MHR 405 Chapter Notes - Chapter 11: Conflict Escalation, Assertiveness, Cooperativeness
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Chapter 11 – Conflict & Negotiation in the Workplace (pg. 297-313)
- Labour strikes may be more severe than most workplace disputes, but every type of conflict includes
similar key elements
- Fundamental sources of conflict: goal incompatibility, differentiation & interdependence
The Meaning & Consequences of Conflict
- Orgs. are continuously changing. Recall that from an open systems perspective (Ch. 1), orgs. need to
regularly adapt to their external environment and to introduce better methods of transforming resources
- There’s no clear road map on how the co. should change, and e/ees and other stakeholders rarely agree
completely on the direction or form of these adjustments.
- How should the firm’s products & services be designed & marketing to the younger generation? What is
the best safety practice for new workplace technology? How much should purchasing decisions be
centralized or decentralized? These and many other questions inevitably cause disagreements b/c people
form preferences and are motivated by diverse values, beliefs & experiences about the “right way” of
doing things. E/ees also have divergent personal & work goals, which leads them to prefer diff.
directions the org should take
- These differences in goals & viewpoints, along with a few other key factors lead to conflict
-Conflict – is a process in which one party perceives that his/her interests are being opposed or negatively
affected by another party. Perception is the key – the way we perceive the situation is depended on us
(one person can perceive they are opposed, while someone else may view it differently)
oIt may occur when one party obstructs another’s goals in some way, or just from one party’s
perception that the other party is going to do so.
oConflict is ultimately based on perceptions; it exists whenever one party believes that another might
obstruct its efforts, whether the other party actually intends to do so. This perceptual characteristic
highlights the fact that conflict exists as a threshold level of awareness regarding the risk that others
may interfere with their needs & objectives
Is Conflict Good or Bad?
- One of the oldest debates in OB is whether conflict is good or bad – or, more recently, what forms of
conflict are good or bad – for orgs?
- The dominant view over most of this time has been that conflict is dysfunctional.
- E/ee conflict with management undermines org. effectiveness. Even moderately low levels of
disagreement tatter the fabric of workplace relations and sap energy away from productive activities.
Ex. Disagreement with one’s supervisor wastes productive time, violates hierarchy of command, and
questions the efficient assignment of authority (where mgrs. made the decisions & e/ees followed them)
- Although the “conflict-is-bad” perspective is now considered too simplistic, it can indeed have
negative consequences under some circumstances
- E/ees are frequently or always dealing with workplace conflict and it was consuming their workday
-Conflict can undermine job performance in other ways. It’s often stressful, which distracts e/ees from
their work & consumes energy
-Conflict discourages people form sharing resources & coordinating with others engaged in the dispute.
It can reduce job satisfaction, resulting higher turnover & lower customer service
-Conflict fuels org. politics, such as motivating e/ees to find ways to undermine the credibility of their
-Decision making suffers b/c people are less motivated to communicate valuable info. Ironically, with
less communication, the feuding parties are more likely to escalate their disagreement b/c each side
relies increasingly on distorted perceptions and stereotypes of the other party
-Conflict among team members may undermine team cohesion
- In the 1920s when most org scholars viewed conflict as inherently dysfunctional, educational
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philosopher & psychologist John Dewey praised its benefits: “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs
us to observation & memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity & sets us
at noting & contriving” 3 years later, political science & mngmt theorist Mary Parker Follet similarly
remarked that the “friction” of conflict should be put to use rather than treated as unwanted
consequence of differences
- Wasn’t until 1970s that conflict management experts began to embrace the “optimal conflict”
perspective, which states that orgs. are most effective when e/ees experience some level of conflict, but
become less effective with high levels of conflict
- What are benefits of conflict? As Dewey stated, (1) conflict energizes people to debate issues &
evaluate alternatives more thoroughly.
