Practicing Conflict Management Can Reduce Organizational Stressors

By Antonioni, David | Industrial Management, September/October 1995 | Go to article overview

Practicing Conflict Management Can Reduce Organizational Stressors


Antonioni, David, Industrial Management


Reorganization, downsizing, and budget cuts are familiar words to managers these days. As a result of organizational shifts, managers are experiencing new demands of changing roles and modified work expectations. Individuals often respond to these demands with negative stress reactions such as anxiety, difficulty sleeping, tiredness, and irritability.

Negative stress reactions are avoidable. According to Hans Seyle, a renowned scholar of stress management, stress is experienced when individuals question whether they have the resources to respond to the demands or changes they face. If they perceive the gap between demands and resources as too big, they may feel incapable of meeting the demands. On the other hand, if managers believe they have the resources to handle potential problems, such as constructive stress management strategies, they can respond to stressors in a positive and functional manner.

Current situation for managers

Managers have been experiencing turbulent organizational changes for the last 10 years. As a result of downsizing, management positions have been reduced in most organizations. Since 1985, more than 1.5 million managers have lost their jobs or had their positions redefined into nonmanagement positions. Downsizing, mergers, budget cuts, declining markets, introduction of new technology, and reorganization have evoked feelings of job insecurity, which lead to stress. Managers who survive organizational downsizing generally have to do more work with fewer staff members and, therefore, may be experiencing an increased workload and time pressure to produce results. Managers are expected to continue meeting performance goals even after the organization has laid off a significant number of the workforce. In addition, their roles change due to new goals of employee empowerment and increased use of selfdirected teams. The transition to new roles is difficult for some and, in some cases, causes role ambiguity and role conflict.

The study

A study was conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison to investigate how surviving middle managers from downsized organizations handle stressors related to organizational changes. One hundred and forty-five managers-averaging 10 years of managerial experience, 70 percent male, 30 percent female, 59 percent manufacturing, 41 percent service-were asked to complete a 16-item survey at the beginning of seminars on managing organizational change. The survey assessed the extent to which they experienced four stressors believed to be associated with organizational changes:

* Role conflict-when managers have to work under incompatible policies or guidelines or are expected to do things that clash with their own principles or expectations;

* Role ambiguity-when managers are unclear about their role(s), lack clear information about what is expected of them, or are uncertain about the limits of their authority;

* Work overload-when a manager has too much work to do in too little time; and

* Time pressure--when managers feel they cannot complete work within an imposed deadline.

The survey also assessed the extent to which managers engage in conflict management behaviors in the workplace. Conflict management was defined as using assertive communication to discuss problems (stressors) with key individuals and find solutions that are satisfactory to both parties. Results

A statistical analysis-multiple regression-was used to predict the extent to which conflict management significantly reduced the four stressors. Managers who engaged in conflict management behaviors experienced significantly lower role conflict, role ambiguity, work overload, and time pressure than managers who did not use conflict management. In addition, the regular use of conflict management corresponded with significantly lower levels of stress reactions such as sleeping difficulty, tiredness, and irritability.

Managers reported some concerns about using the conflict management process. …

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