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Equine Winter 2006 (Vol 1, No 4)

Managing Your Practice and Life: "Managing Conflict"

by Grant S. Frazer, BVSc, MS, MBA, DACT

    In writing this article, I am conscious of the fact that some readers are part of large practice teams, while others may be solo practitioners with a small staff. However, the concepts being presented (i.e., conflict between partners, between boss and associate, between veterinarian and staff, between staff members) are applicable to both types of practices as well as to interactions on professional or community boards.

    Conflict occurs when individuals or groups are not obtaining what they need or want and thus may be actively working to achieve their goal—irrespective of the needs of others. The word conflict conjures up images of irrational behavior. However, not all conflict is bad; the issue is whether the conflict results in functional or dysfunctional behavior.

    Dysfunctional Conflict

    Conflict is a natural and almost inevitable outcome of interpersonal relationships. It occurs as a result of differences in attitudes, beliefs, values, or needs. In the extreme, conflict is almost always dysfunctional. The friction and hostility that result are disruptive because infighting among group members reduces cohesiveness, trust, and mutual understanding, and the chaos that ensues inevitably hinders efficient completion of tasks within the workplace.

    Chronic and unresolved workplace conflict can increase absenteeism and employee turnover. Uncontrolled opposition breeds discontent, and this acts to dissolve common ties. The effects of dysfunctional conflict are felt in terms of low morale and suboptimal teamwork, decreased productivity, and ultimately destruction of the group. Unfortunately, this can happen in partnerships when basic and principled differences become irreconcilable and there is a loss of organizational purpose and cohesion.

    Functional Conflict

    Although conflict has traditionally been viewed as a weakness, low-level conflict (manifested as subtle and controlled opposition) can actually be an indication of a strong, vibrant group. It enhances member flexibility and encourages expression of more effective and feasible ideas. Research scientists tend to be at their best when faced with a reasonable level of intellectual conflict. Some would argue that a totally harmonious and cooperative group is likely to become too comfortable with the status quo and that stagnation results from a lack of new ideas and innovation. A willingness to embrace criticism can improve the quality of decisions by clarifying important problems and issues.

    An optimal level of conflict can sow the seeds for change without being disruptive. This can result in an accommodating climate in which alternate opinions are welcomed and concerns are voiced. This can facilitate release of unhealthy emotions and anxiety and reduce stress levels within the workplace. Creation of a challenging and questioning environment ensures a vitality that makes work interesting by encouraging curiosity among group members. This type of environment encourages self evaluation and improvement. If people become complacent and apathetic, they tend to be less responsive to the need for change. Not all employee turnover is bad if it rids the organization of misfits and poor performers.

    "Group Think"

    Absolute conformity among a leadership team leads to poor decisions based on preconceived no­tions. In contrast, constructive conflict and critical thinking can facilitate better decisions by permitting all points of view to be aired. This is especially important for ideas that are unusual or held by a minority of members in a group. Failure to encourage expression of diverse opinions can lead to the classic errors of "group think." In this scenario, the group is merely a rubber stamp for decisions based on weak assumptions and inadequate consideration of viable alternatives.

    "Group think" is more likely when individuals are hand-picked because they are "yes men" who never question the dictates from and actions of the leadership. This is the classic recipe for the "we've always done it this way" mentality, which inevitably leads to an environment in which people tend to look back at past successes rather than encourage innovative ideas.

    Designating someone to be a "devil's advocate" is beneficial because this appointed critic will purposely argue against the majority positions being voiced by the group. When the status quo is challenged in this way, the group is forced to take a second look at its original goals and objectives. It is preferable to intentionally form work groups composed of members with different views and interests. These groups are more likely to produce optimal solutions to problems than when there is fairly close agreement. The focus needs to be on the future, with an emphasis on new ways of thinking to meet the challenges and opportunities to come.

    Causes of Conflict

    The social dynamic of interaction in the workplace is the end result of the reality of life: People bring all the problems and stresses of their 24/7 existence with them when they come to work. This obviously can impact on how people internalize (through thoughts and emotions) the concerns and anxieties created by their job and then how they respond to their feelings. Erroneously attributing intent to someone's words or actions can unnecessarily escalate the level of conflict. When negative emotions (anxiety, tension, frustration, or hostility) take over, an individual's perception versus the reality can become the "issue." Such emotions can make people less rational, with a tendency to oversimplify issues and become conspiracy theorists.

