MANAGING CONFLICT IN A BUSINESS COMPANY

CONFLICT WITHIN INDIVIDUALS

Many kinds of conflict occur within individuals. The first one we will discuss is role conflict. Roles are ideas about correct behavior for a person holding a position in a social system. For example, the position of chief engineer specifies particular activities that are appropriate for the position. When analyzing roles, it is important to talk about prescribed, subjective, and enacted roles. A prescribed role is a role that is prescribed by other people. In other words, the chief engineer usually receives definitions of what he or she is supposed to do from the boss, from subordinates, and from peers, and each has specific ideas about the engineer’s role, which are integrated into a concept of what he or she is supposed to be doing. In other words, when the chief engineer says, “I am doing this because I am the chief engineer,” that is an element of the subjective role; the role thought appropriate by the individual. Finally, we have the enacted role, which is the actual role behavior of the chief engineer. It is useful to look at the enacted role and see if it corresponds to the subjective role or to the prescribed role. According to research, the three kinds of roles—the prescribed, the subjective, and the enacted—frequently do not match very well.

A second kind of role conflict is related to workload—in other words, how much is one supposed to do. Given a particular role, there are different definitions of how much one should do. A third conflict has to do with creativity. Who is supposed to initiate what or who is supposed to do new things does vary according to role senders. Finally, there are conflicts that have to do with company boundaries and who has responsibility for what activity—for example, who must decide whether a laboratory member is to go to a conference. The research by Kahn shows that the greater the role conflict: (1) the greater the dissatisfaction of the individual, (2) the more frequent the physical symptoms of the individual, (3) the greater the number of hospital visits the individual undertakes, and (4) the less confidence the individual has in the company.

Technicians versus Researchers

Other kinds of intrapersonal conflict occur when certain technical employees have problems with the way they are perceived by members of the company. A good example is provided by Fineman (1980), who discusses the problem of technicians in large R&D Company. They are often in a supportive role; in other words, they are supposed to be helping the researcher do the work. This frequently makes them feel like second-class citizens who are being “used” by the researchers as servants rather than as co-workers. Furthermore, their job appears to lack creativity, since it is the researcher who does all the original work and they are only providing the technical support. Naturally, such people often feel that their technical skills and qualifications are underutilized and that their superiors do not take their personal needs into account. In R&D company, quite often, support personnel experience helplessness and lack of power and influence. Managers must find ways to integrate support staff by providing common goals for them and for the researchers.

Supervisor–Subordinate Expectations

A frequent problem in most company is that the expectations of one’s supervisor and of one’s subordinates may be quite different. This problem becomes especially difficult to solve when the training backgrounds of the supervisor and the subordinates are very different. For example, in some commercial company the top management has MBA training or degrees in law or finance. Managers of the R&D functions may report to an MBA while their subordinates might be physicists or engineers. The expectations of people with such varied kinds of training can be very different. As a result, the managers find that their supervisor expects a particular set of behaviors while their subordinates expect a different set with minimal overlap between them. Such “role conflicts” have been found to result in health problems (e.g., ulcers), job dissatisfaction, and even depression.

Engineers’ Status and Company Conflicts

An analysis of the kinds of stresses that professional engineers face is provided by Keenan (1980). Keenan also identifies, as a problem, the fact that professional engineers have a relatively low status in society (mostly the case in the United States, not so in Japan and Germany) despite their academic level of qualifications and their level of contributions to society. A number of scholars have pointed out that scientists and engineers who work in industrial company are likely to experience strains due to the conflict between their professional values and the goals of the company for which they work. Conflicts between the technologist and the company over issues such as which project to focus on and how and in what way to do them can drain the engineer’s energies.

