Introduction

 

                  A workplace without conflict may sound like a
hyperbole, when in fact, “Conflict is everywhere.” (Johnson and Keddy, 2010). In
terms of locality, causation, demographics and so forth, it seems that conflict
may arise in any of these circumstances or even a mix of all of them. The
occurrence of conflict at work is limitless. Growing complexities in professional
relationships (i.e. employee and manager) that often endure undesired friction
is just one example out of many encounters. In an ad-hoc statistical release by
the Ministry of Justice (2013), the UK Employment Tribunal received 50,000 new
claims on average per quarter during the 2012/2013 period. This highlights the
seriousness of workplace related discords and suggests that such conflicts aggregate
to a manifestation of problems that exceeds individual contexts.

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To pursue the issue further, a solid overview of the
matter is essential in building critical arguments as we progress. Conflict is
defined as the disharmony that surfaces when goals and interests – as an
individual or a collective – clashes with one another or when a group hampers
one another’s effort in reaching their ambitions (Dix, Forth and Sisson, 2008).
However, understanding the definition alone does not suffice to encapsulate the
conflict phenomena at work. Therefore, this essay serves as an attempt to prove
that conflict at work is inevitable. This essay will organise the contents into
broad yet interrelated contexts identified as individual context, employment
context, legal context and institutional context. Within each context we will
also analyse the influence of poor leadership and management on work conflict
supported by relevant theories of motivation and groups and teams. Before
delving deeper, we will start by briefly summarising organisational conflict
perspectives which will aid our understanding of the subject as we proceed
further in the different contexts of conflicts.

 

 

Organisational Conflict Perspectives

 

                  Alan Fox (1966) lamented the idea of distinguishing
frames of reference on organisational conflicts which are still widely relevant
and used today. These frames of references are ‘a person’s perceptions and interpretations
of events, which involves assumptions about reality, attitude towards what is
possible, 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 are
essentially harmonious in nature, where managers are in control of employees’
behaviour and sees any workplace conflicts as a failure in coordination, (Ackroyd
and Thompson, 1999; Johnston, 2000). Pluralists view organisations as comprised
of multiple groups where authority is contested and that poor procedures are to
blame for disputes at work. In contrast, the interactionist frame sees conflict
as a positive force that may in turn improve the organisation. Finally, the
radical perspective of conflict suggests that conflict stems from the exploited
nature of work in relation to a capitalist society, which also accounts for
organisational misbehaviour, defined as ‘any intentional action by members of
an organization that violates core organizational norms’ (Linstead et al.,
2014). In summary, these perspectives lay out clearly the frame of reference
people adopt when facing a conflict. Moreover, these frames of views are
subjective in nature as there is no one best perspective, only comparisons of
interpretations.

 

                 

 

 

Individual Context

 

                  The simplest form of conflict often escalates from the
failure of two individuals to achieve a common goal due to interpersonal
incompatibilities. The question of personal motivation arises as to why a
harmonious work process is unseen in such circumstances, prevalent in almost
all Principal-Agent relationships. Content theories of motivation generally
explains that motivation originates from our inner selves and that conflicts
surfaces from unmet human needs. In essence, this supports the unitarist frame of seeing organisations
as harmonious and that all conflicts are bad (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2017). A
key reason why the Principal-Agent problem still persists is the impulse
reaction to either fight, flight or freeze when a conflict starts building up (Acas,
2009). Proksch (2016) explains that this behaviour traces back to evolutionary
history whereby rapid reactions to danger is vital for survival, which still
remains today. However, this assumes that the degree of conflicts at work are
all equal.

 

                  Not all conflicts occur
between two or more parties. The inner conflict is an example where thoughts
and feelings intertwine within an intrapersonal realm, rooting from external
conflicts or even internal emotional and mental health. On the flip side,
Abraham Carmeli’s (2003) findings suggests that emotional intelligence has a
positive relationship on work attitude, performance and altruistic behaviour as
well as cushioning the effect of work-family conflicts. He also says that this
is truly evident with managers who have to reconcile daily subordinate disputes
at work. However, his study carries weaknesses as emotional intelligence may
fluctuate from time to time and needs a positive state of mind, which is
impossible to sustain in all circumstances. These internal conflicts have
tendencies to translate into organisational misbehaviours should the conflicts
remain suppressed. If it is unaddressed, this may bring harm to the surrounding
work environment by negatively influencing colleagues, managers and organisation
performance as a whole, perpetuating the conflict further.

 

                  Drawing from the topic of
groups and teams, the workplace environment is indeed accustomed to operating
in teams which is defined as ‘a small number of people with complementary
skills who are committed to a common purpose’ (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993). But
how do we decide on a common purpose in order to achieve the best results? More
often than not, these goals are not within employees’ discretion and in fact
would be instructions from above. This setting tends to spark workplace
conflicts as the goals set are not internalised by the team that is pursuing
it.

