Introduction A workplace without conflict may sound like ahyperbole, when in fact, “Conflict is everywhere.” (Johnson and Keddy, 2010). Interms of locality, causation, demographics and so forth, it seems that conflictmay arise in any of these circumstances or even a mix of all of them. Theoccurrence of conflict at work is limitless. Growing complexities in professionalrelationships (i.
e. employee and manager) that often endure undesired frictionis just one example out of many encounters. In an ad-hoc statistical release bythe Ministry of Justice (2013), the UK Employment Tribunal received 50,000 newclaims on average per quarter during the 2012/2013 period. This highlights theseriousness of workplace related discords and suggests that such conflicts aggregateto a manifestation of problems that exceeds individual contexts.
To pursue the issue further, a solid overview of thematter is essential in building critical arguments as we progress. Conflict isdefined as the disharmony that surfaces when goals and interests – as anindividual or a collective – clashes with one another or when a group hampersone another’s effort in reaching their ambitions (Dix, Forth and Sisson, 2008).However, understanding the definition alone does not suffice to encapsulate theconflict phenomena at work. Therefore, this essay serves as an attempt to provethat conflict at work is inevitable. This essay will organise the contents intobroad yet interrelated contexts identified as individual context, employmentcontext, legal context and institutional context. Within each context we willalso analyse the influence of poor leadership and management on work conflictsupported by relevant theories of motivation and groups and teams. Beforedelving deeper, we will start by briefly summarising organisational conflictperspectives which will aid our understanding of the subject as we proceedfurther in the different contexts of conflicts. Organisational Conflict Perspectives Alan Fox (1966) lamented the idea of distinguishingframes of reference on organisational conflicts which are still widely relevantand used today.
These frames of references are ‘a person’s perceptions and interpretationsof events, which involves assumptions about reality, attitude towards what ispossible, and conventions regarding correct behaviour’ (Buchanan and Huczynski,2017). Fox distinctly labelled these perspectives as unitarist, pluralist,interactionist and radical frames. The unitarist frame suggest that firms areessentially harmonious in nature, where managers are in control of employees’behaviour and sees any workplace conflicts as a failure in coordination, (Ackroydand Thompson, 1999; Johnston, 2000). Pluralists view organisations as comprisedof multiple groups where authority is contested and that poor procedures are toblame for disputes at work.
In contrast, the interactionist frame sees conflictas a positive force that may in turn improve the organisation. Finally, theradical perspective of conflict suggests that conflict stems from the exploitednature of work in relation to a capitalist society, which also accounts fororganisational misbehaviour, defined as ‘any intentional action by members ofan organization that violates core organizational norms’ (Linstead et al.,2014). In summary, these perspectives lay out clearly the frame of referencepeople adopt when facing a conflict. Moreover, these frames of views aresubjective in nature as there is no one best perspective, only comparisons ofinterpretations. Individual Context The simplest form of conflict often escalates from thefailure of two individuals to achieve a common goal due to interpersonalincompatibilities.
The question of personal motivation arises as to why aharmonious work process is unseen in such circumstances, prevalent in almostall Principal-Agent relationships. Content theories of motivation generallyexplains that motivation originates from our inner selves and that conflictssurfaces from unmet human needs. In essence, this supports the unitarist frame of seeing organisationsas harmonious and that all conflicts are bad (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2017). Akey reason why the Principal-Agent problem still persists is the impulsereaction to either fight, flight or freeze when a conflict starts building up (Acas,2009). Proksch (2016) explains that this behaviour traces back to evolutionaryhistory whereby rapid reactions to danger is vital for survival, which stillremains today.
However, this assumes that the degree of conflicts at work areall equal. Not all conflicts occurbetween two or more parties. The inner conflict is an example where thoughtsand feelings intertwine within an intrapersonal realm, rooting from externalconflicts or even internal emotional and mental health.
On the flip side,Abraham Carmeli’s (2003) findings suggests that emotional intelligence has apositive relationship on work attitude, performance and altruistic behaviour aswell as cushioning the effect of work-family conflicts. He also says that thisis truly evident with managers who have to reconcile daily subordinate disputesat work. However, his study carries weaknesses as emotional intelligence mayfluctuate from time to time and needs a positive state of mind, which isimpossible to sustain in all circumstances. These internal conflicts havetendencies to translate into organisational misbehaviours should the conflictsremain suppressed. If it is unaddressed, this may bring harm to the surroundingwork environment by negatively influencing colleagues, managers and organisationperformance as a whole, perpetuating the conflict further. Drawing from the topic ofgroups and teams, the workplace environment is indeed accustomed to operatingin teams which is defined as ‘a small number of people with complementaryskills who are committed to a common purpose’ (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993). Buthow do we decide on a common purpose in order to achieve the best results? Moreoften than not, these goals are not within employees’ discretion and in factwould be instructions from above.