    When there is a conscious effort to impede a co­worker's progress, the conflict becomes obvious to all concerned. Overt conflict may be limited to the subtle, indirect, and highly controlled forms of tension or interference that tend to lead to petty disagreements or misunderstandings. More intense conflict can result in more aggressive questioning or challenging of others through hostile verbal attacks (e.g., name calling). In this environment, there tend to be perpetual disagreements, regardless of the issue. Direct, aggressive, and uncontrollable struggles may involve threats and ultimatums. When emotions are running high and blame is being attributed, violence may result. The key for an astute manager is to recognize the early indicators of conflict and then to "nip things in the bud" to prevent escalation.

    Good leaders know that conflict can be contained, managed, and worked through. The conflict itself isn't the problem—it is when the conflict is poorly managed that negative outcomes, such as reduced productivity, lowered morale, conflict escalation, and inappropriate behavior, can occur. The secret is to resolve conflicts before they become destructive. This can be achieved by creating an environment in which conflicting interests and anxieties are examined rather than avoided. People should be encouraged to raise problems so that they can be addressed in an open and honest manner. In this nonconfrontational context, seemingly intractable problems may be resolved.

    To contain conflict, managers must be able to recognize the antecedent conditions (those with potential for opposition or incompatibility) that permit conflicts to arise in the first place. These include problems with communication, structure, and personal variables.

    Communication

    Managers should continually stress the importance of following policies and procedures. Problems with lines of communication can lead to misunderstandings. While this may relate to insufficient exchange of information, in some cases, the problem is actually due to information overload. It may be a matter of perception: "Did you understand what I said, or did you understand what you thought I said?!" Sometimes it is nothing more than a matter of semantics, with confusion about the intended meaning, especially when a lot of jargon is being used. Encouraging two-way communication is very important to ensure that there are no unintended consequences from a poor choice of words. Employees can become frustrated when there are continual surprises because managers fail to share the rationale for their decisions. There should be no hidden agendas. People need to understand reasons for decisions, and it always helps if they are part of the decision-making process. A filtering process inevitably occurs as reports, messages, and stories are passed around the workplace, and this can set up a very destructive process in which the employees come to trust the rumor mill more than the management. Rampant rumors are a recipe for trouble.

    A successful leader cannot afford to have impaired communication skills in the face of adversity. An individual's ego can affect his or her management style. There should be no negative body language, tirades, or sarcasm. The leader's response to bad news should be calm, with even-tempered questions used to extract the full story. If it becomes known that the boss does not "shoot the messenger," employees will be more likely to feel comfortable in bringing matters to a supervisor's attention in a timely manner.

    Structure

    Employees' dissatisfaction with a particular man­agement style can create workplace conflict. While inconsis­tent or missing leadership is not good, micro­management with overly tight supervision can definitely cause problems. Any incentive system in which one person's gain is at another's expense (zero-sum reward system) is likely to foster resentment and create conflict among employees. Working with inadequate resources can sap morale and raise stress levels. Increasing the size of a work group by adding employees and having them engage in more specialized activities can also increase the risk for conflict. Larger teams can be more difficult to manage, and there is more potential for difficult personalities to impede the work process. If people have to work together but are pursuing different goals, conflicts often result. The potential for conflict is higher when group members are younger and when turnover is high. People tend to be more focused on their work in a trusting environment in which expectations are well understood by all concerned. Sources of conflict can be reduced by clearly communicating tasks and assigned roles so there is no confusion about who does what, when, and how.

    Supervisors need to understand what their subordinates' jobs entail and may have to redesign job descriptions to alter the interaction patterns of valuable employees who just cannot get along. Sometimes this entails moving someone to a new area. Conflict at the management level may necessitate changing the formal organizational structure.

    Personal Variables

    Some personality types precipitate conflict—the classic "personality clash" due to poor chemistry. Individuals who are seeking power may be unwilling to "agree to disagree." Both dominant, highly assertive individuals as well as those with poor self-esteem can cause problems in the workplace. However, most conflicts are not so much a matter of personal animosity as they are a result of differences in the ways people approach their assigned tasks. For example, an individual's unrealistic perception of his or her contributions and value to the enterprise can arouse negative feelings about the fairness of a remuneration package. This can create envy and rivalry.

    Good managers should be unbiased, with no suggestion of favoritism in the allocation of fiscal and other rewards. People vary in the value they attribute to traits such as hard work and honesty, and differences in personal value systems can be an important source of conflict. A classic example is the workplace norm requiring long hours at the office, with little time for family, despite the business's lip service that families are important.

    Managing Conflict

    There is no best way to deal with conflict. In some instances, the best approach is to seek behavioral change through the use of human relations training. Basic training about interpersonal communications can help minimize conflict. When people learn more about their personality traits (e.g., Myers Briggs) and how they are perceived by others, attitudes and behaviors that can cause conflict may be modified.