- The debate tests the logic of arguments & encourages participants to re-examine their basic
assumptions about the problem & its possible solution. It prevents individuals & groups from making
inferior decisions. As individuals & teams strive to reach agreement, they learn more about each other
& come to understand the underlying issues that need to be addressed. This helps them to develop more
creative solutions that reflect the needs of multiple stakeholders. By generating active thinking, conflict
also potentially improves creativity
- (2) Potential benefit is that moderate levels of conflict prevent orgs. from stagnating & becoming
nonresponsive to their external environment. Through conflict, e/ees continuously question current
practices & become more sensitive to dissatisfaction from stakeholders. Conflict generates more
- (3) When team members have a dispute or competition with external sources. This form of conflict
represents an external challenge, which, as noted in team dynamics (ch. 8), potentially increases
cohesion within team. People are more motivated to work together when faced with an external threat,
such as conflict with people outside the team
-Negative consequences: uses otherwise productive time; less info sharing; higher stress, dissatisfaction
and turnover; increases org. politics; wastes resources; weakens team cohesion (conflict among team
-Positive consequences: better decision making (tests logic of arguments, questions assumptions); more
responsible to change environments; strong team cohesion (conflict between the team & outside
The Emerging View: Constructive & Relationship Conflict
- Although many writers still adhere to the “optimal conflict” perspective, an emerging school of
thought is that there are 2 types of conflict with opposing consequences: constructive conflict &
-Constructive conflict (also called task-related conflict) – is a type of conflict in which people focus
their discussion on the issue while maintaining respect for people having other points of view.
oThis conflict is called “constructive” b/c diff positions are encouraged so ideas &
recommendations can be clarified, redesigned, and tested for logical soundness.
oBy keeping the debate focused on the issue, participants calmly re-examine their assumptions &
beliefs w/o their drive to defend triggering hostile emotions & ego-defence mechanism
oResearch indicates that teams & orgs with very low levels of constructive conflict are less
effective. At the same time, there’s likely upper limit to the intensity of any disagreement, above
which it would be difficult to remain constructive
-Relationship conflict (also called socio-emotional conflict) – focuses on the (personal)
characteristics of other individuals, rather than on the issues, as the source of conflict
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oThe parties refer to “personality clashes” and other interpersonal incompatibilities rather than
legitimate differences of opinion regarding tasks or decisions.
oThey try to undermine the other person’s argument by questioning their competency.
Attacking a person’s credibility or displaying an aggressive response toward him/her triggers
defence mechanisms & a competitive orientation
oRelationship conflict also reduces trust b/c the strong negative emotions that typically
accompany this conflict undermine any identification with the other person, leaving the relationship
held together mainly by calculus-based trust
oThe conflict more easily escalates b/c the adversaries become less motivated to communicate &
share info, making it more difficult for them to discover common ground & ultimately resolve the
conflict. Instead, they rely more on distorted perceptions & stereotypes, which tend to further
escalate the conflict
Class slides: Types of Conflict:
-Relationship (Affective) - Interpersonal incompatibilities, including feelings of tension & friction
-Task (Cognitive) - Differences in viewpoints and opinions pertaining to group task
-Process - Controversies about aspects of how task accomplishment will proceed
Separating Constructive from Relationship Conflict
- If there are 2 types of conflict, as recent studies suggest, then the obvious advice is to encourage
constructive conflict (task-related conflict) and minimize relationship conflict (socio-emotional
- This recommendation sounds good in theory, but separating these 2 types of conflict isn’t easy.
Research indicates: we experience some degree of relationship conflict whenever we are engaged in
constructive debate. No matter how diplomatically someone questions our ideas & actions, they
potentially trigger our drive to defend our ideas, our sense of competence, and our public image.
- The stronger the level of debate & the more the issue is tied with our self-concept, the higher the
change that constructive conflict will evolve into (or mix with) relationship conflict
-3 strategies or conditions potentially minimize the level of relationship conflict during constructive
1. Emotional Intelligence – relationship conflict is less likely to occur, or is less likely to escalate, when
team members have high levels of emotional intelligence. E/ees with higher emotional intelligence are
better able to regulate their emotions during debate, which reduces the risk of escalating perceptions of
interpersonal hostility. People with high emotional intelligence are also more likely to view a co-
worker’s emotional reaction as valuable info about that person’s needs & expectations, rather than as a
2. Cohesive Team – relationship conflict is suppressed when the conflict occurs within a highly cohesive
team. The longer people work together, get to know each other, and develop mutual trust, the more
latitude they give to each other to show emotions w/o being personally offended. Strong cohesion also
allows each person to know about & anticipate the behaviours & emotions of their teammates. Another
benefit is that cohesion produces a stronger social identity with the group, so team members are
motivated to avoid escalating relationship conflicts during otherwise emotionally turbulent discussions
3. Supportive Team Norms – various team norms can hold relationship conflict at bay during constructive
debate. When team norms encourage openness, ex. Team members learn to appreciate honest dialogue
w/o personally reacting to any emotional display during the disagreements. Other norms might
discourage team members from displaying negative emotions towards co-workers. Team norms also
encourage tactics that diffuse relationship conflict when it 1st appears. Ex. research has found that teams
with low relationship conflict use humour to maintain positive group emotions, which offsets negative
feelings team members might develop toward some co-workers during debate
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