Managing Conflict in Public Organizations: Conflict Can Be Recognized, Tackled, and Resolved in Five Not-So-Easy Steps

By Starks, Glenn L. | The Public Manager, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Managing Conflict in Public Organizations: Conflict Can Be Recognized, Tackled, and Resolved in Five Not-So-Easy Steps


Starks, Glenn L., The Public Manager


Managers in every type of organization have to deal with conflict, but those in public organizations are subject to more of it than their counterparts in private and nonprofit organizations. In extremely bureaucratic environments, with ever-increasing pressures to do more with less, subject to layers of laws and regulations, and under constant public scrutiny, public agencies face a barrage of factors that catalyze internal and external conflicts. Being able to recognize, tackle, and resolve conflicts is thus a critical skill for public administrators.

Dealing with conflict, of course, is seldom an easy task. In fact, it requires skills that not many public managers possess. Some don't recognize its existence, and others choose to ignore complex issues, avoid confrontations, or feel powerless to make changes. Sadly, ignoring conflicts won't resolve them: even if the conflict itself goes away, side effects can linger, such as a manager's reputation for ineffectivity or a negative impact on teaming. This article offers public administrators a structured process for managing organizational conflict.

What Is Organizational Conflict?

Conflict results when a person's or group's behavior or action negatively affects another. These negative behaviors or actions result when beliefs, values, attitudes, ideas, needs, goals, perceptions, expectations, or interests differ. In organizations, conflict also arises when the behavior or action of a person, group, or department contradicts the rules, regulations, or even social norms of part of the organization (group, team, section, branch, division, or directorate), the organization as a whole, or external entities such as regulatory agencies. It can also result as a byproduct of the organization itself, from such factors as interdependent relationships, hierarchical relationships, task differences, and delegations of resources and authority. Typical organizational issues also breed conflict, such as poor lines of communication, lack of effective leadership, and conflicting priorities. New conflicts can also result from old ones that were never fully resolved.

Causes

One of the primary causes of conflict in public organizations is the frequently changing, often uncertain environment in which they operate. National, state, and local leaders constantly change, and with them, their political appointees. Laws and regulations change to adapt to customer needs, missions change due to world events, and public agencies change to respond to private-sector influences (particularly competition to provide historically governmental services).

Consequences

Organizational conflict can have negative or positive consequences. Negative consequences include faltering performance, lower employee morale, stifled creativity, lack of innovation, impaired teamwork, and degraded customer service. Employees may become antagonistic. Unresolved conflicts can lead to the intervention of external parties, such as upper management, customers, policymakers, or the media. The organization in conflict could be seen as inept, and its manager as incompetent. Of course, this depends on the conflict type and severity, but even the smallest issues have the tendency to mushroom if left unresolved.

When managers deal with conflict by ensuring all parties involved are heard and understood, foster consensus building and a team environment, and ensure actions are taken in the best interest of the organization and its customers, conflict can have positive consequences. Dealt with skillfully, it can lead to enhanced communication, improved teamwork, higher morale, improved customer support, increased productivity, and the generation of creative alternatives to solve complex problems. In these cases, conflict acts as a catalyst for innovation and an opportunity for improvement.

In some cases, lack of conflict can be a problem; for example, when a team is formed to solve a complex issue, but a lack of differing ideas and opinions (groupthink) leads to a suboptimal solution, or none at all. …

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