the good of the people within it. No super-ordinate organisational goal. Control and management only by mutual consent

Modes of Dealing with conflict

It is generally agreed that conflict constitutes an inseparable aspect of the work organisations. Differences in the ways we perceive the 'reality', indicates the pluralistic nature of the organisations. Clashes of interest are inevitable. For the managers, it is vital to acquire the necessary skill to 'deal' with conflict effectively.

The Thomas-Kilmann (1975) Conflict Mode Instrument is designed to assess the ability of managers in terms of conflict handling as well as enabling you to judge the appropriateness of conflict behaviour modes available to you. It provides the managers with a series of statements which each describe a situation related to handling conflict. The analysis of the preferred statements reveal the “preferred” style of conflict handling by the managers involved. These are:


Competing is assertive and uncooperative - an individual pursues his own concerns at the other person's expense. This is a power oriented mode in which one uses whatever power seems appropriate to win one's own position - one's ability to argue, one's rank, economic sanctions. Competing might mean 'standing up for your rights', defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.


Accommodating is unassertive and co-operative - the opposite of competing. When accommodating, an individual neglects his own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person; there is an element of self-sacrifice in this mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another person's order when one would prefer not to, or yielding to another's point of view.


Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative - the individual does not immediately pursue his own concerns or those of the other person. He does not address the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically side-stepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.


Collaborating is both asserting and co-operative - the opposite of avoiding. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with the other person to find some solution which fully satisfies the concerns of both persons. It means digging into an issue to identify the underlying concerns of the two individuals and to find an alternative, which meets both sets of concerns. Collaborating between two persons might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other's insights, concluding to resolve some condition which would otherwise have them competing for resources, or confronting and trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.


Compromising is intermediate in both assertiveness and co-operativeness. The objective is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. It falls on a middle ground between competing and accommodating. Compromising gives up more than competing but less than accommodating. Likewise, it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding, but doesn't explore it in as much depth as collaborating. Compromising might mean splitting the difference, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle ground position.

Since 'Conflict Situations' are situations in which the concerns of two people appear to be incompatible, we can describe a person's behaviour along two basic dimensions: (i) assertiveness, the extent to which the individual attempts to satisfy his own concerns, and (ii) co-operativeness, the extent to which the individual attempts to satisfy the other person's concerns. These two basic dimensions of behaviour can be used to define five specific methods of dealing with conflict These five 'conflict-handling modes' are shown below:
Diagram : Conflict Handling Modes
















Uncooperative Cooperative


Source: Thomas – Kilman

Conflict Mode Instruments (1979)

Encouraging Creative Thinking and Generating Solutions

Everyone has the ability to think creatively

Creative thinking can be encouraged

When faced with a problem many managers react with a decision which provides an obvious or satisfactory answer to the problem. But there is generally more than one possible answer to any problem and the obvious solution is not necessarily the best solution.

Generating a variety of alternative solutions to problems involves thinking in a free-ranging or creative way.

Selecting the 'best' solution which satisfies the objectives you are trying to achieve within the constraints of the problem situation involves narrowing down or refining the alternatives to arrive at a feasible solution.

Finding solutions to problems should therefore involve two processes:

Creative thinking to generate as many ideas as possible regardless of their feasibility.

Analytical thinking to reduce these ideas to a smaller number eventually arriving at a feasible solution.

By combining these processes you can improve the quality of your decisions and resolve problems more imaginatively and effectively.

Encouraging creative thinking

Everybody has the potential to think creatively. It rarely involves inventing completely new ideas. Most creative solutions to problems incorporate existing ideas which have been combined in a unique or imaginative way.

There are four things you can do to establish the right conditions for generating more creative solutions.

Approach the problem with an open mind. Avoid the tendency to relate the problem to a similar problem which you have experienced and apply the same solution. Treat each non-routine problem as a new problem.

