(Blog repost from December 26, 2012)
The world today is multifaceted and culturally diverse. The atmosphere consists of people from assorted backgrounds coming together in the work environment. Conflicts arise in the workplace when issues develop from personalities that clash and for a variety of other reasons that include, but are not limited to: (a) ethnocentrism, (b) lack of trust between parties, (c) breakdown of communication systems, (d) workplace bullying, (e) interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts, (f) ethical incompetence, and (g) lack of emotional intelligence. Furthermore, conflict in the work environment can prevent workers from experiencing job satisfaction. In his book, Personal Conflict, Daniel Dana (2001) purports that, “Good decision-making helps to prevent conflict” (p. 2). Leaders that identify the source and level of a conflict can use this information to address problematic issues successfully thereby avoiding consequences with employees that comprise a lack of motivation, the slowing of productivity, and damaged relationships which can ultimately lead to the dissolution of an organization.
The Nature of Conflict
Practically every conflict begins with someone or something violating an individual’s boundaries, or comfort zone. While the primary ingredients in any conflict are the individuals involved, conflicts tend to spring from the same litany of sources for all people (Cowan, 2003). To begin pinpointing the source of a conflict, a closer look is required to determine the stage of the conflict – whether it is in the latent; perceived; felt; or open stage.
Relationships and organizations suffer if conflicts are not resolved affecting those in the organization directly involved and those who are not. Everyone connected with a conflict, including the innocent bystanders, is affected at some kind of personal level (Cowan, 2003). Once the conflict is addressed, the steps to resolution can begin by identifying the following elements: (a) the parties involved, (b) the issues disputed, (c) the positions of the parties, and (d) the parameters of a bargaining zone.
When I was growing up my parents owned and operated a family restaurant that specialized in Greek and Mediterranean cuisine. My father was born and raised near Athens, Greece. He was self-educated, had an entrepreneurial spirit, and personified a national and ethnic belonging to his native land. He arrived in America as a Greek immigrant remaining intensely passionate about his ancestry and resplendent culture.
As a Greek immigrant, he embraced ethnocentrism overtly in his personal affairs and covertly in his business affairs. Privately, he practiced cultural bias and discrimination towards a majority of non-Greek groups because he perceived himself as a stranger in a foreign land. As a result, he developed trust issues with outsiders. This set a ripe stage for creating patterns of conflict. In addition, English was not his native tongue, so language barriers existed. This component played another key role in how he received and processed information, which in turn, lead to the shaping of his political views, social judgments, and personal beliefs, which were deeply rooted in a patriarchal cultural with strong religious belief systems.
My mother, on the other hand, was born and formally educated in the United States. She grew up in an era where she was expected to navigate through and accept a male dominated society both in family and business matters. As a result she played a more submissive role in the family. Her feelings of inequality and injustice, complicated the intrapersonal, self-management issues she faced at the time. Even though my parents were of the same heritage, the differences in the cultural environment in which they were raised created a disconnect in their relationship. Their work and interpersonal relationships suffered terribly, affecting everyone in their sphere of influence. The disrespectful tone of their verbal battles, coupled with the blaring sounds of their voices, were carried beyond the kitchen, spilling into the dining area where paying guests were attempting to enjoy a delicious banquet experience. In spite of the excellent tasting meals that were served, both customers and staff alike, felt uncomfortable with the manner of heightened emotions and out of control behavior that emanated from the the cooking area by the owners of the establishment. Eventually customers were reluctant to come in, the clientele began to thin, and naturally the business suffered greatly.
These disruptions created disastrous consequences as the tension built and both resorted to whatever method available to release aggression. The psychological climate for negotiation seemed bleak. My mother frequently claimed the submissive role and withdrew or worse, occasionally was the recipient of my dad’s violent displays during those life changing events when he lost complete self-control.
Resolution and Solution
Leaders that fail to identify the source and level of a conflict experience productivity reduction and motivational issues that further impede worker participation. With everything around them crumbling, my parents finally recognized the critical need to address the imbalance of their relationship. They were losing customers, their family and employees did not display enthusiasm in the work place, and the lost revenue from shrinking patrons made it difficult to make ends meet.
As a solution, they sought professional guidance and enrolled in a marriage counseling weekend event to focus on healing and repairing their relationship. Everyone affected felt optimistic. It appeared an effort was sincerely being made towards reform and change. Unfortunately however, to resolve differences both parties require an openness and willingness to do the work. This was a textbook example of a dysfunctional conflict situation. My father was in denial and unable to acknowledge and therefore address his own shortcomings which included his workplace bullying. He did not recognize his behavior as a health-harming mistreatment of others. He had limited formal education and felt justified with his verbal abuse tactics. He did not perceive his conduct as offensive, nor did he recognize his intrapersonal conflicts as interference with his ability to comprehend his behavioral choices as obstructions in the development of quality personal relationships at home and in the workplace.
As an organizational leader, my father displayed little concern about my mother’s passions, goals, or outcomes. Had he more compassion for her needs as an equal partner, a woman, and a mother, I believe she would have been open to finding a win-win solution. As it was, she endured twenty odd years of emotional, verbal, and physical abuse. She finally decided she was no longer willing to accept a relationship with an individual that continued to disrespect and dishonor her. Both parties were fixed in their position and uncooperative. They lacked mutual trust and expressed deep levels of frustration and anger. Even with counseling and guidance from our parish priest, my parents were not able to resolve their differences. Without a willingness to (a) find tradeoffs; (b) deal with important issues rather than trivial ones; (c) find areas of agreement; and (d) focus on ideas and information rather than personalities, a resolution could not be reached. The negative effect of their conflicts resulted in noncompliance of orders and decisions. Their reduced efforts, passive resistance, and my father’s unethical behavior were reflected in their methods and failure to broker solutions (Baack, 2012). Their inability to work through their differences and find peaceful resolutions, resulted in the bankruptcy of their business, the breakup of our family, and the dissolution of a twenty year marriage.
What my research on this topic revealed, is that conflict solutions require understanding the concerns and essentials of all the parties involved. When all parties are willing to negotiate and find a solution, the steps of conflict resolution can and will inevitably lead to (a) a win-lose situation, (b) a lose-lose (compromise) solution, or (c) a win-win outcome (Baack, 2012). What I discovered from my analysis about the circumstances surrounding my parents’ situation, is that as an organizational leader, my father failed to show concern for his partner’s needs, the staff’s occupational needs, and the family’s emotional or security concerns. My mother in the meantime, was also unwilling to continue to compromise her ethical values in that situation. Neither were able to fully recognize how their discord would ultimately affect their family, friends, employees, and patrons. In conclusion, while conflict can prevent workers from experiencing job satisfaction in an organizational environment, strong effective leadership is also required to help identify the source and level of a conflict successfully, so they can be addressed effectively, in order to achieve a favorable outcome. The greatest leaders are those that are capable of creating a pleasant work atmosphere; one where everyone feels like significant contributors as a valuable part of the organization, and know that as staff members, they are also appreciated equally as individual people.
Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means. – Ronald Reagan
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Baack, D. (2012). Management communication. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.
Baack, D. (2012). Organizational behavior. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.
Cowan, D. (2003). Taking charge of organizational conflict (2nd ed.). Fawnskin, CA: Personhood Press.
Dana, D. (2001). Conflict Resolution (1st ed., p. 2). Madison, WI: CWL Publishing Enterprises.