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Proactive conflict management in community groups

October 2005, Vol. 10, No. 2
ISSN 1540 5273

Debra A. Jones, Utah State University Extension

Abstract

Handled positively, conflict can be a constructive force, moving a group or organization forward in a positive direction. Handled negatively, conflict can be a destructive force, causing tension and turmoil, resulting in decreased effectiveness and morale. This article discusses positive and negative aspects of conflict, in the context of working with groups such as boards, councils, and committees. Examples are provided to help facilitators and group members recognize dynamics that may be affecting the group, and offer suggestions for handling them.

Keywords: proactive conflict, constructive conflict, destructive conflict, boards, councils, committees, facilitator, facilitation, conflict resolution, group conflict, task conflict, process conflict, relationship conflict, conflict model, aggressor-defender, conflict spiral, structural change, tactics, conflict style, contending, problem solving, accommodating, compromise, dispute resolution, group dynamics

Introduction

Conflict begins when an individual or group feels negatively affected by another individual or group (DiPaola 2001). Generally, the larger and more diverse a group is, the greater the potential for conflict. Group members' different goals, perceptions, and beliefs present a potential challenge. As society becomes more diverse, we need to be mindful of the potential for conflict, and ways of preventing and dealing with it.

Conflict is not necessarily negative. It is not conflict itself that presents a problem, but the way conflict is handled that determines a positive or negative outcome. Once conflict surfaces, it will not disappear, and it should not be ignored. Conflict has the ability to strengthen relationships and lead groups to evaluate and clarify goals and mission. When conflict is addressed in a positive manner tensions are released, allowing for discussion and creative ideas. Such conversations move groups forward (Folger, Poole, and Stutman 2001).

Constructive conflict

Key in addressing interpersonal or group conflict is avoiding destructive conflict while promoting constructive conflict. This approach involves group members not only in resolving current conflicts, but also in learning how to effectively handle conflict as it arises in the future. If every group member "owns" the conflict, then every group member is an internal stakeholder in its resolution. As Tjosvold (1997, 23) states, "Conflict is necessary for true involvement, empowerment, and democracy. Positive conflict develops our individuality so we feel more fulfilled and capable." Conflict resolution is not a matter of identifying issues and asking that everyone get along. Effective resolution implies active involvement of group members in identifying the underlying cause of the conflict and crafting a mutually satisfying agreement toward resolution (Adams 2003).

Conflict can serve as a catalyst for a group's healthy development by bringing issues onto the table for discussion, which can help a group more clearly define its goals. Conflict should be recognized and managed as a positive force in advancing the goals of the group, by addressing it early in its development and turning it into a productive stimulus for change and growth (Adams 2003). If conflict is continually suppressed, the group may engage in "groupthink," a situation in which everyone produces like-minded ideas and suggestions, thus hindering creativity and innovation (DeDreu 1997).

Group facilitators create an atmosphere in which conflicts can be aired, discussed, and resolved. Working with those in conflict to find acceptable solutions amongst themselves can help them learn to draw upon their individual capacities to deal with conflict and relate to others (Bush and Folger 1994). Civic groups may have laws, regulations, or other limitations within which they must work. Assuming that conflict can be fully resolved may set the group up for failure. Assuming that the group can work within its limits and make progress and improvements is realistic (Walker, Daniels, and Cheng 2004). Until a conflict reaches a critical point, how does one know it's brewing? Adams (2003) suggests seven indicators of potential problems:

Analyzing group dynamics

Helping group members understand the group's dynamics is critical in helping them deal with conflict. Most group members are not aware of interactive behavior that fosters conflict. Having group members change roles within the group may give them a clearer perspective of group dynamics. This strategy may be especially helpful for groups composed of individuals who see themselves as the ones with all the answers. These groups may be able to work more effectively by rotating the role of facilitator. In this manner, each member of the group is able to see what it is like to be facilitator, and thus gains a better understanding of the integral role each member plays in the success and productivity of the group. Another technique that helps groups realize the dynamics at work is to have group members take turns as passive observers. Taking an observant backseat at one or two meetings, then discussing what was observed, will open a pathway for improved relations. Either way, the idea is to see the group from an impartial perspective and note the dynamics observed. Some suggestions for observing follow:

Observe group members' participation, influence, and dynamics. Observe who talks to whom and participants' reactions during those conversations. Is there support and encouragement among members or tense, negative interaction? Watch to see who keeps the meeting moving by keeping members focused on the topic and not on discussion that leads nowhere. As members speak, observe how others react to them. Is the general feeling one of support or is anyone made to feel that his opinion is not wanted?

Is anyone hampering discussion or blocking decision making with body language or phrases such as "We're wasting our time" or "We've tried this before"? Does the group have adequate information and allow for enough discussion prior to making an informed decision, or is there an attempt to rush the group into a decision before group members are ready? Every person's ideas and concerns should be acknowledged, respected, and discussed (Walker, Daniels, and Cheng 2004).