This setting tends to spark workplaceconflicts as the goals set are not internalised by the team that is pursuingit. Employment Context The idea of ‘Happy Workers = Productive Workers =Happy Customers’ in Heskett, Sasser and Schlesinger’s (1997) work offers abroader view of how individual job satisfaction leads to increased employee productivitywhich then leads to significant profit and growth for an organisation. Thequestion here is that, is it really such a straightforward process that makes acompany hugely successful or is there more to it than what we theoreticallycomprehend? The employment context of conflict looks at the structural approachof the matter, including issues pertaining the nature of work, organisationdesign and policies, and also leadership and management style. Rahim, Brown and Graham (2011)highlight two main issues of workplace conflicts that are the nature of work isto be ‘over worked and under paid’ and the regulation and management of labourby organisations. This suggested that conflict is bound to surface in anyfirm’s work process and management. Organisation leaders are in factresponsible in designing the work environment for employees as this can have asubstantial impact on productivity and overall wellbeing of employees.
Nonetheless,Saundry and Wibberly (2014) argue that there has been an erosion oforganisations’ capacity in responding to workplace conflicts and that managersfeel unequipped to face such discords. In addition, they suggest thatassumptions of a manager’s natural ability to orchestrate workplace conflict isfutile. If that is the case, whom is it now to blame for workplace conflict ifthose with positions of power are innocent? Building from the role of managers, McGregor’s (1960) motivationalproposition of ‘Theory X and Theory Y’ illustrates clearly the situations thatclassifies the nature of a manager practicing either authoritative managementor participative management. Despite being criticised as a self-fulfillingprophecy, McGregor’s work acts as an ideal measurement tool to identify the strongunderlying relationship of an authoritative management style with workplacefrictions. This strengthens the notion that ‘conflict is a significant featureof organisational life’, (UCLAN, 2014). Legal and Institutional Context From miniscule disagreements between individuals andgroups, similar magnified conflicts could also develop in legal andinstitutional contexts. On a macro level, contention at work may involve legal labourframeworks and employment rights, which have always been pertinent issues sinceyesteryear.
UK employees spend 1.8 days per week in resolving workplaceconflicts with a total cost to the economy of £24billion annually (BIS, 2011). This statistic alone proves that employmentdisputes have a ‘snowball effect’ when aggregated, in which results to insurmountableopportunity costs not just for employees, but to the nation itself. From alegal framework, Gibbons (2007) expresses that the country’s poor employment disputeresolution system is the aftermath of ‘inflexible, prescriptive regulations’which in turn manifests into a new nationwide conflict of having adysfunctional mechanism that employees actually rely upon. This saw collectivebargaining as the next best option, where employees organise themselves eitherformally (i.e. through trade unions) or informally, for a strike to displaypublic resentment towards employers, usually motivated by the demand of a payrise or better working conditions. The choice for a radical conflict resolutionportrays their beliefs and needs of a ‘public display of power’ to challengeemployers when they are self-organised through trade unions or other collectivemeans.
In 2016 however, it is proven otherwise as union memberships fell by275,000 over the year, the biggest annual drop since 1995 (BIS, 2017). The institutional context ofworkplace conflicts on the other hand, includes diplomatic employment issues,ideological labour agendas and political power. It is an overarching concern forthe general working public.
This includes effects of internationalorganisations on state employment matters or even displacement of stateauthority. Such international bodies have much influence on the employmentclimates of nations that falls under them. However, the World TradeOrganisation, or more commonly known as WTO, stresses that it strives toachieve high living standards, full employment and sustainable development (WTO,2017). It further emphasises that ‘open economies tend to grow faster and moresteadily’.
This is supported by the findings of the fading divergence between importsdata and unemployment rates since the 1990s, suggesting that importscompetition no longer affects the local employment scene (Newfarmer and Sztajerowska,2012). But the results of the study inferred some biasness as it only includeddata of developed countries, which is not representative of WTO being anumbrella organisation foreseeing trade frameworks from all ranks of economiesaround the world. This shows how changes at the institutional or eveninternational level, does not necessarily eradicate employment discords and infact may conversely be a contributing factor to the problem, bolstering itsinevitability. Conclusion In conclusion, conflict at work is proven to beinevitable as it still prevails in all four contexts. From an individual realm,problems including the Principal-Agent friction exists due to personalmotivation, the influence of emotional intelligence and the effects of poorgroups and teams.
Based on a meso-level of analysis, the employment contextillustrates a structural reasoning of workplace discords by emphasising thenature of ‘fast paced’ work, inherent imperfections of organisational design coupledwith declining levels of effective leadership and management. This is furthersupported by Rahim, Brown and Graham’s (2011) claim that organisational culturestill remains as a key barrier against more informal conflict resolutions. Thelegal context displays how inflexible regulations affect employment disputesand promotes collective practice through trade unions and radical strikes.Finally, the institutional context encompasses the broader discords employeesface due to authority displacement and clashes of political power. ‘Whilst set in different contexts, the lessons andinsights that can be learnt by studying conflicts of any kind are invaluablefor understanding how to confront disputes in the workplace’, (Johnson andKeddy, 2010). Conflict management theories such as Thomas’ (1976) five conflictresolution approaches or mutual benefit relationships and open-mindeddiscussions by Tjosvold and colleagues (2014), may be effective.
But to onlyremedy conflict wounds and not prevent them for surfacing again. This isbecause the success of these approaches relies heavily on a myriad ofassumptions (i.e. training, flexibility, rationale, etc.
) that may not beapplicable to all circumstances. Conflicts at work are indeed inevitable.