Dennis L. Treslan
The ability to successfully minimize and resolve conflict is an important skill for school administrators to develop. A major reason for this is that administrators are faced with the classic confrontation between individual needs and organizational needs, requiring them to spend a major part of their time attempting conflict mediation. The "appropriate" management strategy in a given situation requires accurate identification of both the conflict origin and participants, and their relationships, in order to apply the most effective resolution technique. Ideally, this technique must reduce the dysfunctional dimension of conflict so as to capitalize on its functionality for the good of all concerned. Since conflict is inevitable in schools, administrators must be prepared to deal with it, not necessarily from the point of view of elimination, but rather to derive the greatest possible benefits therefrom. Consequently, conflict anticipation and detection should always constitute the first two phases of good conflict management. That is, proaction rather than reaction should be the motto!
To this end, effective conflict management should reflect the advice offered by Mary Parker Follett some sixty years ago. She argued that one ought not to conceive conflict as a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process whereby socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment for all concerned. Three methods were advanced for dealing with conflict of which only integration was strongly advocated. These included: domination, whereby there is a victory of one side over the other (a win-lose situation); compromise, whereby each side gives up something in the process (a lose-lose situation); and integration, whereby each side refocuses their efforts so that neither side loses anything and in fact each gains (a win-win situation).
Clearly, Follett believed that domination should be avoided at all costs. Although application of this strategy requires little effort on the part of the administrator, the long term side effects can be devastating. Compromise carries with it the assumption that both parties will be happy because each will gain something, but each loses something as well and this in turn creates the potential for further conflict. Integration was favoured simply because if both parties can become satisfied there will remain no issue or problem - obviously an ideal situation not easily attained.
Strategies for conflict resolution will also vary according to the different philosophical bases of those involved. Generally, these bases encompass the win-lose, lose-lose and win-win approaches to conflict resolution.
Win-lose is too often overused as a strategy for solving conflicts. Whereas these methods include the use of mental or physical power to bring about compliance, a lose-lose approach will also leave no one entirely happy. Compromise, side payments and submission of the issue to a neutral third party, as in the arbitration procedure, constitute examples of this latter approach. Arbitration resolves issues at some middle-ground between the positions held by the disputants such that while each disputant gains something the outcome is rarely satisfying to either side. The win-win approach is now becoming more popular although it is still misunderstood by many administrators. This method yields solutions satisfactory to all in that each party to the conflict wins something, and the conflict is therefore resolved constructively. It could be suggested that important conflicts tend to be best managed with positive-sum (win-win) strategies, while more trivial issues merit no more than zero-sum (win-lose/lose-lose) strategies, with most situations calling for mixed modes (no win-no lose).
An important point must be borne in mind when attempting to deal effectively with organizational conflict, namely, that any one method will not apply to all situations or all personalities. Given the various approaches to conflict management currently in existence, a major question becomes 'Which approach is best?" While it appears that the integrated (collaborative) procedure has the most to offer, each of the other approaches can also be effective in selected circumstances. Perhaps in our pursuit of conflict management strategies we would be well advised to heed the warning given by Bailey (1971): "Any administrator who assumes that he can use the same technique or style in resolving conflicts that emanate respectively from subordinate conflicts, superordinate conflicts and lateral conflicts is either a genius or a fool" (p. 234).
In general, it can be concluded that conflict has been effectively managed when it no longer interferes with the ongoing activities of those involved. Conflict management is therefore the process of removing cognitive barriers to agreement (Greenhalgh, 1986). Depending on the situation, conflict management techniques often focus on changing structure, changing process or both. Sometimes structural modifications are not very creative, and the response to conflict is simply more rules and hardening of the role structure. Such efforts can improve the situation outwardly but not without consequences, for as Sanford (1964) states: "the hardening of the role structure which is an organization's best defence against the inroads of individual irrationality gives equal protection against failing and against success" (p. 100).
Hanson (1991) suggests administrator awareness of the various tactics of conflict management. Naturally the tactics selected will depend on the force driving the conflict. One of the most common forces is scarce resources. Effective management of scarce resources and the ability to expand the resource base whenever possible are important to management. Establishing an appeals system which provides the right of formal redress to a superior in the organization is also an excellent means of treating conflict associated with disputes at lower hierarchical levels. To cope with the bureaucratic constraints of the hierarchy or perceived favouritism, some institutions have adopted an ombudsman approach.
Occasionally the most appropriate tactic involves changing the degree of interaction between conflicting parties. If the basis of conflict is lack of trust or suspicion of motives, an effective approach is to bring the parties together and let them get to know each other. However, if the conflict is rooted in differences in principle, increased interaction could exacerbate the situation. Too, modifying the reward system can be effective if inequity in extrinsic or intrinsic rewards is the cause of conflict. Whenever possible, eliminate zero-sum rewards, reward performance as well as rank, and establish evaluations that reward preventive contributions rather than success in finding errors.
When units such as departments, programmes, etc. are in conflict because of struggles for policy control or resources, they are usually operating in their own self-interests. In these instances, mergers should be considered, since this modification creates a struggle for the common good. There may also be occasions when breaking up a unit facilitates smoother working relationships.