Role Overload and Underload

In some cases, there is role overload; that is, the work that needs to be done is too difficult and exceeds the individual’s abilities, skills, or experience. In a study summarized in Keenan’s (1980) paper, French and Caplan (1973) found that engineers and scientists more frequently experienced situations in which the job was too difficult than did administrators. Another problem is role underload; the demands made by the job are insufficient to make full use of the skills and abilities of the scientist. The Keenan paper suggests that this is a frequent problem among engineers. Engineers receive sophisticated training (e.g., in mathematics) that results in skills often not required by their job. In one study, more than half of the engineers complained that many aspects of their jobs could be handled by someone with less training.

Boundary Role

Another source of stress or interpersonal conflict comes from occupying a boundary role, one that connects the company with the external environment. There is some evidence that engineers who are in such roles experience more stress and strain than other engineers. Individuals in boundary roles frequently complain that they experience greater deadline pressure, fewer opportunities to do the work they prefer, and less opportunity for advancement. They also claim that they are not attaining the maximum utilization of their professional skills.

Coping with Conflict and Stress

The ways engineers cope with work-related stress is discussed by Newton and Keenan (1985), who point out that there are different ways in which one can cope. For example, one can talk with others, take direct action, withdraw from the situation, or simply resent it. Exactly what is done depends on (1) individual differences (for example, people who are characterized as having a Type A personality are most likely to be resentful), and (2) situational variables (for example, withdrawal or doing as little as possible occurs more frequently among those who work in company that lack a supportive climate). Withdrawal appears to be more common in some fields of engineering than in others. Also, the way the person looks at the stressful situation determines whether the person will talk to others or take action, such as quitting. One cannot generalize and say that there is an effective coping technique that should be taught to everyone, because coping differs from person to person and from company to company. It also depends on the way the person perceives the conflict situation. Nevertheless, in training engineers and scientists, we can sensitize them to intrapersonal conflict and teach them stress-reduction techniques (such as biofeedback). Often being able to understand that role conflict and role ambiguity are “normal” in company makes dealing with such conflict more manageable. Facing the conflict squarely by “negotiating” one’s role is most helpful.

CONFLICT BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS

Chan (1981) has studied conflict between R&D managers and non managers in four company, and he found that they perceived conflict as generally having negative consequences. Most conflict occurs in the areas of reward structure (most important), control of goals, authority, and insufficient assistance. Most respondents saw a negative link between conflict and performance and job satisfaction, but a few respondents saw conflict as having positive consequences such as increased performance. Reactions to conflict were perceived as quite different. Competition and avoidance reactions were seen as most detrimental to the effectiveness of the work group; cooperation was seen as the most desirable reaction to conflict. In general the ideal way to deal with conflict is to be creative and try to reach win–win solutions. For example, if authorship of a paper is a disputed issue, arranging for one of the persons to do extra work on it, in order to justify joint authorship, can result in a win–win situation.

CONFLICT BETWEEN GROUPS

Conflict between groups is very common in company. In what follows, we will summarize some of the major findings in social psychology concerning the study of intergroup relationships (Worchel and Austin, 1985).

In-Groups, Out-Groups

The first point is that it is very easy to create confrontations between in-groups and out-groups. An in-group is one with which the individual is ready to cooperate and whose members consist of individuals who trust each other. An out-group consists of people one distrusts. It is very easy to create in-group/out-group distinctions. For example, in a laboratory experiment, one can say to teenagers, “You belong to the yellow group,” and the others constitute “the red group.” With no other visible distinction, one says, “All right, you yellows, here is a pile of money. Divide the money between your group and the other group.” This simple manipulation is sufficient to make the individuals who are doing the dividing favor their in-group. For instance, they may give 60 percent of the money to the in-group and 40 percent to the out-group. It is as if there were a natural way of thinking that “since I belong to this group and the other group is my ‘enemy,’ it is natural for me to give more to my group and to be a little distrustful of the other group.” The research also shows that out-groups are perceived as more homogeneous than in groups. In other words, the “other” people are “all the same.” By contrast, in-groups are perceived as relatively heterogeneous. The members of one’s in-group are perceived as “all different” from one another. These tendencies imply that we stereotype members of out-groups and may perceive them more inaccurately than we perceive the in-group. It is useful to distinguish relationships that are intergroup from those that are interpersonal .

