Some Reflections on Conflicts

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, as in 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 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.

snow may be a nuisance to some, but it’s a lifeline in the southwest

I think the recent 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 blog, 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 in potential conflicts.  Again, I’ll use an example from my favorite local scientific organization.  There is one division (MAT) that does nothing but monitor work done using a certain kind of material; there are about 100 plus staff in MAT, most of them without advanced degrees, and technical background isn’t required.  Only about a dozen PhD’s in this division serve as senior advisors.  In general, the staff fan out throughout the organization units whose work involve this kind of material.  The restrictions imposed by the organization are bizarre.  Most people who work with this material are scientists or technical specialists.  But all monitoring decisions and monitoring work reside with MAT, whose staff, remember, don’t necessarily possess technical backgrounds.  We already have a very clear group boundary in this illustration.

tens of miles of straight road can be lulling…yet, the nickname “gun barrel” does not induce sleepiness!

The working philosophy of MAT is that all aspects of work using these materials are known.  So, they write numbingly detailed rules to guide all the work in this area.  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?

So , whenever a project using some of this material runs into some glitch, the MAT claims you need to stop everything until they figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. But some work is bound by a milestone schedule where a few hours work stoppage affects subsequent steps and causes setbacks in schedules by weeks.  And when milestones are not met, stakeholders get testy and the whole organization suffers in the long run. You would think that an organization that is obsessed with eliminating the consequences of glitches would devote more attention to not annoying its stakeholders.  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 in materials work 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.  As I said, bizarre!  Adding more to this bizarre nature of operation is that the scientists who actually possess the expertise 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 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.

candlelight can add to atmosphere but can also wreak havoc

Now about another potential conflict, using the same organization.

A scientist-manager had to address one program unit in his division.  This unit seemed stuck and needed more funding, and it could only be found outside the usual sources. Ted, not a well-liked fellow in the unit, seemed to this manager to be the strongest person to lead a drive for revitalization.  What could this manager do?  He felt he should encourage Ted for the greater good of the unit’s scientific endeavors.  Was this manager arrogant to think himself more insightful than the rest of the unit?  Should he not give priority to others’ opinions, for the sake of the unit?  This became conflict within a person, as well potential conflict between manager and his people.  Fast-forward a few years: While still an experiment in progress, Ted, secretly encouraged by the manager, is doing exactly what the manager hoped he’d do, bringing in money and building the stature of the program.  A friend once said, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs!”  I’ll let you decide who’s making omelet here.  As for others’ opinion of Ted?  They have come to respect what he had done.

In this process-nature of potential conflict lie a number of conundrums.  Could the manager have been open about his intention?  Could he in all good conscience have been more manipulative, very much against his nature and very being? By keeping to his own counsel, the manager ran the risk of operating “secretly,” a principle against which I had written earlier (under entry title, “The Hogwarts School of Management:  Powers!”).  However, if it were a form of secrecy, it wasn’t to advance the manager’s own power; it was more like my description of Dumbledore of the Hogwarts School in Harry Potter series:  A good teacher needs to be manipulative at times.  One could argue that in this case, there was little disagreement or potential conflict in the unit’s overall mission, and so the manager’s action was in concert with the overall mission.  Part of my point here is that while in general, I do believe and advocate openness and honesty, there are times when unbounded honesty and openness would actually result in conflicts.  Many a manger would make decisions without wrestling with their internal conflicting feelings; they are “decisive!”  The ones who are more conscientious sometimes are viewed as weaker and wishy-washy.

one pound of butter in this 3-layer dessert

to eat, or not to eat…definitely an internal conflict

Let me just conclude with this thought:  Whenever conflict looms, a one-dimensional analysis would only lead to more conflicts.  May you have a relatively conflict-free week.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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