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Conflict is a normal part of life - from childhood to old age, at work and at home, from the most trivial domestic quarrel to world war. Understanding the nature of conflict is a goal of psychologists, employee relations specialists, political scientists and others.

Conflict and strategy

In The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas C. Schelling distinguishes between theories that:

  • Treat conflict as a pathological state and look for causes and treatment:and those that
  • Take conflict for granted and study the behaviour associated with it.

The second approach to conflict is further divided into two main types:

  • Those that examine the process in detail, aware of its complexities in terms of:
    • 'rational' and 'irrational behaviour'
    • conscious and unconscious
    • motivations and calculations
  • Those focusing on the more conscious and rational - artful - behaviour.

In the latter case, participants are trying to 'win' and seek the most appropriate ways of doing so through a strategy of conflict. Within the context of conflict strategy, Schelling sees most conflict situations as bargaining situations. The ability of one participant to achieve a set of goals is dependent on the degree to which another participant is prepared to make choices or decisions. The actions involved in such a bargaining process may be tacit or overt - the potential to act is as powerful as the actions itself. He states (2003: 6):

'... in addition to the divergence of interest in reaching an outcome that is not enormously destructive of values to both sides. A "successful" employees' strike is not one that destroys the employer financially, it may even be one that never takes place. Something similar can be true of war.'

Conflict and culture

In Resolving Conflicts at Work, Kenneth Cloke, Joan Goldsmith (2001: 19) argue that every society produces a culture of conflict:

'... a complex set of words, ideas, values, behaviors, attitudes, archetypes, customs, and rules that powerfully influence how its members think about and respond to conflict.'

Such cultures - and they vary between places of work, institutions, geographical location - determine the accepatbility of conflict and how it should be dealt with. Conflict is anathema in some of these organizational cultures while being tolerated or even encouraged in others. Some organizations are aggressive in their ways of generating and handling conflict.

Cloke and Goldsmith consider that, whereas aggression, avoidance and accommodation are accepted without question, organizational cultures often disparage the 'touchy-feely' qualities of collaboration, dialogue and self-critical honesty. They quotes Albert Camus who commented that: "Through a curious transposition peculiar to our times, it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself.

Cloke and Goldsmith believe that aggression is promoted by the media. We are conditioned to accept increasing levels of violence, with the result that (p. 21):

'Pacifism is equated with passivity, thoughtfulness with stupidity, aggression with intensity, and cruelty with seriousness of character.'

Cloke and Goldsmith argue that we should all ignore the propaganda in favour of aggression. We should attempt to change the sub-cultures around us. Small changes we make in our 'micro-environments at work' show the potential for larger changes and can improve organizational culture such that we 'reveal the destructive effects of individual behavior, and reduce the level of acceptance of hostility and aggression, including caustic verbal insults and vitrioloc e-mail attacks.'

Articles about Conflict at Work on HRM Guide

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