Suspend judgement. Avoid reacting to problems with an immediate and obvious solution. Allow time to generate as many ideas as possible around the problem before evaluating the ideas to select a feasible solution.

Be prepared to take risks. Most of us try to conform by meeting the expectations and reflecting the views of those around us. We try not to appear foolish by suggesting what may appear to others as `silly' ideas.

Involve others who don't own your problems. Share problems with subordinates or others in your organisation. Their non-ownership of a problem should enable them to produce ideas which are at the very least different from yours and could help you reach a better solution.


Involving others in restating the problem

A major barrier to finding solutions to problems is often the problem itself - or more precisely how the problem is seen by its 'owner'.

Your involvement with problems inhibits your ability to view them in different ways. Even if you try to restate the problem it is unlikely that you will be able to develop as many new ideas yourself as you could if you shared the problem with others.

This activity requires you to develop restatements of a problem within a small group and to review the value of these restatements as a basis for enabling you to see the problem differently and point to new and more creative solutions.

Think of a recent or current problem facing you at work. Briefly state the problem at the top of a sheet of flipchart paper.

Form a group of four and establish an order of presentation. Spend two minutes explaining your problem to the group and then allow three minutes for the other participants in the group to restate the problem, starting each restatement with `How to'. Every restatement should be accepted without comment or criticism from yourself or other group members. List the restatements on your flipchart sheet.

After completing the restatements of each of the group members' problems, move away from the group with your flipchart sheet and read through the restatements on your own and consider the following questions:

Has this process enabled you to see the problem in a different light?

Do any of the restatements either individually or in combination suggest ways of solving the problem which you would not have considered?


Case Study

Organisational Culture

In the west part of Romania there is an old and famous company called “ABC Industry” which is a manufacturing firm belong to a  well-known family. It produces products type A, B and C. It is a big company employing about 6,000 workers. The company just celebrated its 60th anniversary and they have been very proud that tradition of a strong and disciplined technology has been kept over these years. Their old products are still needed on the market and only some minor technological improvements were needed to keep the prices low.

The economic environment is changing and the company should keep the pace in order to stay in business.

The General Director, Mr. Ionescu, is an open-minded and dynamic person who recently attended some management training sessions and is aware that such scarce economic conditions should be carefully approached. His team of deputy managers is mostly consisting in very experienced and old engineers.

He started a thorough analysis of the existing situation in the company and was about to solve most of the technological problems. But there was one particular problem for which he decided to ask for professional help – the people problem.

A group of HR consultants carried out a cultural audit and tried to identify the preferred behavioural styles of people. They applied a specific questionnaire on a representative sample of the population in the organisation and at the end of study they identified some particular issues:

One of the preferred behavioural styles was the conventional one – i.e. people tend to follow existing regulations and seek for approval where written regulations are missing, rather than to take initiative and solve the problem;

Even more a very low willingness was found to take responsibility for any action;

Seeking for achievements and self-development was not a strong behaviour of people in this company either.


A.  Being known from theory that the organisational culture is significantly influenced by the leadership style of the top manager, please try to identify which of the following leadership approaches the Director General of the company usually took:

Autocratic or democratic?

Visionary/enabler or controller/manipulator?

Please comment and support your opinion.

B.  Please indicate what changes in the top manager leadership style are needed to get people more involved in the expected change process of the company and why?

Solution guidelines:

Read carefully the case study and try to identify what theoretical concepts presented in the Culture Chapter could apply;

As a potential answer for the first question you could identify that even stated as an opened manager, the Director General was managing the company in an autocratic and controller style – people are expected to obey the existing rules and punishment is prevailing reward for people’s performance;

As a potential answer for the second question you could identify that the Director General should really change his leadership style. Starting by involving people in solving problem, encouraging initiative and empowering people to make decisions for their own local problems – this means that his new leadership styles should be democratic and enabler;

Sharing his views, objectives and values with all employees, improved communications - would help changing their attitude as well.


Politica de confidentialitate



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