Column: Some Reflections on Conflicts

Some Reflections on Conflicts
Column by Elena Yang

There are functions of conflicts that aren’t necessarily destructive. This notion really jarred me when I was reading for my PhD courses. 

And I am still not sure that I am terribly fond of this notion. I accept that differences can serve us beneficially: diversity of thinking, logic, styles, and ideas.   

And I can imagine that certain conflicts may bring about positive changes, as the case in the “parallel process” discussed in the last two column’s entries clearly demonstrated. 

What disturbs me about conflict is that there are people who seem to actually thrive on conflict, and thereby may deliberately manufacture it. 

I guess the recent political unrest, both internationally and domestically, has made me think more about conflict.

Conflicts arise mainly from the clash of values, interests, or goals. There is one important feature, though, that should be highlighted: Differences do not automatically lead to conflicts, and even when some differences lead to hostile feelings, they are still not conflicts. 

Inherent to conflict is action, interaction or transaction. Some people can hold a negative view of others for quite some time, but as long as they don’t act on the feelings, on the surface, there wouldn’t be conflict. 

(Of course, prolonged suppressed animosity isn’t healthy either.) One particular function of conflict is inter-group dynamics: conflicts between groups can actually strengthen groups’ awareness, and consciousness of separateness can thereby help a group establish its identity in the system. 

Furthermore, when different groups face the same “enemy outgroup,” these different groups may temporarily put aside their differences in order to defeat the common enemy. 

I think the still-fresh revolution in Egypt is the perfect example. The opposition comprised several different groups even though the Muslim Brotherhood might attract the most attention in the West, it wasn’t the leader – with very different philosophical leanings; they united during the 18 days of demonstration because they had one powerful enemy, Hosni Mubarak! 

If Mr. Mubarak had not been that strong, and had not stayed in power for so long, the animosity might not have been as strong. Obviously, there were other reasons for the success of the revolution, but from the perspective of group dynamics, this illustrated well the important functions of social conflict, for drawing group boundaries and the notion of “superordinate goal” of defeating a strong common enemy. 

The real challenge for the opposition, as for any such coalition, is what to do and how to move forward once the superordinate goal is reached. The different groups in Egypt now have to go back and learn to deal with their differences that never really went away.

I do try to stay clear of politics in this space, but talking about Egypt’s recent drama feels neutral enough! It also is a great example.

Let me now get back to the domain that’s closer to home, our daily organizational life. In most organizations, there are constant differences with potential for outright conflicts between groups, between individuals, between management and others (I reject the crude distinction between management and labor), and occasionally within individuals.

Sometimes, potential conflicts are built into the organizational structure, and some conflicts are inherent in the process of interaction, such as the examples shown in the last two “parallel process” entries. 

Let me illustrate how an organization can actually build potential conflicts into the  R&D section of an organization. Imagine a division charged with monitoring the technical work done in other divisions on a particular topic.

There could be dozens of staff members in this division, for most of whom a technical background isn’t required. In general, these staff members fan out throughout the organization units where R&D work is done on this topic.  

Most people who perform technical work on this topic are scientists or technical specialists. We already have a very clear group boundary in this illustration.

The working philosophy of the monitoring division is that all performance aspects of this topic are known, and therefore it is appropriate to document detailed rules to guide all the work on this topic. 

An intrinsic problem of relying only on rules is what happens when you need to work outside the experience base from which the rules were derived

After all, isn’t a scientific institution supposed to push the boundaries of knowledge, sometimes by creating new experiences? Indeed, if all performance aspects of our hypothetical topic truly are known and could be documented, why continue to conduct R&D on this topic?

So, whenever a project on this topic runs into some glitch, the monitoring division is expected to stop everything until they figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. 

But of course the work is bound by a milestone schedule where a few hours work stoppage affects subsequent steps and causes weeks’ worth of setbacks in schedules. 

And when milestones are not met, stakeholders get testy and the whole organization suffers. You would think that a learning organization would devote more attention to not annoying its stakeholders by eliminating the consequences of glitches. 

Let’s not talk about why a scientific institution’s goal should be to never have a glitch; that’s another topic. 

Basically, if problems encountered during work on this topic can be fixed by exercising one of the existing rules, it is okay, but if a problem requires some expert’s (unwritten) knowledge, it’s not okay. How is this not bizarre?? Adding more to this bizarre nature of operation is that the technical experts on the topic aren’t allowed to improve these rules! 

Do I have any suggestions for solution? Dealing with this problem in isolation will not do; only a system-wide approach will address this aspect effectively. 

The sickness of this R&D organization is too deep and the top management is too myopic. I have to believe that solutions are possible, but I can’t write a treatise here.

After two long entries on the “parallel process,” let me pause here for today’s column. Let me just conclude with this thought: Whenever conflict looms, a one-dimensional analysis would only lead to more conflicts. If you know of examples where conflicts have lead to organizational learning, please share. May you have a relatively conflict-free week. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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