Conflict Handling Preferences: A Public-Private Comparison

Article excerpt

For more than fifty years it has been argued that government differs substantially from other forms of social action because of its broad impact, public accountability requirements, and political character. (1) Recent empirical studies have confirmed that public organizations do have higher degrees of formalization and red tape, (2) a greater concentration of authority at the top, (3) and more rigid personnel systems due to legal and political pressures. (4) The abilities to deal with multiplicity, vagueness, and conflict are typical of the goals and performance criteria for managers in government, and this is unlike business, where executives are judged primarily on criteria related to profit maximization. (5)

This public-private distinction can also be seen in terms of how much an organization adheres to public values. (6) According to this perspective, highly public organizations are characterized by having complex tasks, a professional orientation, many external stakeholders, conflicting environmental demands, and low managerial autonomy. These types of organizations are oriented toward serving the general public and subscribe to a public service ethos (7) Support for this perspective has come from recent work by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Council of Europe that identified core values such as fairness and impartiality as being common to central governments across much of the world (Box 1999, 20). (8)

In recent decades, however, the perception that boundaries between the public and private sectors are blurring has been reinforced by the widespread adoption of new public management policies and practices. This has resulted in the privatization of public services, more outsourcing and contracted-out employment, and the application of private sector managerial approaches to the delivery of government services. Increasingly, the public sector has been described using the metaphors of the market and calls for operating "government like a business." (9) If such private sector models can be applied directly to public organizations, then surely the public-private distinction is "essentially obsolete." (10) Yet concerns continue to be raised about the needs for additional empirical research comparing public and private organizations and their employees. (11)

Human Resources in Public Service Organizations

All organizations require the intellectual capital of knowledge, skills, and attitudes to achieve their objectives, but public sector organizations use more of these intangible resources than most private firms. (12) In profit-seeking businesses economic-oriented employees are more likely to dominate, whereas public employees tend to be attracted to jobs that offer plenty of opportunity for personal fulfillment. (13) As a result, public employees place a lower value on monetary incentives (14) and do not necessarily expect a direct link between high performance and rewards. (15) Because professionals play a significant role in public sector organizations, a commitment to shared goals frequently serves as an important source of employee motivation. (16)

Unequal relationships can readily form between citizens and public officials. The latter have substantial advantages due to their professional expertise, legal authority, control over resources, and access to important information. As a check on officials abusing their power, the effective management of public organizations ensures due process principles are implemented in conjunction with high levels of accountability and transparency. Therefore, public managers typically have much less managerial discretion in human resources matters than do their private sector counterparts. Government organizations are also expected to model the application of high ethical and performance standards. When errors, deficiencies, and moral lapses do occur, those problems readily draw media attention and become the focus of community debate. Indeed, such reports often overshadow those about similar shortcomings in profit-oriented organizations. (17)

Approaches to Handling Interpersonal Conflict

Conflict situations must be faced by both public sector and private sector employees. Interpersonal conflicts arise when there is a disagreement between two or more organizational members working in the same or different hierarchical levels or units. (18) In this study Rahim's model of interpersonal conflict handling styles (19) was used to compare the preferences of accountants employed in public and private sector organizations in Hong Kong when conflict involved an organizational superior.

The Rahim model is based on five conflict handling approaches, each of which identifies a predisposition about how interpersonal conflict can be managed. The strategies are derived from the positioning of an individual's preferences along the two general dimensions of concern for self and concern for others. The characteristics of each strategy are as follows:

* Integrating-A person with a high concern for self and a high concern for others prefers collaboration.

* Obliging-Someone who has a low concern for self but a high concern for others prefers accommodation.

* Dominating-Individuals with high concern for self and low concern for others prefer competition.

* Avoiding-A person with a low concern for self and a low concern for others prefers withdrawal.

* Compromising-Having an intermediate concern for self and also for others would be reflected in a preference for sharing.


