Deconstructing workplace conflict resolution

Harris, Andrew
Crothers, Charles
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Master of Arts in Conflict Resolution
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Auckland University of Technology

Conflict is a normal and natural aspect of life. Conflict becomes a problem in organisations when excessive levels of destructive conflict occur. Problematic levels of workplace conflict occur in approximately 10% of organisations. Attempts to address problem levels of destructive conflict are proving ineffective. Even in the US, where there has been widespread implementation of ADR based workplace conflict management systems, levels of destructive workplace conflict are rising. As ADR includes all the options for resolving conflicts, this is a troublesome trend. A partial explanation for this is that there are many problematic areas in the literature reviewed on workplace conflict. For example, conflict theorists are focusing efforts on trying to consistently achieve win-win outcomes with conflicts that have become escalated and destructive, despite the evidence that once conflict has reached this point, win-win outcomes are unlikely to be achieved. Furthermore it is unrealistic to expect that win-win outcomes can be regularly achieved due to the negotiators‟ dilemma. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 14 experienced managers and conflict professionals to explore their views on workplace conflict. Results were analysed using a grounded theory approach. Open coding identified significant inconsistency between much of what the conflict literature claimed and what was actually being experienced by managers and conflict professionals. The open and selective coding led to the generation of a grounded theory that problem levels of destructive conflict in organisations are often caused by systemic factors. This is inconsistent with the majority of the literature on workplace conflict, which does not consider that systemic factors play a role in workplace conflict. However this grounded theory is consistent with quantitative research on workplace conflict and mainstream research in psychology. There seem to be two possible explanations for why many of the conflict theorists reviewed have overlooked the systemic aspects of workplace conflict. One of these is that they accidentally overlooked this dynamic. However the most likely explanation is that they have deliberately chosen to overlook systemic factors role in workplace conflict. An explanation of why they might have done do this comes from a theory of power. This is that the powerful protect their power through keeping it invisible as if it cannot be recognised then it cannot be challenged. This means the powerful can be expected to encourage conflict to be individualised as a strategy to protect existing power structures. One practical way to apply the results from this research is identified. This is that the individuals holding the ultimate power in organisations, who are usually the CEOs, should be made personally responsible for the levels of conflict in their organisations. Potential implications of this research are that it has identified a theory that may help reduce problem levels of destructive workplace conflict both in New Zealand and in other countries experiencing the same workplace conflict dynamics. It has also identified a theory that challenges much of the literature on workplace conflict.

Workplace conflict , Conflict resolution
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