Conflict Resolution in the Workplace: Creating a Win-Win Problem Solving Process
A review of workplace conflicts show that many arise due to the perception of mutually exclusive goals. Both parties involved perceive that their objectives are mutually exclusive, while there is a clear superordinate goal that they both share – the survival of the company. There are likely other superordinate goals that any two employees or departments share; however, their deepest level pursuit is to ensure that the company they work for does well and can maintain completion of objectives and goals.
Micro Analysis Leads to Problem Identification in the Macro
Hureco Maverick was contracted to work with executives of one of the largest call center companies in the United States to uncover systemic problems in its organizational effectiveness via job analysis, workflow methods, etc. A great many things were uncovered; however, this case study will focus on a micro situation that best exemplifies the macro – conflict resolution and problem solving methodologies and techniques that were underdeveloped in the leadership ranks at every level, company-wide.
One of the conflicts we observed that slowed productivity occurred between Dafoe and Rios, both managers in the accounting and credit departments, respectively; however, their departments were mutually dependent for their functionality and workflow. These two departments shared the common organizational goal of production and profitability, and each had the objective of optimally utilizing their resources so as to achieve timely function of their respective departments. However, their interdependence was a central issue.
At core, the conflict concerned whose authority held primacy and the locus of responsibility for the organization’s profitability. A fundamental element in conflict is often the distribution of limited resources. Koenig, key performer with the ability to work in both departments, was such a resource; thus, this was the site of the conflict’s manifestation. Both departments saw her as an indispensable resource.
Application of Dewey’s Sequence – Problem Definition and Analysis
The first step in applying Dewey’s Rational Problem-Solving Process is to define the problem. The problem statement from a strength-based approach is best described as: how best to use resources to achieve the outcomes of both departments. Placing the attention on “what is wrong” is a deficit-based approach that focuses on the problem and the problem solving process from a “glass half empty” perspective. Framing the problem statement and all problem solving strategies in “glass half full” terminology is useful, because it aids the parties in remaining open to reviewing and adjusting perceptions and attitudes. This is necessary for implementation of the win-win strategy.
Dewey’s second step in the Rational Problem-Solving Process is to analyze the problem. Hureco Maverick’s consultants’ analysis uncovered that in addition to their perception of mutually exclusive goals, Dafoe and Rios both conceptualized the problem’s resolution in a zero sum context; i.e., in win-lose terms. The axiom of win-lose is one in which the parties are in a competition for the resources; taken in this view, for one to win, i.e., keeping the resource –Koenig – working on their project exclusively, the other would have to give up the resource completely. Dafoe and Rios would have been wiser to redefine their problem, then analyze it from a win-win perspective.
Five Common Conflict Resolution Strategies and Their Degrees of Utility
There are five strategies that Dafoe and Rios could have used to resolve their conflict, each with varying degrees of utility: (1) avoiding, (2) accommodating, (3) forcing, (4) compromising and (5) problem-solving. Each strategy is part of a continuum with the goal of moving as closely as possible to problem-solving as the manager increases in their managerial communication skills for managing conflict.
Avoiding may be physically or psychologically accomplished by ignoring or withdrawing from the conflict; it has very minimal utility, if any. Dafoe had used this approach by failing to approach Rios when the need to use Koenig as a shared resource first arose. She avoided conflict by not addressing this need with him.
Accommodating is when leaders try to deal with the conflict by making everyone happy and has more utility than avoiding; it often takes the form of relentless consensus-seeking. Short-term benefits can be derived by reducing perceived conflict; there may even be long-range benefits as well. However, this should not be construed to mean that the conflict is over. The lack of hostile or negative feelings does not mean the root cause of the conflict is resolved.
Forcing is used by the leader who attempts to get the tasks done at all costs without concern for the maintenance of human relations, as evidenced when Dafoe told Rios that her department (accounting) needed Koenig more than his department (credit) did. It was also evidenced by Rios’ statement that without his department’s duties being completed in a timely manner, there would be no need for an accounting department because the company would be out of business. Forcing a solution by using power and authority creates future conflicts because those who are being forced experience emotional wounds; this is a win-lose (deficit-based) model. This model positions the other party as opposition and places them into the losers’ column. Also, force in this situation will not work because Dafoe and Rios are peers. Force may resolve immediate conflict, but the long-term effects are typically very unfavorable.
Compromising provides some gains for both parties and is a bilateral victory; however, there are some downfalls to this approach. The perception by both parties that they both have achieved a win is diminished by a concomitant feeling of their having sustained loss. This negative undergirding of feeling that they have “lost” can create a sense of uneasiness and distrust between the parties, inducing them to weigh who lost or gained the most. For this reason, among others, a competitive spirit may rear its head as a result of a compromise. Additionally, one party in the conflict may possess more information than another; the power of this information can result in closed communication between them. Such a situation can devolve into an unequitable compromise. Lastly, compromise is not the optimal solution because it can also be affected by the “least-interested party principle,” which states that the person who has the least investment in the outcomes of the resolution is in the more powerful position, as they are not deeply invested in things working out well to begin with.
Application of Dewey’s Sequence – Problem Solving Process
In the description of these conflict resolution strategies it is easy to see the flawed characteristics of each. Hence, we arrive at the win-win strategy of problem-solving – a process wherein the concerned parties focus on defeating the problem and avoid needless and unproductive polemics. This can be done with the application of the Rational Problem-Solving Process, in which we have explored the first two steps (1) defining the problem and (2) analyzing the problem. The remaining steps are to (3) brainstorm the possible solutions, (4) determine the criteria that must be met to eliminate the problem, (5) select the best solution and (6) implement the solution.
In brainstorming the possible solutions Dafoe and Rios could have concluded that they had other resources beside Koenig, found a way to share two of their departments’ employees to help in both departments for a set number of hours per week, moved an employee from a less busy department, or decided to approach senior management to request the hiring of additional personnel for both departments since business had exponentially increased. The brainstorming process allows for different ideas to surface that are resolutions to the problem statement as opposed to resolution of who can use Koenig as a resource or who can win because their department and work is more important than the other’s.
The next step is to determine the criteria that must be meet to eliminate the problem. This requires that Dafoe and Rios create a list of criteria that is based in part on their brainstorming for possible solutions. Criteria that are often used provide for solutions that are cost-effective, legal, timely, practical and consistent with the organization’s mission and/or values. Dafoe and Rios could also have added other relevant idiosyncratic criteria to this commonly used list.
The following step becomes easy as selecting the best solution is no longer a matter of personal choice, but rather is selected by means of eliminating the solutions that do not fit the set criteria, leaving one best qualified solution. Lastly, Dafoe and Rios would then implement the solution.
The Utility of Dewey’s Sequence
Dewey’s Rational Problem-Solving Process has great facility because it genuinely solves the problem as opposed to using common and ineffective strategies that leave the problem area addressed but unsolved. It has the potential to have great business utility for the leader willing to practice the steps in reaching a win-win resolution – the implemented solution can be monitored to see how well it is working, detecting weaknesses that can be modified and adjusted to ensure that the solution continues to work optimally.
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