The integrating style represents a rational problem-solving approach. It involves time-consuming problem identification, the generation and weighing of alternatives, and the selection of an appropriate solution. Deemphasizing differences and focusing on shared points of agreement is characteristic of an individual with an obliging style. Cooperation is encouraged, though it may provide only short-term solutions because underlying problems are left unresolved. A person with a dominating style often relies on formal authority to force compliance and is particularly effective when decisions must be finalized and implemented quickly. Relying too much on this conflict-handing approach can, however, lead to resentment and tends to undermine participative processes.

Avoidance is operationalized either through passive withdrawal--leaving a problem unresolved--or by actively suppressing a conflict issue. Although underlying issues are not addressed, using avoidance in developing or ambiguous situations can buy the time needed to understand what actions will likely be most effective. Finally, the compromising approach to handling conflict is to use a democratic strategy to defuse value differences and power inequalities by using a give-and-take process. It is generally good for morale, but, if it is overused, it can result in a failure to meet organizational goals.

Individuals are assumed to adopt the conflict management approach that is most compatible with their personal values and in line with the demands and constraints of their organizational environment. If private and public sector organizations are substantially the same, then both public sector and private sector employees ought to adopt the same conflict handling strategies.

Rahim's model has been used extensively in conflict management studies, (20) though previous research on conflict management in Hong Kong (21) used the Thomas-Kilmann approach. This latter approach is somewhat different, but it still based on five conflict handling modes. (22)

The specific research instrument used in this study was developed from the Rahim Organizational Conflict Inventory, which is more commonly called the ROCI-II. When the first pilot test revealed problems with some of the colloquial English language terms used in the instrument, the questions were translated into Chinese and then back-translated into English. The original questions, with their Chinese and back-translated versions, were then reviewed by a languages expert. Pilot testing of this bilingual questionnaire confirmed its suitability for Hong Kong Chinese respondents.

The study sample consisted of 107 accountants, 60 (56.1%) of whom were employed by the Treasury Department of the Hong Kong government. The other 47 (43.9%) respondents worked in large private accounting firms in Hong Kong. Seventy-one percent of the government employees were less than 40 years of age, 32 (53.3%) were female, and 28 (46.7%) were male. All private sector respondents were less than 40 years of age and there were 33 women (70.2%) and 14 men (29.8%) in their group. Educational levels were somewhat higher among private sector accountants, with 97.9% of them having completed a university-level qualification. This compared with 76.7% of the public sector accountant. Only Hong Kong Chinese respondents were included in the final data analysis to eliminate confounding variables related to national culture.

Analysis of Key Findings

As indicated in Table 1, the public sector employees had more work experience than their private sector counterparts. More than 60% of those in the public sector group had worked six years or longer, compared with less than 7% of the private sector employees.

Public sector employees were also more likely to have worked for both public and private organizations, as outlined in Table 2. This suggests that among these accounting professionals, their career paths led from the private to the public sector.

Across both groups of respondents, there was a high degree of consistency in employment terms. Only one person in each group was a contract employee rather than a permanent, full-time jobholder. Therefore, the selection of conflict handling approaches identified could not have been biased by concerns individuals might have had about contract renewal.

Respondents were asked whether they thought there were major public-private differences in how employees preferred to handle conflict with their superiors. Twenty-one declined to express an opinion. Of the 86 who did, 72 (83.7%) believed significant differences did exist. There was no substantial variation between the two groups of respondents.

This study's null hypothesis predicted no difference between the conflict handling strategies used by either public or private sector employees in conflict situations with their bosses. The data presented in Table 3 indicate that, as predicted, the rank ordering of preferred conflict handling strategies is the same for both groups.

A greater preference for the integrating approach is consistent with other recent research findings. When conflict handling approaches were examined in relation to stages of moral development among business students from Hong Kong and mainland China, the integrating mode was strongly preferred. (23) That is, a reasoned, rational approach to problem solving was favored even when it would be more politically expedient to fulfill the expectations of others.

