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It is becoming a truism that successful management depends heavily on ability to

handle conflict effectively. Mintzberg (1973) observed over 30 years ago that
managers are increasingly being called on to take up the role of ³dispute handlers´
and mediate conflicts between colleagues, subordinates, suppliers, customers, and
even superiors. The degree to which managers are currently charged with the
responsibility of resolving conflict is evident in a recent estimate that managers
spend 18 percent of their time managing employee conflict alone (McShulskis,

In line with this change in managerial role is the convergence or meeting of three
other trends that make conflict management a topic of keen interest. The first is
associated with employee empowerment and the current emphasis on collaborative
work. The popularity of teamwork is resulting in more potential for conflict (Smith et
al., 2000; Pelled, 1996). As a result, managers are no longer the only ones who need
to hone their conflict resolution skills. Efficient conflict management is essential at all
organizational levels.

The second trend is a change in attitude regarding conflict, and the

acknowledgement that conflict, properly managed, is perhaps more beneficial to an
organization than detrimental (Mckenzie, 2002). There is evidence that work group
conflict, for example, improves the quality of team performance, enhances decision
making, and results in more innovation (Jehn, 1995; Cox et al., 1991).

The third trend is the growing diversification of the workforce, with recent studies in
conflict management reflecting an expan ding multiculturalism and the increasing
presence of women and minorities in the workplace (Elsayed-Ekhouly and Buda,
1996; Brewer et al., 2002).

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The first models of conflict management were developed in the early 1970s in the
fields of social psychology and organizational psychology. These early models
measured conflict mostly along a single dimension of concern for others represented
by the bipolar anchors of cooperativeness and uncooperativeness (Deutsch, 1973).
These models were soon rejected, however, on the grounds that they failed to
account for strategies involving a concern for self -interests (Thomas and Kilmann,

Subsequent models, following the work of Blake and Mouton (1964), have measured
conflict using two orthogona l dimensions that include both a concern for others
(cooperativeness and uncooperativeness) and a concern for the self (assertiveness
and unassertiveness).

Within this two-dimensional model, Thomas and Kilmann (1974) have developed a
popular framework (see Figure 1, page 3) that accounts for five styles of handling
conflict: competing, collaborating, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising.
High in concern for the self is the competing style, which is characterized by a drive
to maximize individual gain even at the expense of others. This is in contrast to the
collaborating style, which is marked by a drive towards constructing solutions to
conflict that meet the needs of all parties involved. Low in concern for the self is the
avoiding style, which disengages from conflict, and the accommodating style, which
sacrifices self-interests to satisfy the needs of others. Finally, compromising, a
strategy that theoretically straddles the midpoint between cooperativeness and
assertiveness, involves making concessions to arrive at a resolution of conflict.
These five styles of handling conflict will be given a more thorough explanation after
figure 1.

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Figure 1

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The competitive style is characterized by a desire to satisfy one¶s own concerns at
the expense of others. In a general sense, competitively oriented people often act in
an aggressive and unco-operative manner. The situation is often one of  ,
with attempts to dominate being common.


The collaborative style is concerned with trying to satisfy both parties¶ concerns in a
conflict. People who have a collaborative orientation tend to be highly assertive and
highly co-operative in behaviour. They seek a mutually beneficial solution, integration
and   situations.

The compromising style is a middling approach to conflict. Compromising people are
satisfied if people achieve moderate levels of satisfaction with agreements in conflict.
Compromising people do not fully avoid the problem, nor do they fully collaborate to
develop a win-win resolution.

People who practice the avoiding style tend to behave as if they were indifferent both
to their own concerns and to the concerns of others. The avoiding orientation is often
manifested through non-assertive and unco-operative behaviour. Those who avoid
conflict tend to prefer apathy, isolation and withdrawal to facing conflicts. They tend
towards letting fate solve problems instead of trying to make things happen. When
potential conflict situations arise the avoider might seek to distract attention from the
issue, or ignore it completely. This response, depending on the conditions under
which it takes place, can be seen either as evasive or as an effective and diplomatic
avoidance strategy.

Those people who tend towards accommodation are more concerned about pleasing
others than with meeting their own needs. They tend to be non-assertive and co-
operative. People who practice this style of conflict management give up their needs
and want in order to keep the peace and make others happy. Thomas and Kilmann
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make the point that individuals can use one or more of the styles, however, most of
us will feel more comfortable with one style than with others. It is the style(s) with
which we feel most comfortable that we are likely to use most of the time.

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º º

After accepting the premise that conflict is a fact of life, including a business's life,
the next issue to be addressed is what causes conflict? People have different
expectations, experiences, frames of reference and goals. These differences are,
perhaps, especially apparent when we have individuals with different cultural

Interpersonal conflict has its roots in such things as prestige; formal organizational
structure that determines who is going to take on what responsibilities and the lin e of
authority; leadership styles and expectations arising there from; and prejudice that
spawns mistrust for any number of reasons, including position, cultural differences,
etc. (Blome, 1983).