    The approach to be used depends on the personalities involved and the situation at the time. Your first step should be to analyze the conflict by asking yourself—and others—a series of questions to gather information:

    • What is the basis of the conflict (main and secondary issues)?
    • What related issues have happened in the past, and how did they arise?
    • Can negative issues be reframed positively?
    • Which employees are involved, and what are their perceptions of the conflict?
    • What are the interests, values, and goals of the individuals involved?
    • What is negotiable?

    Once you have achieved a general understanding of the conflict, you will need to select the most appropriate strategy to deal with the issues. This will depend somewhat on your goals and the timeline available to reach a decision. It is important to recognize how people may react in order to plan an appropriate response to their behavior.

    In conflict situations, two basic traits are expressed in varying degrees: The cooperative mode will attempt to address the other side's concerns, whereas the assertive mode will focus on satisfying personal concerns. Each of us has an underlying tendency to manage conflict in a certain way, and most people address issues with a mix of cooperation and assertiveness. Some want to win at all costs; some strive to find an optimum solution; some are evasive and want to run away; some want to be obliging; and others want to "meet you halfway" or "split the difference." In some cases, it may help to frame possible solutions in terms of individual interests, but it is useful to have the necessary facts and figures to counter any arguments based on erroneous perceptions.

    The conflict management literature describes five basic approaches to conflict resolution—competition, collaboration, avoidance, accommodation, or compromise. The appropriate approach depends on the personalities involved and the situation at hand.

    Competition

    In this highly assertive and uncooperative approach, one party seeks to achieve certain goals or to further personal interests with little or no consideration for the interests of others. These are win-lose struggles. The deciding factor is often input from the acknowledged authority of a mutual superior. Behind the scenes, it can be expected that each of the conflicting parties will use his or her own power base to ensure that a decision is made in his or her favor.

    If one of the conflicting parties is known to take advantage of noncompetitive behavior (e.g., accommodation), a more authoritarian management style may be necessary to resolve the matter. This highly assertive approach is appropriate when quick, decisive action is vital (e.g., emergency situations) or when important principles are at stake and the leadership has very strong convictions about its position (e.g., on issues that could be vital to the organization's welfare). Obviously, an assertive approach is necessary when unpopular decisions need to be implemented (e.g., cost cutting, enforcing rules, discipline). After issuing an edict, the management must communicate its wishes to the individuals involved. This approach can cause the conflict to escalate, and "losers" may try to retaliate.

    Collaboration

    This strategy is useful when both parties wish to ensure that everyone's concerns are addressed. Because the level of cooperation is high, it is possible to identify a mutually beneficial outcome. Thus, collaboration is a win-win approach to resolving conflicts, with a focus on working together. When openness, trust, and the ability "to speak one's mind" are valued, different ideas and opinions can be discussed so that the root causes of the conflict become obvious. This approach lets people work through any negative feelings that have begun to have a detrimental effect on the relationship.

    Collaboration is essential when both sets of concerns are too important to be compromised. It is a useful way to integrate the insights from people with different perspectives, ensuring mutual ownership of the outcome. Collaboration gains commitment by helping individuals understand and accept the logic of a differing point of view. If everyone's concerns are incorporated into a consensus outcome, there is less likelihood of residual bad feelings. People tend to support what they helped to create. While collaboration is generally the best approach to managing conflict, it does take time and energy, and managers must ensure that neither party takes advantage of the other's trust and openness.

    Avoidance

    While most people do not enjoy conflict, some will actually withdraw from it once they recognize that it exists, or they may suppress it and pretend that it is not there. Others may simply be indifferent to the issue at hand. Withdrawal can come from a desire to avoid any open display of disagreement, but this unassertive behavior can also make the individual uncooperative. Some address the conflict by acknowledging the need for physical separation but tend to stake out their turf. This can create difficulties if the employees are forced to interact because of the interdependence of their duties, and suppression of the conflict is the likely result.

    From a manager's perspective, avoidance is not a bad approach when the issue is trivial and more important matters must be addressed. If the disruption that could result from intervention is thought to outweigh the benefits of resolution, the manager may choose to avoid becoming involved. Sometimes it is a useful strategy to buy time while people calm down and are better able to put things in perspective. Buying time may also be necessary when the need to gather more information supersedes the need for an immediate decision. The danger is that important decisions may be made by default and the original conflict may worsen over time.