On the other hand, the avoiding approach secured only a fourth place ranking, contrary to what was expected. In collectivist, high context cultures such as exist in Chinese societies, individuals tend not to express and act on their emotions openly. (24) Therefore, overlooking conflict--and certainly avoiding open debate and direct confrontation--would be in keeping with Hong Kong's cultural norms. Previous cross-cultural research (25) has confirmed that Hong Kong Chinese executives prefer nonconfrontational approaches to conflict resolution over the competitive approaches Western expatriate managers favor.

The relatively weaker preference for avoidance as a conflict handling approach may be a consequence of behavioral influences related to education, professional orientation, and work experiences within these samples. Cultural norms, though generally representative of an entire society, are not always reflected fully in the attitudes and behaviors of subgroups within the general population. The reduced preference for the use of avoidance could also be indicative of shifting behavioral norms in Hong Kong's workplaces due to the impact of macro level developments such as increasing globalization, the rapid expansion of Hong Kong's service economy and political changes. (26)

A hierarchy of inequality underpins all social relationships in high power distance societies such as Hong Kong's. (27) Within work organizations, the power distance variable measures interpersonal power or influence between a superior and his or her subordinate as perceived by the subordinate. (28) This implies the existence of considerable emotional separation and behavioral taboos about employees contradicting their bosses directly, and research confirms that Hong Kong managers do use different conflict management styles from their Western counterparts. (29) Therefore, the conflict handling approaches used by Hong Kong Chinese, sharing a common cultural heritage, should be consistent across different workplaces in Hong Kong. In the present study, this prediction is supported. There is a consistent rank ordering of the conflict handling modes across both samples, though some differences become evident when each group's specific characteristics are examined.

Age did not change the rank ordering, with integrating being the most preferred and dominating being ranked last. However, a multivariate analysis of variance (MANCOVA) identified the integrating approach to be most strongly favored by the mid-range age respondents. These data are presented in Table 4.

Employees in their 30s may have a stronger commitment to career development with their current employers. Taking a problem-solving approach to conflict with superiors is part of long-term relationship building within an organization. Younger employees will have less invested in an organization-specific career, while older employees can draw on their greater work experience and contacts to find another job.

The rank ordering does not change when examined in relation to the respondents' self-selected organizational position, but Table 5 does show that junior grade employees reported being significantly more likely to use avoidance when dealing with their superiors. Deferential behavior towards those with greater power and status is very much in line with the accepted norms of a high power distance society.

To test for public-private difference in conflict handling strategies the MANCOVA statistical model (30) was applied. This test determines the net effect of organizational classification on preferred conflict management styles when age and organizational position are held constant. Table 6 displays the results.

The rank ordering is the same for both groups. Public sector respondents, however, proved to be more strongly inclined to use an integrating style, which requires information exchange, looking for alternatives, and reaching a solution considered acceptable to all. (31) Rational considerations are emphasized in this problem-solving approach intended to find common ground.

Previous research comparing business executives with managers in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) identified a perceived association between high quality and high conflict among the latter group. (32) NGO managers found conflict unpleasant, but they also felt it helped to identify problems and to produce higher-quality decisions. Similarly, in the public sector, a wide variety of different stakeholder interests must be managed, and the conflict process itself may help to promote understanding and effective reconciliation.

According to data from the current study, public and private sector employees have the same rank-ordered preferences for handling conflicts that involve a superior. Hong Kong Chinese professionals, regardless of their organizational base, are similar in their overall approach to conflict resolution. Nevertheless, public sector employees favored the integrating approach to a significantly greater extent. Even in Hong Kong's high power distance culture, conflict handling behaviors do appear to vary by organizational type.

Discussion and Conclusions

The integrating approach to resolving conflict involves openness and information exchange, examining differences, and searching for alternatives. Why public sector employees prefer this approach to handling conflicts with their superiors can be explained by how perceptions of the work environment influence relationships. When the workplace is seen to be fair and just, organizational norms will support employees in their use of an approach that emphasizes mutual acceptability.