The challenge for managers today is neither to ignore nor t o minimize these
contributors to conflict, but instead to recognize that each of these very differences
has something positive to offer. Business organizations have many different tasks to
be performed, requiring workers with a variety of abilities. People in a business
organization do different kinds of work; departments and support units tend to differ
in terms of goals, time orientations, formality of structures and management
leadership needs (Baack and Wisdom, 1995).

This differentiation among indivi duals, departments and other operating units in the
organization increases the potential for conflict. When we add to this scenario the
fact that international business today involves various cultural norms and
expectations, it becomes clear that causes of conflict cannot be eliminated.
Therefore, it is imperative that management has a workable conflict management
structure readily available.

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Numerous techniques to deal with conflict are suggested in current management

literature. Widely discussed conflict management procedures include avoidance,
compromise, accommodation, competition and collaboration. Generally, all of the
techniques noted in the literature focus on three interactive methods of conflict
management grouped according to lose-lose, win-lose, or win-win techniques
(Covey, 1989, pp. 206-13).

The lose-lose and win-lose methods of conflict management have several

commonalties. In both methods, there is a we-they distinction between the parties
rather than a we-versus-the-problem orientation. Each side sees the problem only
from its point of view, rather than analyzing the problem in terms of mutual needs. In
these methods the emphasis is on attaining a solution, rather than on defining the
goals, values or motives. This results in conflicts that are personalized rather than
depersonalized. A depersonalized conflict results in an objective focus and on facts
and issues, while a personalized conflict has parties who are conflict-oriented,
concentrating on immediate disagreement rather than on the long-term effects of
differences and how these differences can be resolved.

Lose-lose techniques result in all involved parties leaving the situation dissatisfied.
Compromise is often viewed as a lose-lose method, especially when it is based on
the premise that to lose part is better than to lose all. Another lose-lose technique
may involve side payments - the employee agreeing to a solution in exchange for a
future favour from the employer. Organizations frequently use side payments, even
though they are costly (because they necessitate providing individuals with additional
resources to perform disagreeable tasks). The end result is that both sides to the
conflict are partial losers.

A win-lose situation in conflict management would be characterized in the following

scenario: A manager says to an employee, ``Do it because I said so''. In this case,
the manager is exercising legitimate power which has been imparted from the
organization. The manager's position of po wer is clear, and the employee feels there
is no choice about what course of action to take. The employee will perform the
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requested act, but will also probably feel that he or she has lost in this interaction.
Another example of a win-lose situation would be management's failure to follow
staff's suggestions for change.

Win-win problem-solving strategies focus on goals, issues, and situations, rather

than on the organizational dynamics which are evident in the strategies previously
discussed. The emphasis in the dual-win strategy is on problem solving and
establishing common goals. The problem-solving technique first identifies the
sources of conflict, and then presents these as problems that need to be resolved.
The common goal emerges, greater than the individual goals of the conflicting
entities and all operational efforts can be directed toward this collective aspiration.
Identifying a super ordinate goal reminds conflicting individuals or units that even
though their particular goals are vitally impor tant, they share a common goal (or
goals) that cannot be attained without cooperation (Nelson and Quick, 1994). The
dual-win perspective of conflict management is usually achieved through some form
of participative interaction.

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Since conflict is inevitable and can be an important learning experience, it is

imperative that managers manage conflict in a constructive, creative manner. The
attributes were grouped into three steps; preliminary steps, resolution steps and
maintenance steps.

The preliminary steps include:

(1) power-base development;
(2) relational acceptance; and
(3) meaningful communication.

The resolution steps deal with:

(4) assumption analysis;
(5) objective identification; and
(6) alternative selection.

Finally, the maintenance steps focus on:

(7) action agreement;
(8) feedback review; and
(9) continuing oversight.

While these are presented as the steps to conflict management, it may actually be
more appropriate to regard them as basic skills for conflict management (since the
manager is seldom able to work with conflict in an organized sequential nine -step
method). Most conflict situations require the use of a situational variable set of these
basic skills. However, following the nine steps provides an orderly sequence to
conflict management, including feedback (which helps to provide a continuing
maintenance of the conflict solution). Both of these perspectives are reflected in
Figure 2 with its sequential and interactive indicators.

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Figure 2 A model for conflict management .



