I recently wrote a blog post “Hyvät, pahat ja välttämättömät konfliktit” (the good, the bad and the inevitable conflicts) that was published in Faculty of Management’s own Vaikuttaja blog platform. The original text is in Finnish, and you will find the translated (and somewhat edited) version of it below:
The Good, the Bad and the Inevitable Conflicts
When I introduce myself as a conflict researcher, people often find themselves imagining two people fighting publicly. From the perspective of a researcher, the idea of conflicts as publicly confronted disagreement is not completely wrong, but instead it is limited.
Conflicts do hold the potentiality of escalating into vicious cycles. In a worst-case scenario, these escalating frictions that emerge as difficulties in interaction and uncertainties in power relations (Jalonen, Lindell, Puustinen & Raisio, 2013) can define the organizational dynamics and the direction of change in an unwanted way. Conflicts can, indeed, prevent the possibility for the organization’s members to act in a sensible manner.
However, on the other end of the spectrum, conflicts hold the potentiality to make organizational change visible and to enhance the development of the organization. Conflicts, then, point out to the things, processes and experiences in everyday organizational life, in which particularly the managers and leaders should aim their attention to.
When studying and exploring conflicts in organizational context, it is essential to notice that conflicts are an inevitable part of everyday, ongoing interactions between people. Because we are different, conflicts cannot be avoided. Therefore, inevitability characterizes conflicts along with good and bad. (see for example Mowles, 2015; Stacey, 2011; Stacey & Griffin, 2005).
Conflicts can be taking place between people, between organizations and government (‘s regulations, for example), between organizations, and between differently organized and located groups of people. Regardless on the level of conclict emerges, what is in common is that it always is experienced by an individual.
The tensions in thinking collide in conflicts
Understanding conflicts as necessities, and even preconditions for organizational development is not a new idea (see for example Cooley, 1918; Follett, 1918/1998, 1924). In addition, conflicts can be seen as crucial for organizations to even exist (Pondy, 1992): an organisation consists of, drives and
develops from the differences of its members. Therefore, without people being different (and thus have different understanding about the world around them), there would not be (developing) organizations.
The inevitability of conflicts is easy to prove with quick test: can you imagine a situation, where people you are working with would automatically agree and understand every discussion and phenomenon in the same way? Propably you can not – the test reveals the impossibility to enter such an organization and that the “force” that keeps the organization going does drive from the differences of its members as Pondy (1992) suggested.
Instead of putting their differences aside, things do often proceed in favourable direction, both in private and working lives, when people with different thoughts come together to negotiate these tensions in thinking. Tensions in thinking and differences in understanding are appreciated, made visible to others, and negotiated.
How to recognize a conflict?
“The best way to solve conflicts is to listen and to be heard” wrote Frank Martela in Helsingin Sanomat. His text reveals a traditional understanding about conflicts: it seems to me that the underlying assumption here was that the people listening to and being heard are two equally positioned individuals, who both have the possibility to voice out their experiences and thoughts, and more importantly, they hold equal chances to do so.
However, the best way to solve conflicts can often not be accessible for the attempts in practice. In the messy organizational life, instead of equal chances to listen and to be heard, conflicts are characterized with the identities of the ones experiencing, variety of emotions, and power relations and games:
Others thinking differently than myself are a threat to what I am – to my identity. What collides are different experiences, and when you understand differently, and do not make an effort to reach out to my experiences and thoughts, you do not understand me as who I am.
The feelings and emotions that arise from experienced conflicts can be intense and bodily felt: anger, grief, sadness, numbness. These emotions arise from the experience that the identity of an experiencer is at stake.
Did you have the possibility to express your thoughts and experiences? Were you heard? Were these possibilities equal to all involved? Power relations are always present in organizational life and interaction. People are differently positioned in organizational structures and hiearchies, and not all hold an equal position to listen and to be heard. Managers and leaders, based on their positions, hold power to decide who they listen to – who are included and who are excluded.
Intereweaved research and practice
Both in research and in muddling-through the organizational life it is useful and essential to explore, what is happening and why. Conflicts have the potentiality to pinpoint the phases of organizational dynamics where tensions in thinking emerge, guiding the actions of people involved towards the wanted and the unwanted. What is needed is not silencing the different voices but revealing the inevitable tensions in thinking.
In Tampere3 -process three organizations – Tampere University of Technology, University of Tampere, and Tampere University of Applied Sciences – with different practices, traditions, beliefs, and assumptions are merging together. Revealing the unavoidable conflicts and tensions in thinking in this process could mean addressing questions of what we mean by universities; what assumptions does strategic management hold; or what is development to us – what is changing and into what direction. This revealing could, by looking beyond the conflicts, enhance our understanding about what is going on and why, and eventually lead to fostering the development of the new organization.
Cooley, C. H. (1918). Social process. New York: Scribner & Sons.
Follett, M. P. (1918/1998). The new state. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press.
Follett, M. P. (1924). Creative experience. New York: Longmans Green.
Jalonen, H., Lindell, J., Puustinen, A. & Raisio, H. (2013). Yhteistyön kääntöpuoli, kun itseorganisoituminen epäonnistuu ja ilmaantuminen yllättää. Hallinnon Tutkimus 32(4), 284–300.
Mowles, C. (2015). Managing in uncertainty – complexity and the paradoxes of everyday organizational life. London: Routledge.
Pondy, L. R. (1992). Reflections on organizational conflict. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 13(3), 257–261.
Stacey, R. D. (2011). Strategic management and organizational dynamics. The challenge of complexity. Gosport, England: Ashford Colour Press.