Create a comfortable atmosphere in which group members feel welcome and encouraged to work together. Choose neutral sites with easy access and adequate parking. There is truth in the adage "Feed them, and they will come." Sharing refreshments is a bonding ritual in almost every culture, adding to the comfort and relationship building of a group (Jehn, Negotiation 2003). Make a habit of starting and ending meetings on time without backtracking for those who may habitually be late. Would new members feel comfortable joining the group? Do you look forward to the meetings? If not, others won't either.

Types of group conflict

Research by Jehn (1997) delineates three types of conflict among groups. Relationship conflict focuses on interpersonal relationships, task conflict stresses the content and goals of the work to be done, and process conflict targets how the work gets done. Relationship and process conflict are detrimental to group satisfaction and performance, while moderate levels of task conflict are positively related to group performance.

Empirical research indicates a negative relationship between conflict, productivity, and group satisfaction. Relationship conflicts interfere with task-related efforts as members focus on anger, frustration, reducing threats, and increasing power. Emotions interfere with rational reasoning and cause members to work less effectively (Jehn 1997). If a facilitator senses a relationship conflict, ask group members what they observe happening in the group, and get them actively involved in diagnosing behavior rather than accepting the facilitator's perception. Changing behavior should become their responsibility (Schwarz 2002).

While it may be obvious that emotions play a role in relationship conflict, task and process conflicts may also contain levels of emotion. The difference is that negative emotions may be present in task- or process-focused conflict without interpersonal animosity being present; the focus is on the task or process and not on the individual. A group member may become angry and frustrated that his idea was not selected, but these emotions could be aimed at the selection process or the task assigned, rather than at an individual (Jehn 1997). If such a situation occurs and members are taking emotions personally, the facilitator should shift the group's attention to exploring the underlying issue. It could involve a discussion of the selection process or other avenues from which to approach the assigned task. Open discussion can lead to re-evaluation of the task or process, or it may lead to the same conclusion of not accepting the person's idea. Either way, time spent processing the situation brings the group together to determine the best course of action, rather than moving forward with underlying negative feelings.

Task conflict can be beneficial if it increases constructive criticism, careful evaluation of alternatives, and realistic questioning of members' ideas and opinions, all of which increase group effectiveness. Having one group member play devil's advocate can be a constructive approach to handling task conflict (Jehn 1997). This approach enables members to see another perspective and fully discuss its implications before making a final decision.

While a situation of chronic conflict in dealing with process issues may be detrimental to group productivity, a reasonable amount may move the group forward. If a group finds that one member is more qualified to carry out a task than the person to whom it has been assigned, the group may discuss reassignment so that the best person is assigned to each task (Jehn 1997). Discussion should not be centered on the individual, but on the qualifications necessary for implementing the task.

Group norms set the tone for communication and productivity. Groups that encourage discussion of task conflict while discouraging discussion of relationship conflict are generally more productive and satisfied with their work. Groups that focus on relationship conflicts generally increase the number and intensity of relationship conflicts thereby inhibiting the group's overall effectiveness (Jehn 1997).

Conflict models – how individuals respond

Once the type of conflict occurring in the group is determined, look at the ways individual group members are responding. Conflict can be constructive or destructive depending on the context in which it is presented and the types of communication used between those involved. Proactive program managers and facilitators sense when a problem exists, and they take steps to deal with it rather than ignore it. If group members do not speak up about conflicts developing around them, the facilitator may have to "stop action" at some point and ask members what they feel is going on. If this happens, the facilitator can ask the group members what they think, rather than overtly stating his own observations. This opens the door for group members to begin to develop a stronger awareness of the group atmosphere and develop skills in dealing positively with it (Schwarz 2002). Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim (1994) and Wilmot and Hocker (2001) discuss commonly observed conflict models:

Aggressor-defender is a one-way model in which an aggressor wants to take something away from a defender, or to change defender's behavior. The aggressor takes action to which the defender will react, and this continues until the aggressor either wins or gives up. The group member who will not take the time to listen to others' input or see the possibility of a compromise is an example of the aggressor-defender. This group member could make things difficult for the entire group if his way is not accepted. If he is adamant about a position and not willing to listen to others, find out why the position is important to him. Clarifying the individual's position may help uncover underlying causes that could be addressed through exploration of other group members' input as well as the aggressor's.

If an aggressive group member is allowed to continue to exploit others, a structural change may occur within the group wherein members begin to reinforce negative attitudes and perceptions of one another and respond accordingly. As hostility increases, underlying tension impedes group interaction. A resulting lack of communication further fuels inability to resolve the issue.

At the heart of most conflicts are the group members' diverse opinions about the true nature of the problem. It is common for groups to desire quick resolution of a problem, possibly before the problem is even defined. Using the group's time to clarify the problem before forming a solution is imperative. As individuals become firmly entrenched in their perceptions of the conflict, they maintain beliefs by selectively paying attention to details that support their positions and ignoring or reinterpreting information that does not conform to their perceptions. Once a group member has determined what the issues of a conflict are and why he has to fight strongly to preserve his stand, he loses sight of any potential alternatives. By exploring various perceptions of the problem, members will begin to see common issues and concerns. A focus on shared goals leads to resolution.