  º








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Individuals who feel threatened in a given situation can rarely think creatively about
how to manage a conflict. In dealing with a conflict or confrontation between two or
more individuals, managers with credibility can successfully interject themselves into
the process (Bennis, 1989). This can be done by means of preliminary interviewing,
structuring the context of the confrontation, and facilitating the dialogue without
provoking undue resentment of the parties involved (Walton,1976)

Managers can influence conflict management by physical and social factors, as well.
For instance, the outcome of a particular meeting will be affected by such things as
the neutrality of the meeting place, its formality or informality, time devoted to the
discussion, and composition of the meeting. The situational context can affect the
balance of power. For example, when two people are involved in conflict it may be
desirable to have meetings which include these individuals held in a neutral setting,
such as someone else's office or a company library or conference room.


Individuals involved with successful conflict management have found that when the
level of trust and acceptance is high, almost any effort to communicate is successful
(Nelson and Quick, 1994). On the other hand, when trust and acceptance are low,
communication efforts will prove futile.

Without trust, no matter how articulate and intelligent the parties to the conflict,
communications will be distorted and is understood. Responses to communication
will often be based on emotion rather than on rational communication patterns.

Often, acceptance is met with acceptance, and rejection with rejection. A manager
who handles a conflict with an attitude of trust and openness will often receive these
same attitudes in return. When one gives individuals the benefit of the doubt,
assuming they will do the right thing, they usually do. Such self-fulfilling prophecies

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of expecting the best of people when that is what is extended to them normally
proves accurate.


A manager who desires successful, meaningful communication must keep in mind

that such an exchange includes two dimensions: both careful listening and sending
positive, constructive messages. The basic listening skills are both infinitely complex
and profoundly simple (Hellriegel et al., 1995). As is the case with many other
developed skills, in-depth listening can be enjoyable and rewarding. However, in
conflict management such listening skills must include both sensitive perception and
selective reception.


Successful conflict management also includes testing the assumptions being made
by participants in the conflict. This is essential because it is precisely at this point
that the dimension of reality is focused sharply on the inevitable assumptions that
people bring to a conflict (Nelson and Quick, 1994).


Questions about the cause of a conflict can lead to further conflict, since participants
often disagree on what caused the discord in the first place. A more productive area
to address would be to ask what the objectives of each participant in the conflict are .


The beginning to alternative selection is brainstorming, according to the classic

procedures for this activity (Baack and Wisdom, 1995). Participants identify all
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imaginable alternatives, with out stopping to evaluate them in any way. Such a
procedure allows for creative processes to occur and for new and innovative
possibilities to be considered without any negative consequences.

As one imaginative idea is presented, another may evolve. After all possible
alternatives were presented, participants then selected the criteria for alternative
selection. Such criteria had to be legitimate, based on relevant factors of the
situation and the priorities necessarily involved in this particular conflict . After
selecting such criteria, the next question to be addressed was which of the
alternatives can best be achieved within the set criteria, according to a set of


Responsibilities for particular areas needed to be clearly spelled out. Some action
agreements required further detail, such as establishing a timetable, with
accomplishments and goals expected to be met at each stage specified. This
thorough, meticulous action plan enabled each party in the conflict to know exact ly
what was expected of them, and when.


Feedback review and evaluation concerning the conclusion of the process is

necessary. Managers initiate a system for providing information, either directly or
indirectly, regarding the manner in wh ich the conflict situation has been successfully
resolved (Darling and Nurmi, 1995)


Managing interpersonal conflict within a firm is always important, and perhaps

especially so in firms with international dimensions. Differences in culture and in
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perceptions may result in numerous and perhaps continuing conflicts. Therefore
effective managers will build in some type of continuing oversight as part of the
conflict management process.

It need not necessarily be formal, but may, for instance, take the form of a casual,
but sincere, conversation that conveys to the parties involved in the co nflict that the
manager has taken this conflict management process seriously and intends not to
have it arise again in the foreseeable future (Darling , 1994).


In 2007, the Student Affairs Office of College M was a mixture of Malay, Chinese and
Indian Staff. The head of department was Chinese and the second in command was
Malay. Communication within the office was a mixture of English and a smattering of
Bahasa Malaysia. The inter personal relationship in the office could be described as
good and functioning.

During the latter part of the year, the Indian staff resigned to pursue better
opportunities in a different working environment. Even without the Indian staff, the
interpersonal relationship continued to be cordial and friendly. Communi cation was
still done in English with occasional lapses in Bahasa Malaysia.

Due to the College¶s rapid expansion in 2008, two additional staff was taken in to fill
in the position previously held by the Indian staff. Both staff was of Chinese descent.
After a few months, there was a noticeable chill in the air between the Head of
Department (HOD) and the Assistant Head of Department (AHD) . The previous good
relationship between both of them became sour and occasional arguments escalated
into a mini cold war, with both of them keeping silent for the majority of the day and
the usual conversations now restricted to official business only.

The AHD, who was Malay, became more reclusive and only dealt with outsiders and
students only, without interacting with the rest of the Student Affairs Office. The
situation flared to such an extent that interaction between even the HOD and the
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new staffs was strained as well and conversations within the office regressed to
official matters only. Other department and officers became aware of this
disagreement and the students also found out eventually.