 

 

Employment Context

 

                  The idea of ‘Happy Workers = Productive Workers =
Happy Customers’ in Heskett, Sasser and Schlesinger’s (1997) work offers a
broader view of how individual job satisfaction leads to increased employee productivity
which then leads to significant profit and growth for an organisation. The
question here is that, is it really such a straightforward process that makes a
company hugely successful or is there more to it than what we theoretically
comprehend? The employment context of conflict looks at the structural approach
of the matter, including issues pertaining the nature of work, organisation
design 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 is
to be ‘over worked and under paid’ and the regulation and management of labour
by organisations. This suggested that conflict is bound to surface in any
firm’s work process and management. Organisation leaders are in fact
responsible in designing the work environment for employees as this can have a
substantial impact on productivity and overall wellbeing of employees. Nonetheless,
Saundry and Wibberly (2014) argue that there has been an erosion of
organisations’ capacity in responding to workplace conflicts and that managers
feel unequipped to face such discords. In addition, they suggest that
assumptions of a manager’s natural ability to orchestrate workplace conflict is
futile. If that is the case, whom is it now to blame for workplace conflict if
those with positions of power are innocent?

                 

Building from the role of managers, McGregor’s (1960) motivational
proposition of ‘Theory X and Theory Y’ illustrates clearly the situations that
classifies the nature of a manager practicing either authoritative management
or participative management. Despite being criticised as a self-fulfilling
prophecy, McGregor’s work acts as an ideal measurement tool to identify the strong
underlying relationship of an authoritative management style with workplace
frictions. This strengthens the notion that ‘conflict is a significant feature
of organisational life’, (UCLAN, 2014).

 

 

Legal and Institutional Context

 

                  From miniscule disagreements between individuals and
groups, similar magnified conflicts could also develop in legal and
institutional contexts. On a macro level, contention at work may involve legal labour
frameworks and employment rights, which have always been pertinent issues since
yesteryear. UK employees spend 1.8 days per week in resolving workplace
conflicts with a total cost to the economy of £24
billion annually (BIS, 2011). This statistic alone proves that employment
disputes have a ‘snowball effect’ when aggregated, in which results to insurmountable
opportunity costs not just for employees, but to the nation itself. From a
legal framework, Gibbons (2007) expresses that the country’s poor employment dispute
resolution system is the aftermath of ‘inflexible, prescriptive regulations’
which in turn manifests into a new nationwide conflict of having a
dysfunctional mechanism that employees actually rely upon. This saw collective
bargaining as the next best option, where employees organise themselves either
formally (i.e. through trade unions) or informally, for a strike to display
public resentment towards employers, usually motivated by the demand of a pay
rise or better working conditions. The choice for a radical conflict resolution
portrays their beliefs and needs of a ‘public display of power’ to challenge
employers when they are self-organised through trade unions or other collective
means. In 2016 however, it is proven otherwise as union memberships fell by
275,000 over the year, the biggest annual drop since 1995 (BIS, 2017).

 

                  The institutional context of
workplace conflicts on the other hand, includes diplomatic employment issues,
ideological labour agendas and political power. It is an overarching concern for
the general working public. This includes effects of international
organisations on state employment matters or even displacement of state
authority. Such international bodies have much influence on the employment
climates of nations that falls under them. However, the World Trade
Organisation, or more commonly known as WTO, stresses that it strives to
achieve high living standards, full employment and sustainable development (WTO,
2017). It further emphasises that ‘open economies tend to grow faster and more
steadily’. This is supported by the findings of the fading divergence between imports
data and unemployment rates since the 1990s, suggesting that imports
competition no longer affects the local employment scene (Newfarmer and Sztajerowska,
2012). But the results of the study inferred some biasness as it only included
data of developed countries, which is not representative of WTO being an
umbrella organisation foreseeing trade frameworks from all ranks of economies
around the world. This shows how changes at the institutional or even
international level, does not necessarily eradicate employment discords and in
fact may conversely be a contributing factor to the problem, bolstering its
inevitability.

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

                  In conclusion, conflict at work is proven to be
inevitable as it still prevails in all four contexts. From an individual realm,
problems including the Principal-Agent friction exists due to personal
motivation, the influence of emotional intelligence and the effects of poor
groups and teams. Based on a meso-level of analysis, the employment context
illustrates a structural reasoning of workplace discords by emphasising the
nature of ‘fast paced’ work, inherent imperfections of organisational design coupled
with declining levels of effective leadership and management. This is further
supported by Rahim, Brown and Graham’s (2011) claim that organisational culture
still remains as a key barrier against more informal conflict resolutions. The
legal context displays how inflexible regulations affect employment disputes
and promotes collective practice through trade unions and radical strikes.
Finally, the institutional context encompasses the broader discords employees
face due to authority displacement and clashes of political power.

 

‘Whilst set in different contexts, the lessons and
insights that can be learnt by studying conflicts of any kind are invaluable
for understanding how to confront disputes in the workplace’, (Johnson and
Keddy, 2010). Conflict management theories such as Thomas’ (1976) five conflict
resolution approaches or mutual benefit relationships and open-minded
discussions by Tjosvold and colleagues (2014), may be effective. But to only
remedy conflict wounds and not prevent them for surfacing again. This is
because the success of these approaches relies heavily on a myriad of
assumptions (i.e. training, flexibility, rationale, etc.) that may not be
applicable to all circumstances. Conflicts at work are indeed inevitable.

                  

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