Variations of style

Each group member will react with his own style of dealing with conflict. Folger, Poole, and Stutman (2001) delineate commonly accepted variations of response styles:

In a competing style, one is concerned with meeting his own needs and is not concerned with the needs of others. He is assertive and does not wish to cooperate much, if at all. He will attempt to control the situation to gain enough power to satisfy his needs without losing or making concessions. A competing style will bring about a more effective outcome if the aggressor explains why the decision needs to be made in his favor. It could be productive in a situation in which there is no time for exploring the issue and a decision has to be made immediately.

A more flexible style of contending allows a group member to use a bit more flexibility to understand other's needs, and attempt to explain why he needs to have the outcomes stated. When a situation calls for the implementation of policy or a similar issue, contending may be a good option if one explains the reasoning behind the decision.

Avoiding conflict may be appropriate when a group member does not wish to address the fact that a conflict exists. Those who avoid conflict exhibit little concern for either themselves or for others. An individual may choose to avoid conflict at all costs and simply not deal with the issue at all. He might change the subject and divert attention or simply withdraw from the conversation. Avoidance may also be an attempt to smooth things over with the intent of keeping peace. This technique may be effective with limited use to keep the group on track. However, with continued use, it may serve to weaken the group's interaction as conflicts that are not addressed begin to grow in importance. It is often the quiet group members, who have been listening and observing others, who have insightful comments that will help lead the group to resolution; encourage them to share their ideas.

In compromising, individuals are willing to give up some of their needs in order to satisfy the needs of others. They are willing to listen to others and explore options. Some group members will accommodate to allow their needs to take second priority to the needs of another. This is useful when a group member is more concerned with the relationship rather than the particular issue. Taken to the extreme, one could accommodate to the point that he allows total control of the situation to be in the hands of another. There should be a healthy balance of accommodation so that one member is not always giving in to others. If the behavior is noticed on a regular basis, discuss it with the member to see if there are other issues and concerns that need to be addressed for him to feel more comfortable in sharing his ideas.

The most effective approach for dealing with conflict with a positive outcome in mind is a cooperative, problem solving approach (Schwarz 2002). Everyone is involved and concerned for the well-being of one another. Group members are assertive in stating their needs, cooperative in hearing the needs of others, and involved in exploring mutually beneficial solutions. Each group member has a vested interest in the situation and is willing to hear what others have to say and to explore potential solutions. This style takes the most time and effort, and is best used in situations where time is not at a premium. It is also the best style of conflict resolution when a long-term relationship is desired. Schwarz suggests that the ultimate benefit of this form of conflict resolution is that individuals will not only solve the current conflict, but will learn how to effectively deal with conflict in the future.

Many groups adopt a standard bylaws template that includes parliamentary procedure as the mode of conducting business. Parliamentary procedure is useful in formal situations when group members have researched the issues and come prepared for a vote. This is not generally the case with community groups. These groups need time to discuss issues and come to consensus. It is imperative that everyone feels that he has the opportunity to be heard and to share ideas. Parliamentary procedure is apt to stifle this creativity, and put the power of the group into the hands of those who are familiar with the process.

Conclusion

Conflict is neither good nor bad; how a person or group handles it determines its result. Dealing proactively with conflict may lead to positive change. Avoiding it may lead to further conflict. According to Pondy (1989), conflict is not only functional for an organization, it is essential to the organization's very existence. Conflict is healthy when used to reach a collaborative agreement or new alternative. It becomes unhealthy when used to vent anger, fear, frustration, or to control others. Honesty and trust reduce unnecessary conflict and increase the potential for collaboration and agreement (Peterson 2002).

Disputes may be viewed as opportunities for reaching beyond oneself to relate with others by acknowledging their perspective(s), and by experiencing and expressing concern for others. By addressing conflict, one is presented with a challenge to clarify needs, values, and identify sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Dealing with conflict can bring out the intrinsic goodness that lies within us, and can take one from being fearful and defensive to confident, responsive, and caring (Bush and Folger 1994).

To proactively manage conflict, spend time creating an environment that encourages individuals to interact with one other so that they have a better understanding of those with whom they work. Build a framework in which the expression and management of conflict is appreciated. This can be exhibited via role modeling in group and interpersonal communication, and through policies, rules, and procedures that enable rather than discourage innovation and creativity (DiPaola 2001). Relationship building takes time but is worth the effort in increased productivity. Everyone in an organization has the right to be heard, and everyone has the responsibility to hear others. Confronting someone does not guarantee getting what one wants, but it does provide an opportunity to reach agreement or to let go and move on (Peterson 2002). Effective communication leads to a positive response to conflict, which leads to healthier relationships and increased productivity.

Author

Debra A. Jones
Extension Specialist, Volunteer Development
Utah State University Extension, 4-H
4900 Old Main Hill, Logan UT 84322
Phone: 435-797-2202
Fax: 435-797-3268
debj@ext.usu.edu

References

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Tjosvold, D. 1997. Conflict within interdependence: its value for productivity and individuality," in DeDreu, C. and E. Van de Vliert, (eds.), Using Conflict in Organizations. London: Sage Publications.

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Wilmot, W., and J. Hocker. 2001. Interpersonal Conflict. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

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