In Hong Kong traditional Chinese cultural norms continue to be important for defining workplace relationships. Business dealings are facilitated by interpersonal interactions based on guanxi, which generates both mutual benefits and mutual obligations. (33) What constitutes acceptable behavior is developed and understood within the context of particular relationships. Such behavioral norms are relevant to Western societies, too, but they have a particular salience in Hong Kong's business sector. Recruitment, for example, can be based solely on personal recommendations. "Friends and relatives," wrote one group of researchers, "'look out for' each other and are willing to pass the word on when they hear about vacancies in the companies they work for" (Bannister et al., 1998, 36). (34)

Hong Kong's business sector is known to be quick and highly flexible in responding to changes in the market. Such a vigorous, competitive environment facilitates the movement of personnel between organizations. Indeed, Hong Kong employees' loyalty has been ranked as the lowest in East and Southeast Asia, (35) and high staff turnover has been identified as the most serious problem facing human resources professionals. (36)

Neither employers nor their employees are likely to commit either time or resources to improving staff relations when short-term success is more important than building long-term organizational capacity. It has been noted that "Hong Kong employees have tended to quit rather than voice their grievances.... [There is a] reluctance to openly challenge the employer, either individually or collectively" (37) Both large and small private sector employers dismiss workers with whom there are disagreements rather than attempt to resolve differences (England, 1989, 226). (38)

What employees have at stake in terms of financial rewards and career advancement will influence organizational relationships and interactions between superiors and subordinates. (39) When conflict is involved, subordinates will be concerned not only with the actual conflict itself, but also what actions superiors might take in the aftermath of a conflict situation. Thus, an employee's conflict management style will reflect the extent to which he or she feels protected from arbitrary actions by his or her boss.

The distinctive institutional arrangements of civil service systems for personnel administration give permanent employees protection from arbitrary actions such as the unjust or politically motivated actions of supervisors. (40) These principles of procedural due process are an important feature of Hong Kong's legally embedded public organizations. Civil service appointments are governed by the merit principle. Open and fair competition determines selection, not political patronage, family connections, or personal relationships. All aspects of appointment, conduct, and discipline are specified in law and the judiciary has the power to review the decisions and actions of the executive branch of government to ensure procedural and distributive justice. (41)

Formal mechanisms to resolve disputes are more common in Hong Kong's public sector than in its private sector. Since 1968, there has been a steady development of joint management-employee consultation bodies at government workplaces. There are now four well-established central staff consultative councils and the number of Departmental Consultative Committees expanded from 33 to 97 between 1980 and 1999. (42) Previous research has determined that employees with positive perceptions about organizational justice in the workplace are more likely to adopt cooperative conflict management styles with their supervisors. (43) In other words, greater workplace organizational justice reduces the impact of power distance on the superior-subordinate relationship.

It has been argued that differences in organizational behaviors between public and private sector organizations are largely due to differences in personnel management practices. (44) These study results lend further credence to the idea that public personnel practices do have unique consequences for organizational behaviors and provide strong evidence in support of the public-private distinction. The data also raise further doubts about the universal applicability of private sector strategies and techniques to personnel management in public organizations.


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By Brian Brewer, PhD, and Gilbert K.Y. Lam

Brian Brewer, PhD

Associate Professor

Department of Public and Social Administration

City University of Hong Kong

Tat Chee Avenue, Hong Kong SAR

(852) 2788-8919

Gilbert K.Y. Lam

Deputy General Manager--Sales, South China

Schenker International (H.K.) Ltd.

35/F., Skyline Tower

Kowloon Bay

Hong Kong SAR

(852) 9229-0430

Dr. Brian Brewer is an associate professor in the Department of Public and Social Administration at the City University of Hong Kong. He received his PhD in management studies from Aston University (UK) and teaches in the areas of organizational behavior and international public management. Recent research has focused on complaints handling and grievance procedures, the role of statutory human rights organizations, and the work of the ombudsman in the public sector.

