Unit 1: Functional versus Dysfunctional Conflict
Think about the last time you argued with someone. Perhaps it was a personal, domestic, or work-related dispute. As we navigate each day responding to others' needs, conflict can occur as we negotiate and address our individual needs and concerns. Functional conflict can serve as a positive force for change in the workplace, by fostering new, innovative and more efficient ways to accomplish tasks or goals. However, misunderstandings and personal clashes can also create dysfunctional conflict and a caustic work environment.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 6 hours.
1.1: Functional Conflict and its Role in Innovation
While we tend to try to eliminate conflict in the workplace, it is important to recognize that some level of disagreement can benefit an organization or company: conflicting ideas often prompt coworkers to generate new solutions and use their collective, creative problem-solving skills to create innovative solutions. For example, scientists did not invent the light bulb by making continuous improvements to the candle. Benjamin Franklin was the pioneer who developed electricity and a team of scientists and inventors, including Thomas Edison, built on his innovation to solve a problem.
Promoting functional conflict in the workplace is not easy. It requires a delicate balance of encouraging people to challenge their ideas, choices, and preferences without negativity. Some best practices for fostering functional conflict include:
- Encouraging interpersonal relationships that promote understanding, so employees respect one another and welcome their ideas.
- Prompting employees to think critically about their jobs, what they could do better, and asking questions to find a better way to do X, Y or Z.
- Creating an environment in which failure, and learning from mistakes, are embraced so employees can build new creative and workable solutions.
1.2: Reasons for Dysfunctional Workplace Conflict
Workplace conflict can come in many forms. It may be interpersonal or group conflict.
1.3: Misunderstandings or Disagreements from Organizational Structure
The structure a company uses to organize its leadership, areas of authority and responsibility, and decision-making processes can cause conflict and misunderstandings among employees within its organization.
For example, a lack of transparency about the formal processes employees follow or the hierarchy among individuals and departments can cause employees to have conflicting expectations about their goals, standards, or decision-making authority. The misunderstandings that arise when leaders fail to communicate clearly and with transparency can cause internal confusion and turmoil.
1.4: Resource Scarcity
Resource scarcity is a concept we borrow from economics that explains how people compete for things they value and therefore come into conflict. In these cases, there are only so many resources to go around – whether we are talking about money, time, physical effort, or commitment.
For example, three workplace resources that employees or organizational units tend to covet, but are usually in short supply, include:
- The level of commitment (in terms of money, time, or human resources) that leadership pays, or devotes, to certain work projects;
- The amount of money available to pay salaries, hire new employees, and give bonuses to high-performers; and
- The number of high-level, well-paid, management level positions within the organization.
1.5: Misunderstandings or Disagreement from Task Interdependence
Because everyone has different areas of expertise, strengths, and abilities, we should differentiate our skills and collaborate with coworkers to accomplish complex work assignments to meet a project's goals. Economists describe this concept as task interdependence.
When we rely on our coworkers to complete their part of the assignment, participants often have different ideas about their strengths, roles, responsibilities, and deadlines. Consequently, project managers should clearly define the roles and work assignments each employee will complete, and share this information with the group, so conflicts and misunderstandings do not arise.
Throughout the project completion process, participants should communicate clearly to articulate challenges and frustrations. Team members can then revise their tasks and responsibilities accordingly, complete projects in a reasonable timeframe, and meet the client's expectations. An imbalance of expectations often leads to conflict.
We say teams work well together when each member shares an understanding of their individual and collective role within the work process. Team members depend on each other to contribute to the process and collaborate well.
1.6: Conflicting Personality Types
Sociologists and employers have created descriptors to categorize and classify how people communicate, behave, and interact with each other. For example, we describe people who are gregarious and enjoy meeting others in a social atmosphere as extroverts. We classify those who are less social, more solitary, and prefer the company of those they already know, as introverts.
Many employers use these categorizations of personality types during the hiring process. They assign individuals with certain strengths and abilities to work assignments and balance the personality types within their teams.
For example, more extroverted individuals tend to excel in sales positions since they must interact regularly with new clients and discuss products or present ideas to small and large groups. Introverted individuals tend to prefer to work in the background in more structured work processes. They tend to enjoy using their problem-solving abilities and interacting with individuals to get the job done.
Keep in mind that these personality tools are fraught with generalizations about how individuals respond to each situation. Everyone is different and has their own interests. Nevertheless, employers should be mindful of individuals' comfort level for working in certain environments, especially those who must respond to disagreement and conflict.
For example, some people find a workplace that involves uncertainty, the need to make quick decisions, and the opportunity to exchange ideas with others (even if they disagree) exciting and challenging. Others are uncomfortable with disagreement and conflict. They are reluctant to share their ideas if they think others may disagree (even if they are amenable), and prefer to express their ideas in a less confrontational setting.
1.7: Negative Stereotypes and Cultural Biases
Most of us carry subtle, unconscious biases and prejudices that affect how we treat others. We come to situations using the framework of our past experiences – and those experiences may reflect an element of bias within each of us.
A stereotype is the assumption that every member of a group shares characteristics which some members exhibit. We frequently rely on stereotypes to make judgments about others, both good and bad. Unfortunately, negative stereotypes about individuals or groups are often incorrect and damaging, and can lead to conflict in personal and workplace settings.
Here's an example of a commonly-held stereotype: boys can throw better than girls. However, anyone who has young boys knows that most cannot throw a baseball either! But many boys get a lot of practice throwing, while girls often never receive this training. While an individual may be a lousy baseball thrower, it is wrong and foolish to assume they lack this skill due to their gender. We see evidence of these inaccurate averages with our own eyes as more girls get involved and excel in the sports men once dominated.
1.8: Gender-Based Stereotypes
Gender-based stereotypes exist when someone assumes another person has a set of values, abilities, or skills due to their gender. In this section, we discuss gender diversity in the workplace. There is a persistent wage gap between men and women, even though they share equal responsibilities and exhibit equal work performance levels.
1.9: Age-Based Stereotypes
Many of us believe stereotypes based on a person's age. For example, older employees are deemed less capable of learning new technologies. Meanwhile, younger employees are criticized for being entitled and less committed to completing workplace tasks.
1.10: Culture-based Biases and Stereotypes
We often base our decisions on preconceptions regarding ethnic, racial, cultural, or religious backgrounds. We can be quick to take offense when others cross our cultural norms – we paint the unwitting perpetrator as rude, disrespectful, or worse. For example, in some Asian cultures, it is considered disrespectful to look an elderly person "in the eye" when conversing with them. But many Americans feel that speakers who avert their eyes are hiding something or lack self-confidence.
1.11: Avoiding Biases and Stereotypes
In our increasingly diverse global economy, creating a more inclusive workplace that welcomes employees who have different ideas and cultural traditions can generate an economic and competitive advantage. New and diverse perspectives, ideas, and strategies can foster creative decision-making and problem-solving. In this way, companies can understand their diverse clientele more readily, and employees feel more comfortable and welcome working in a friendlier, open environment.
1.12: The Effects of Dysfunctional Conflict on Work Products
Dysfunctional conflict takes a toll on employees, especially when it takes on a personal tone, making employees who are the object of personal bias, harassment, and abuse feel stressed, undervalued, and mistrustful of their coworkers. These conflict situations negatively affect productivity and morale.