From Chaos to Order: Exploring New Frontiers in Conflict Management

By Shelton, Charlotte D.; Darling, John R. | Organization Development Journal, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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From Chaos to Order: Exploring New Frontiers in Conflict Management

Shelton, Charlotte D., Darling, John R., Organization Development Journal


This article examines conflict through the lens of the new sciences, specifically the theories of chaos and quantum mechanics. These scientific theories provide a new conceptual metaphor that can enable managers to shift their perspective of conflict, learning to view it as a necessary condition for both individual and organizational evolution. The authors present a new quantum skill set that managers and OD practitioners can use to create quantum organizations-organizations that embrace conflict and use it for continuous transformation.


One of the most notable characteristics of twenty-first century organizations is continuous change. Unstable economic conditions, rapidly changing technologies, global competition, workforce diversity, and new organizational structures are only a few of the factors contributing to an age of discontinuity. Furthermore, exponential change-whether in society, the family, or the firm-generally creates significant chaos. Where there is chaos, there is often stress, and stress frequently becomes the progenitor of conflict. Hence, in this era of radical change and considerable chaos, high levels of anxiety and interpersonal conflict permeate the workplace.

Conflict, of course, has always existed-even in simpler times. Where two or more people are gathered together, there is a potential for conflict. As human beings interact within organizations, differing goals, values, styles, and situations create tension (Bolman & Deal, 1997). In addition to these interpersonal and behavioral factors, traditional organizational structures promote conflict. Functional silos and a plethora of different skill sets and technical specialties lead to communication challenges that often result in conflict. These factors, along with many others, make conflict an organizational reality.

This paper purports that interpersonal conflict is not only unavoidable, it is necessary for individual and organizational evolution. Each conflict situation offers organizations, and the individuals they comprise, opportunities for transformation. Conflict challenges the status quo, providing a breeding ground for innovation. Managers who try to eliminate conflict are operating under an outdated paradigm. If organizations are to thrive in the twenty-first century, a new way of thinking about conflict is required. The mental models-assumptions and beliefs-that permeate twenty-first century organizations are primarily conflict adverse. As these mental models shift, new and more conflict-appreciative behaviors and feelings will spontaneously emerge (Mohr et al., 2000; Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000). People experience reality according to their beliefs (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Zukav, 1979).

Paradigm Shifts

The traditional view of conflict is negative. It has typically been seen as dysfunctional, destructive, irrational, and time-consuming-something to be eliminated or at least suppressed. From this perspective, conflict occurs as a result of malfunctioning individuals or organizations. Therefore, in order to resolve conflict, problems must be identified, causes must be analyzed, and those people or situations contributing to the conflict must be "fixed" (Kilmann & Thomas, 1978). This mechanistic view approaches conflict resolution as a logical, linear process. Robbins comments: "Although research studies now provide strong evidence to dispute that this approach to conflict reduction results in high group performance, many still evaluate conflict situations utilizing this outmoded standard" (2001, p. 384).

In the 1950s the emerging human relations view of conflict began to replace the earlier traditional view. The human relations position suggests that conflict is a natural phenomenon in groups and organizations. Therefore, since it is inevitable, it must be accepted and managed. During this era, the management literature introduced the term conflict management (Nurmi & Darling, 1997); and, by the 1970s, the field of organization development, with its tool-kit of team-building interventions, began to go mainstream, thus providing organizations with new resources for dealing with conflict.

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From Chaos to Order: Exploring New Frontiers in Conflict Management


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