To decrease task ambiguity, various role clarification procedures can be used. This involves gathering those people who interact with a particular role and defining through dialogue and debate their responsibilities and duties. A neutral third party can also help establish the confidence, atmosphere of good will, and emotional support to bring a degree of otherwise missing rationality to the decision making process.
Finally, for the good of order, an administrator can occasionally attempt to redirect the tensions and conflictive behaviours towards himself/herself as a means of clearing the atmosphere and enabling more productive actions to take place at lower levels. Being a conflict sponge is not easy, since the process merely redirects the heat in the direction of the administrator.
There is no shortage of proposed approaches for managing conflict in an organizational setting. These approaches are often portrayed on a continuum with flight ("I'm catching the first bus out of town!") and fight ("Fire the trouble maker!") at the extremes. Obviously neither extreme is satisfactory since a win-lose orientation to conflict is present, characterized by the fact that contesting parties view their interests to be mutually exclusive. Hence, parties to the conflict come to believe that the issue can be settled in only one of three ways: (1) a power struggle, (2) intervention by a third party who possesses some sort of power greater than either of them, or (3) fate. Clearly, an effective approach to conflict management commonly referred to as the contingency approach lies somewhere between these extremes.
This approach to conflict management is predicated upon the idea that diagnosis of the situation is necessary as a basis of action. The contingency view is that there is not one best way of managing conflict under all conditions, but that there are optimal ways of managing it under certain conditions (Owens, 1987). An important aspect of conflict management, then, is to consider (a) alternative ways of managing conflict and (b) the kinds of situations in which each of these various alternatives might be expected to be the most effective.
Thomas (1976) provides what might be considered one of the most useful models of conflict management utilizing the contingency approach to conflict diagnosis. This typology examines five styles of conflict management. Two basic dimensions of behaviour that can produce conflict are identified: attempting to satisfy one's own concerns (organizational demands in the case of administrators) and attempting to satisfy others' concerns (individual needs of the members). From this analysis, five major perspectives are identified which may be used in conceptualizing conflict and behaviours commonly associated with those perspectives. These perspectives/management styles are identified as avoidance, compromise/sharing, competition/ domination, accommodation and collaboration/integration.
Avoidance is often a form of flight suggesting indifference, evasion, withdrawal, or isolation. Being unassertive and uncooperative can also represent a delay tactic. Compromise/sharing involves splitting the difference or giving up something to get something. Competition/domination frequently means a desire to win at the other's expense. It is a win-lose power struggle where the opinions and interests of others are of little concern. Accommodation can be an appeasement or submission to others at your own expense. On occasion it can represent generosity, while at other times it might mean conserving energy and resources by giving up a few battles in order to win the war. Finally, collaboration/integration represents a desire to fully satisfy the interests of both parties. It is a mutually beneficial stance based on trust and problem solving.
Thomas (1976) proposes that each of the five management styles identified may be effective depending on the situation. In fact, he matches the five conflict management styles with the appropriate situation as follows:
- When the issue is trivial
- When the objectives are important, but not worth the effort or potential
disruption likely to result from assertive behaviour
- When quick, decisive action is essential, as in emergencies
- When you find you have made a mistake
- When both sets of concerns are so important that only an integrative
solution is acceptable; compromise is unsatisfactory
In conclusion, it should be noted that conflict is a reality that crosses all organizational boundaries to affect individuals, groups and disciplines. It can initiate productive change and vitality or it can lead to the demise of an organization. The resultant consequence of conflict will inevitably be determined by how well it was managed.
It has been demonstrated that conflict is inevitable within our schools. In order to manage it as a creative resource, administrators must recognize that conflict exists, and bring it out into the open so that the issue can be effectively dealt with. Understanding conflict will enable administrators to deal more effectively with the problems of organizational efficiency, stability, governance, change and effectiveness. Not only should administrators endeavour to understand conflict, but they must also be careful not to fall into the trap of viewing it from a negative perspective. Handled properly through an appropriate conflict management style, conflict can enhance an administrators efforts in reaching school goals. For administrators who realistically confront it, conflict can represent a dynamic force which facilitates organizational growth, change, adaptation and survival. Perhaps this positive perspective on conflict can best be summed up in the words of Mary Parker Follett when she said: "it is to be hoped that ... we shall always have conflict, the kind which leads to invention, to the emergence of new values" (p. 2).
Bailey, S.K. (1 971). Preparing administrators for conflict resolution. Educational Record, 52, 233-235.
Follett, M.P. (1925). Constructive conflict. In H.C. Metcalf (Ed.), Scientific Foundations of Business Administration. Baltimore, MD.: Williams and Wilkins, 1926.
Greenhalgh, L. (1986). SIVIR forum: Managing conflict. Sloan Management Review, 27, 45-51.
Hanson, E.M. (1991). Educational Administration and Organizational Behaviour. Toronto: Allyn & Bacon.
Owens, R.G. (1987). Organizational Behavior in Education. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Sanford, N. (1964). Individual conflict and organizational interaction. In R. Kahn & E. Boulding (Eds.). Power and Conflict in Organizations, (p. 100). London: Tavistock.
Thomas, K. (1976). Conflict and conflict management. In W.K. Hoy and C.G. Miskel (Eds.), Educational Administration: Theory, Research, Practice (pp. 100-102). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.