    Accommodation

    Some people are so eager to appease that they place their opponent's interests above their own in order to maintain a harmonious and stable relationship. This self-sacrificing and highly cooperative approach (lose-win) may earn social credits. In certain instances, a "goodwill gesture" on the part of management may be appropriate to permit employees to develop by learning from their mistakes.

    If a leader realizes that she or he is wrong, appearing to be accommodating may allow a better position to be heard and may also demonstrate that the manager is a reasonable person. Concerns with this conciliatory approach are that the leadership's ideas do not get attention and the manager may lose credibility and future influence. A manager cannot afford to compromise him- or herself, so this approach should be used very sparingly and infrequently because it can make the conflict worse over time.

    Compromise

    Compromise is a win some-lose some tactic in that each party has to give up something of value. In this mutual "give-and-take" approach, there is no clear winner or loser. It is a useful methodology when the goals are important but not worth the effort and potential disruption that may be associated with more assertive approaches. It may facilitate expedient solutions when time pressures exist. Compromise also permits people to get past a difficult issue. Temporary settlements may be reached so that everyone can move on while complex issues are explored further.

    The danger with this approach is that partners can lose sight of important values and long-term objectives. If compromise serves to distract the partners from the merits of an issue, it can create a cynical climate. On the other hand, a compromise solution can avoid destructive power struggles. This may save a partnership if the parties have an equal stake in the business but are committed to mutually exclusive goals.

    Conflict Resolution (Negotiation)

    When problem solving through face-to-face meetings with the conflicting parties, it is important to set basic rules, such as allowing only one person to speak at a time, and to ensure that the discussion sticks to the issue at hand. Aim to identify the key issues and then resolve them through open discussion.

    It is best to begin the dialogue on a positive note and use "I" statements rather than "you" statements, which may seem accusatory. Always strive to focus the discussion on the problem, not the personalities (i.e., separate the people from the problem). Each participant must recognize that the disagreement is with the other person's ideas or position and not with him or her personally. A sincere apology (when indicated) can open the door to constructive discussion. Personalizing differences is unhelpful, and the process is less likely to be successful if the conflicting parties are allowed to attribute blame or begin attacking the other person. The tension in the air may be reduced by emphasizing interests that are shared by the conflicting parties (i.e., reasons, needs, concerns, and motivations underlying positions). Aim to play down differences, and look for the common ground. Once initiated, concessions tend to be reciprocated.

    We all have our own unique needs, emotions, and perceptions. Therefore, do not be surprised to learn that the supposed conflict is really about something else that may not even be related to the original issue. It is only after this underlying issue is addressed that a lasting resolution can be found.

    From the outset, strive to create an open and trusting climate by adhering to the principle of fairness. If possible, move the discussion to a private area. Be an active listener, and nod your head to assure the other party that he or she is being heard. Give the other person time to vent, and do not interrupt or judge what he or she is saying. Maintain eye contact and remain calm. Verify that you have heard them by paraphrasing the key elements. Follow up with open-ended questions to better understand the other person's position. Avoid "why" questions because these can make people feel defensive. An alternative is, "Please help me understand..." Focus the argument directly, and do not let people go off on tangents. Do not be defensive, and try to avoid words and phrases that can irritate the other person. Informing someone that "this is a generous offer" or "a reasonable arrangement" may be counterproductive because he or she may have a totally different perspective.

    Try to emphasize the win-win solution. Acknowledge where you agree and where you disagree. Ask, "What can we do to resolve this problem?" Frame options in terms of the other person's interests, not on a position or decision that he or she has already made. Even when people have opposing positions, they generally have a few shared interests (e.g., sense of belonging, recognition) that are relevant to the issue at hand. Interests are what cause people to reach a decision (their position). If the discussion focuses on a position or decision that has already been made, then a power struggle could ensue because no one wants to be wrong. It helps if each party tries to put themselves into the other's shoes so that they can better understand the other's point of view. Establishing the all-important common ground helps build bridges and create a shared goal. It helps if this goal cannot be achieved without the cooperation of each of the conflicting parties because they both have a vested interest in a successful outcome. If you are not making progress and can feel yourself becoming frustrated, it may be best to suggest a cooling-off period by scheduling a follow-up meeting at a later time.

    Bibliography

    Robbins SP, Millett B, Cacioppe R, Waters-Marsh T: Conflict and negotiation, in Organizational Behavior, ed 3. French's Forest, Australia, Prentice-Hall, 2001, pp 487-518.

    Managing conflict: A workshop for division and development. Chairs and Deans. Chicago, American Council on Education, July 2006.

    NEXT: News Bits (Winter 2006)

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