Company Culture and Conflict:
Seeking Collaborative Resolutions
Northern Arizona University
PAS 450: Leadership Concepts, Skills, and Models
February 15, 2013
Collaborative approaches to conflict resolution reduce major organizational dysfunction. In fact, one of the major areas of dysfunction is fear of conflict. Masters & Albright present a valuable lesson in the real goals of resolving conflict, as well as a cogent program for collaborating. Their nine-step model simplifies the process, though managers will find in practice that things do not always follow such a precise linear sequence. Managers must be willing to relinquish control as their teams resolve conflicts on their own. This frees up the manager for the big picture and strategy. But, it requires both training for the teams and personal development for the leader to create cultures where teams can successfully resolve their conflicts.
Conflict and Culture
Masters and Albright (2005) propose five goals of conflict resolution: Prevent escalation, focus on the real problem, avoid personalizing the argument, invent solutions, and build relationships (p. 583). To achieve these goals, they advocate not compromise but collaboration. A collaborative approach to resolving conflict solves many of the five ways teams become dysfunctional. They are, as proposed by Patrick Lencioni (2005): absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results (p. 607).
Each one of these problem areas benefits from building a culture of collaborative resolution. Consider Lencioni’s third area of dysfunction: lack of commitment. This problem can arise from failures of team members to agree on any number of things: their vision, their roles, their duties. Reaching that agreement often requires the resolution of underlying conflicts. Even more to the point, Lencioni identifies a major area of dysfunction in fear of conflict (p. 619). People use an avoidance strategy or make compromises that make no one happy – all in an attempt to avoid the dreaded conflict. If teams knew they had a collaborative approach that could deepen their relationships and improve their jobs, how much of this dysfunction would disappear?
While Lencioni proposes several team exercises to improve team-based culture, Masters presents a single nine-step program for the collaborative approach: take a step back, confront the situation, sit back and listen, capture the situation, invite exploration, assess and analyze, propose possibility, reach outcome, build relationship (p. 583). This process serves his five high-level goals by improving human relations and generating innovative solutions that work for everyone. While things are rarely as simple for leaders as the program suggests, becoming competent in these areas will help resolve conflicts much more favorably.
What it Means for Leaders
Robert E. Quinn, author of Deep Change, reminds leaders that change does not often follow an orderly and systematic plan.
“Organizational and personal growth seldom follow a linear plan. This is an important principle to remember. When people recount a history of growth, they often tell it in a linear sequence, suggesting a rationality and control that never really existed” (Quinn, 1996, p. 83).
In this light, Masters’ perfect nine-step sequence appears unlikely. Masters captures the most significant components of collaborative resolution. But, in practice, many of these “steps” will happen all at the same time, or in any number of different sequences. In the most chaotic periods of growth, all kinds of unexpected conflicts pop up. The collaborative resolutions to conflicts will come in many forms, with varying blends of masters’ key elements.
If such chaos sounds difficult to manage, it can be. Effective managers will therefore oversee teams that collaborate on solutions to conflicts and challenges. They reduce their micromanagement of details, trusting their teams to produce amazing results. Effective managers end up with more time to address the big picture. Why then don’t more managers let their teams collaborate and create solutions to conflict? They fear losing control.
“It is key that leaders demonstrate restraint when their people engage in conflict and allow resolution to occur naturally, as messy as it can sometimes be. This can be a challenge because many leaders feel that they are somehow failing in their jobs by losing control of their teams during conflict” (Lencioni p. 618).
But, within a large and complex organization, managers must develop teams they can trust. No single person can solve all the problems of administering public policy. No single peacemaker can resolve every daily conflict in an agency, a city, or a state. Managers faced with great conflict in times of change and growth would do well to do more than simply read Masters and Albright. They will teach their teams these principles. They will allocate resources for training teams in these principles, following the example of plant manager Al Scott at Wilson Sporting Goods, “to ensure team success” (Lussier).
Even more, they will model them in practice for their teams by walking their talk. They communicate a vision of collaboration, but they must live it, too. “To create a climate of empowerment, we must first change ourselves” (Spreitzer, 2001, p. 30). Walking this talk requires leaders who have competencies in five areas: interpersonal, managerial, analytical, technical, and personal (Masters, 2005, p. 604). Sometimes innate within a born leader, many of these competencies can be studied, taught, and learned (Doh, 2003, p. 63-64). Therefore, the study of leadership amounts to more than an analysis of organizational structure or listing nine step plans. Undertaking the study of leadership is undertaking a personal journey of development and growth, to become a leader or perhaps to become a more effective one.
Those looking for a blueprint to conflict resolution will most appreciate Masters and Albright. The process of resolution may not be as well-defined as their model, but it makes a good start. It reduces dysfunction in all the major areas a company can go wrong. Lenicioni also gives a number of team exercises worth implementing. They will contribute to the relationship building component so vitally necessary to make resolving conflicts seem more appealing than avoiding them or escalating them.
Doh, J. (March 2003). Can leadership be taught? Perspectives from management educators. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2:1, pp. 54-67.
Lencioni, P. (2005). Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team. In Management Skills: A Jossey-Bass Reader. Jossey Bass: San Francisco, CA.
Lussier. Objective Case: Wilson Sporting Goods. Northern Arizona University PAS450 Course Material accessed Feb. 2013. Source unknown.
Masters, M., and Albright, R. (2005). Dealing with conflict. In Management Skills: A Jossey-Bass Reader. Jossey Bass: San Francisco, CA.
Quinn, R., (1996). Deep change: discovering the leader within. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Spreitzer, G., and Quinn, R., (2001). A company of leaders: five disciplines for unleashing the power in your workforce. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.