Gilbert K.Y. Lam has completed a BA (honors) in public and social administration, and a research degree (master of philosophy (MPhil) in humanities and social sciences) at the City University of Hong Kong, as well as a master of sciences degree (MSc) in international shipping and transport logistics at Hong Kong Polytechnics University. He has been a visiting research scholar at Western Kentucky University and is presently employed as the deputy general sales manager of DB Schenker Logistics South China. Lam is a member of the Institute of Export, United Kingdom.

Table 1: Number of Years With Current Employer (N = 107)

Years in
existing          Public         Private
organization      sector         sector           Total

                 f      %       f       %       f      %

Less than 1      0     0.0     10    21.3      10     9.3
1-5             23    38.3     34    72.3      57    53.3
6-10            12    20.0      2     4.3      14    13.1
11 or above     25    41.7      1     2.1      26    24.3
Total           60   100.0     47   100.0     107   100.0

Note. f = frequency.

Table 2: Work Experience in Both the Public and
the Private sectors (N = 107)

experience      Public         Private
in both         sector         sector        Total
                f     %       f      %      f     %

Yes            55    91.7     8    17.0     63    58.9
No              5     8.3    39    83.0     44    41.1
Total          60   100.0    47   100.0    107   100.0

Note. f = frequency.

Table 3: Rank Order of Preferred Conflict Handling Styles With
Superior in the Public and the Private Sectors (N = 107)

Rank    Public sector   Private sector
order     (N = 60)         (N = 47)

  1      Integrating     Integrating
  2     Compromising     Compromising
  3       Obliging         Obliging
  4       Avoiding         Avoiding
  5      Dominating       Dominating

Table 4: Mean, Standard Deviation (SD), and Significant Difference
in Conflict Handling Styles With Superior Between
Different Age Groupings (N = 107)

                        Age in years

                    21-30               31-40
   Style           (n = 57)            (n = 39)

                Mean      SD        Mean        SD

Integrating     4.036    0.35       4.352      0.34
Compromising    3.804    0.46       3.987      0.40
  Obliging      3.716    0.46       3.697      0.55
  Avoiding      3.569    0.55       3.560      0.71
 Dominating     3.294    0.47       3.267      0.69

                       Age in years

                  41 or older    Two-tailed
   Style           (n = 17)      probability

                Mean      SD

Integrating     4.193     0.37   0.000 ***
Compromising    3.897     0.34   0.129
  Obliging      3.480     0.56   0.246
  Avoiding      3.373     0.51   0.489
 Dominating     3.235     0.50   0.926

*** p < 0.001

Table 5: Mean, Standard Deviation (SD), and Significant Difference
in Conflict Handling Styles With Superior Across Different
Organizational Levels (N = 107)

                 Managerial       Supervisory
                   grade             grade
   Style         (n = 16)           (n = 68)

               Mean     SD       Mean    SD

Integrating    4.339   0.44     4.168   0.37
Compromising   3.906   0.30     3.875   0.42
  Obliging     3.594   0.55     3.628   0.51
  Avoiding     3.510   0.69     3.449   0.55
 Dominating    3.500   0.52     3.262   0.50

                  grade       Two-tailed
   Style         (n = 23)     probability

               Mean     SD

Integrating    4.087   0.32   0.114
Compromising   3.902   0.54   0.945
  Obliging     3.855   0.49   0.150
  Avoiding     3.804   0.64   0.049 *
 Dominating    3.147   0.70   0.945

*** p < 0.05

Table 6: Rank Order, Mean, Standard Deviation (SD), and
Significant Difference Between Conflict Handling Styles
With Superior in the Public and the Private Sectors (N = 107)

                   Public           Private    Two-tailed test
 Conflict          sector           sector     of probability
  handling        (n = 60)         (n = 47)
                 Mean    SD      Mean    SD

Integrating     4.302   0.38    4.015   0.31   0.003 **
Compromising    3.925   0.41    3.835   0.45   0.794
  Obliging      3.636   0.55    3.716   0.46   0.515
  Avoiding      3.461   0.68    3.628   0.49   0.463
 Dominating     3.260   0.63    3.294   0.45   0.612

*** p < 0.05


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