In an interpersonal relationship, the individual is very much aware of who the other is. In the intergroup relationship, the individual is not aware of the other’s personal characteristics. For example, when soldiers shoot at the enemy they do not care who that particular individual is. It is just a global reaction or judgment about the other person as a representative of a group. Intergroup relationships are more likely to develop than interpersonal relationships under the following five conditions: (1) when there is intense conflict, (2) when there is a history of conflicts, (3) when there is a strong attachment to the in-group, (4) when there is anonymity of membership in the out-group, and (5) when there is no possibility of moving from the in-group to the out-group.

Conflicts in Company

Recent reviews of experimental work on conflict in company (DeDreu and Gelfand, 2008) suggest that there are many circumstances when moderate amounts of conflict may stimulate innovation and creativity. When a research team includes a member who looks at the research problem very differently from the way the other members do, even when that member is wrong, the difference of opinion can increase information search, and may uncover a solution that was not considered by any member of the research team. Therefore if, when the work begins, the best solution is not evident to any of the members of the research team, the team’s work can benefit from dissent. Of course, dissent is not without costs. In dissent situations the decision will probably take longer, the research members may feel antipathy toward the member who has different views, and may emotionally block the implementation of the best solution. On the other hand, if the research team has the norm described in “Ethos of a Scientific Community”, even if individuals are critical of the solutions proposed by others, the negative effects of dissent can be minimized. The complexities of the way dissent may be used to stimulate creativity are discussed in Schultz-Hardt, Mojzisch, and Vogelgesang (2008).

Coping with Conflict between Groups

What we said in the case of interpersonal conflict also applies to intergroup conflict: If superordinate goals (goals of both groups that neither group can reach without the help of the other) can be found, the relationship can be improved. There are two orientations that one can adopt in an intergroup situation: One is called a win–lose orientation and the other is called a win–win orientation. In the win–lose orientation, one tries to win for one’s in-group something that the out-group loses, while in the win–win orientation, one tries to win something for both groups. Another way to look at conflict is to examine the Conflict Resolution Grid of Blake and Mouton (l986, p. 76). The win–win orientation corresponds to position 9.9. The win–lose orientations are 1.9 and 9.1. Two other orientations—compromise and all lose, both less satisfactory than the win–win.

INTERCULTURAL CONFLICT

Intercultural conflict is a special case of intergroup conflict. “Culture” here is defined as unstated assumptions, beliefs, norms, roles, and values found in a group that speaks a particular language and lives in a specific time period and place. Potentially, there can be cultural conflict whenever people speak a different language including dialects, live in a different (e.g., Australia versus Canada), or have been socialized in different time periods (e.g., old versus young). Other contrasts, such as differences in religion, social class, and race, can also create intercultural conflict. Socialization in a particular culture results in a specific “world view.” Unstated assumptions (e.g., one must not start a new venture without consulting an astrologer), customs, and ways of thinking (e.g., starting with facts and abstracting a generalization versus starting with a generalization or an ideological position and finding facts that fit it) can create more trouble in interpersonal or intergroup relationships than even having something valuable to divide. This is because unstated assumptions appear so natural to the thinker. Intercultural disagreement can be more damaging to interpersonal relationships than disagreement within culture situations because rational arguments are not particularly helpful. There are basically four approaches to intercultural training: the cognitive approach, the affective approach, the behavioral approach, and self-insight.

The Cognitive Approach. The cognitive approach teaches people the worldview of the other culture. As Norman’s (1998) article argues, issues contributing to conflict are unlikely to go away and therefore must be managed rather than resolved. Management involves open communication to increase understanding. This is done with a series of “critical incidents” in which interpersonal behaviors between members of cultures A and B are described. After each incident, there are four explanations of the behavior of the people in the incident. If one is training a person from culture A to understand the point of view of persons from culture B, three of the four explanations are commonly given by people in culture A and one by people from culture B.