The top management finally had to step in due to n ot wanting to lose a valuable
employee, management held a round table discussion to find and sort out the issue.
According to the AHD, ever since the two new Student Affairs staff came in, he was
secluded from conversations both official and un -official. This is due to the HOD
speaking exclusively to the new staff in Chinese. He did make known his displeasure
but it was ignored by the HOD and the new staffs as they did not take the remark
seriously. The conversations still continued in Chinese. Occasionally, even during
meetings, English would be used but half way through or during certain portions;
Chinese would be used without a follow up on whether the AHD understood the
remark or statement that was given.

Due to the non-communicative environment, the Student Affairs Office of College M
suffered considerably. This is due to the Student Affairs Office¶s nature as a
gathering point for students and the primary organiser of activities and events in the

Student activities typically were handled as a group but due to the non -cooperative
environment, the events and activities were mismanaged and although the HOD had
the help of the 2 new Chinese staff, but due to lack of skills and/or expertise typically
given by the AHD, events were still below that of events and activities held
previously in its scope and festivities.

Student interactions were also strained as two camps started to form either
supporting the HOD or the AHD based on previous friendships. As the AHD was
primarily involved in the running of social clubs as well as the Student Council, the
line became split between sports as well as social clubs. With the powerful Student
Council firmly behind the AHD, activities and events became stalled, postponed,
scaled down or were simply uneventful.
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As was typical with these types of disagreements, opponents were divided between
racial lines among staff as the Malay and Indians staff supported the AHD as they
also had experiences such as this. The Chinese staff naturally came to the defence
of the HOD as they thought the issue was trivial and minor and it was their right to
converse in their own dialects.

Intrapersonal and interpersonal relations between staff and students were strained
due to this issue. This was the biggest damage done due to this disagreement.


Both parties in this disagreement choose to not only avoid the conflict and steps
were actually taken to disregard the existence of the issue. Due to the sensitive
nature of the conflict, at first, avoida nce may seem a natural course of action but as
the parties concerned are high level personnel who are able to influence other
parties, avoidance should be the last form of conflict resolution to be practiced.

Racial issues may be taboo in certain situatio ns but to preserve the organisation¶s
harmony and connectedness, the issue should have been tackled as soon as it
emerged. The Head of Department, knowing that the department would primarily
consist of just one race should have conducted a diversity sessio n to both
acknowledge the situation as well as to bring up any and all future sensitive issues
that might crop up.

The AHD¶s feelings as well as concern s should have been dealt with all seriousness
and any issues to do with race sensitivities should be taken seriously no matter how
small. If preventative measures were taken, the issue would not have flared to such
proportions. The HOD was at fault though, due to not taking racial diversity issues
seriously and not thinking of how she would feel if the situation was reversed.

To rectify this situation, both AHD and HOD would have to show a unified front by;

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First, the HOD would need to pull back her position and accommodate the AHD¶s
concerns as she should have realised, being non -Chinese, the AHD would not have
understood what she and the other two Student Affairs Officers were discussing or
conversing about. Important information would have been lost as t he flow of
information was obscured or completely eliminated as the recipient could not capture
and process the information.

Second, to calm the waters (the college environment), the AHD and HOD would
have to show a united front by being visibly together and talking as per normal. Ways
of doing this could be by organising a get together, a tea party, with staff from other
departments invited. To show united -ness in front of the students, having meetings
with the entirety of the Student Council with repres entatives of each club would
highlight that there are no more hard feelings between the HOD and AHD.

Finally, all staff should undergo diversity training as a pre requisite for their
employment. As Malaysia is a multi racial and multi religious country, d iversity
training would be a great addition to company practice as it would instil in the staff a
respect for other cultures and mores.

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When human beings interact, there will be conflict, to at least some degree.
Therefore, the successful manager needs to have in place a model to use to manage
such conflict when it does occur. Individual goals and aspirations vary, both among
individuals and over time. While benefits will result as an Organisation increases the
diversity of its workforce, quite possibly misunderstandings may also develop as a
result of different cultural norms as more cultures or races and religions are
represented within the workforce. Therefore it is imperative that a manager respect
the right of employees to h ave different points of view, and to exhibit or openly show
this respect.

Conflict can be a positive force for change within the organization. In order to ensure
that conflict is positive for the organisation or for the case study, the college ,
however, the manager must recognize the existence and usefulness of conflict, and
encourage exploration of different points of view even if the conflict results in
negative outcomes. That is why, great managers must always have in place an
effective plan of action for conflict management.

Open communication was fostered in the case study, with both sides reaching some
consensus about the department 's and college¶s goals and how to best achieve
them. A successful manager, who takes the time to deal with conflict in this manner,
including feedback review and continuing oversight, will have a workforce who
appreciates the empathy and diversity.

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