 The Affective Approach. The affective approach involves exposing trainees to situations in which their emotions are aroused when in interaction with members of the other culture. This can be done by having them interact with members of the other culture in specific situations. When negative emotions develop, they are exposed to a positive experience that competes with the negative emotions. In some cases, simply breathing deeply or doing some exercise that reduces stress in the presence of the negative emotion is helpful. In other cases, arranging for pleasant experiences, such as the sharing of tasty food, listening to enjoyable music, or being exposed to agreeable perfumes, can create the right mood.

The Behavioral Approach. The behavioral approach involves shaping the behavior of the trainee to make sure that behaviors that are objectionable in the other culture do not occur. For example, crossing your legs and showing the bottoms of your shoes is absolutely insulting in some cultures, but many Americans do this and are not even aware of it. Simply telling them that they must not do it (the cognitive approach) is not effective. They have to experience rewards and punishments that will change their habits. The best way to accomplish this is to reward a competing behavior, such as keeping one’s shoes on the ground.

Self-Insight. Self-insight is an approach designed to make the trainee understand how much culture influences behavior. The aim in this case is to give the trainee a chance to analyze his or her own culture. Understanding how much of one’s own behavior is under the influence of norms, customs, and values unique to one’s culture can be very instructive. The technique used in this kind of training is to have the trainee interact with a person who is a trained actor and who acts in the opposite way from the way people in the trainee’s culture usually act. The experience of interaction with such a person and discussion of the experience with the trainer makes very clear that one’s behavior and feelings are shaped by culture. When people know how culture influences their behavior, they are able to be more sensitive to culture as a variable affecting social behavior and  interaction.

UNIQUE ISSUES OF CONFLICT IN R&D CAMPANYS

For a research company, there are some ethical issues that either create special cases of conflict or provide a rather different framework for resolving conflicts. The following discussion of conflict within individuals, interpersonal conflict, and intergroup conflict focuses specifically on R&D Company.

Conflict within Individuals. The need to find an intellectually challenging research environment, the need for research facilities, and, indeed, the simple need for employment forces many scientists to work in an organized environment. In addition, the needs of the company and of society as they relate to a research project can be at variance with the moral beliefs or convictions of individual scientists. Some recent cases have involved scientists who are opposed to R&D related to the defense industry. However, when one looks at investment by defense company in R&D worldwide, it should come as no surprise that the majority of scientists are involved in activities related to the defense industry. When some prominent scientists at major research universities in the United States questioned programs such as the Strategic Defense Initiative, the so-called “Star Wars,” they were perhaps responding to a conflict between their desire to make a contribution to science and their disapproval of the expenditure of resources for research programs that, from their perspective, served no meaningful human needs. In an open democratic society such differences should be expected.

Interpersonal Conflict. One scientist may be competing with another scientist within a research group for promotion, status (for example, principal investigator versus associate investigator), or other rewards (attending conferences, office space, etc.). Since many of these things are perceived by the individual as a zerosum game, the ethos of a scientific community, which emphasizes cooperation, universalism, and sharing of ideas as its underpinning, is often lacking. This, in turn, creates conflicts within the company and also adversely affects the productivity of the company.

Intergroup Conflicts. It is not unusual for one group in a research company to compete with another for projects or resources. This inevitably creates conflicts. Again, the total resources and other amenities (such as laboratory space) that are available are finite. If one group gets a certain portion of these resources, then the other group may feel that they did not get their fair share. This inevitably leads to some conflicts and also may lead to a lack of cooperation between the groups. Some company have competing divisions undertake the same research project. This type of competition can, for some situations, speed up the innovation process by making participants work very hard and perhaps work very cooperatively within the division. Competition among different research groups in an R&D company is inevitable and so is some of the resultant conflict. Some of this competition and conflict may in fact be beneficial. It may provide motivation to excel and thus positively affect performance. Benefits may exceed any adverse effect that may result from conflict and a lower level of cooperation among different groups.

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