Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement

Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement

by Peter T. Coleman, Robert Ferguson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544148390
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Peter Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College and the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the director of Columbia’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution. He is also a New York State certified mediator and experienced consultant whose clients include IBM, Citibank, The United Nations, The World Bank, and the US State Department. 

Robert Ferguson is a psychologist and executive coach who has provided consulting, conflict resolution, mediation and leadership training to organizations including Credit Suisse USA, Merrill Lynch, Ahlstrom, Kennametal, KBI Biopharma and Aegon.

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The Nature of Conflict and Power

CONFLICT IS NOT an inherently bad thing. It is a natural, fundamental, and pervasive part of life. It is what happens when things are opposed — when different interests, claims, preferences, beliefs, feelings, values, ideas, or truths collide.

Because conflict elicits anxiety, it can bring about extreme reactions from people. They can become overly obsessed with conflict and seek it out all the time, or they can become highly fearful and avoid it at all costs. They may feel a need to approach it in an overly formal or rigid manner, or respond with spontaneity and sloppiness. Some people feel desperate to get conflict over with as quickly as possible, while others hold on to it and ruminate about grievances long past. For some, conflict is a game or task to be approached with strategy and cunning. For others, it is a profoundly personal, emotional experience.

Despite its poor reputation, under the right circumstances, conflict can be functional and positive. When it goes well, the people involved tend to feel satisfied, can learn or innovate, and may even grow closer as a consequence.

Conflict can also be destructive and isolating. When it goes poorly, people can feel dissatisfied, frustrated, or wronged and become resentful and alienated. At work, it can lower job and team satisfaction and increase rigidity of thought, psychosomatic complaints, and burnout. Higher levels of conflict in marriages have been found to compromise immune systems, elevate coronary calcium levels (a risk factor for heart disease), and slow the healing of wounds and infections. When conflict grinds on and begins to feel unsolvable, it can bring misery.

For decades, the Holy Grail of conflict research has been the answer to one question: Why do some conflicts go horribly wrong while others go quite well? This is what some of the world's most influential thinkers, like Sun Tzu, Aristotle, Marx, Freud, Kurt Lewin, Mary Parker Follett, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Morton Deutsch, spent their lives contemplating.

The answer, generally speaking, is some combination of two things: the people and the place. Our personalities, histories, sensitivities, temperaments, gender, training, cultural upbringing, language, levels of impulse control, and other characteristics — these qualities combine to affect how we generally tend to respond to conflict. The circumstances of a specific place — cultural norms and rules, laws, the presence of authorities or other third parties, the prevalence of violence, availability of weapons, codes of honor, temperature, and so on — also impact how a conflict will unfold there. But what really matters is how these two things, people and place, interact. For instance, think of how you might react to a conflict with a traffic policeman in your hometown versus a border-patrol officer at a checkpoint in the West Bank in Palestine. And compare that with how one of your more impulsive, volatile colleagues might respond to the same situations. What will determine the direction of the conflict is how the natures of the people involved interact with the specifics of the situation.

Over many decades, social scientists have been busy at work in their labs and in the field conducting research on those aspects of people and environments that determine whether conflicts go well or poorly. We have learned a lot about the nature of conflict itself, and we've found that a few factors matter most in determining the nature and outcome of a conflict. Our lab ran a study with 149 expert conflict mediators to identify what they saw as the most important differences in conflicts that affect their conflict-management strategies and outcomes. We surveyed the mediators and asked them to describe their last conflict mediation in detail — regardless of whether it went well or poorly — and then to tell us what they did, why, and how it turned out. After analyzing their responses, we found that conflict processes and outcomes are most affected by the following three main components.

Conflict Intensity Level: Technically, intensity is the level of energy required to address a conflict. Conflicts can range from easy to tolerate or manage, to seemingly impossible. This basic quality captures a host of other related factors, including the amount of history between the parties, the level of emotion, the length of the conflict, its complexity, the importance of the concerns and issues involved, and whether the identities of the people involved (including race, class, and gender) were implicated in the conflict. Lower-intensity conflicts elicit less anxiety, irrationality, and extreme behavior, and evidence fewer contentious responses from disputants. As a consequence, they require less energy.

Conflict Structure: This refers to the actual, objective goals associated with a conflict (not how they are perceived). Conflicts can range from consisting of purely cooperative, win-win (also known as integrative) goals, where the disputants share the same underlying concerns, to those with purely competitive, win-lose (also known as zero-sum) goals, where the only way for Disputant A to achieve his or her goals is for Disputant B to lose. For example, two parents may dispute over the time of a curfew for their adolescent son, but fundamentally both share a common concern for his health and safety. However, if a divorcing couple is battling over who gets their shared assets, then the structure of their conflict is more competitive. When conflicts are more competitive, they tend to elicit more strong-arm, contentious, and domineering responses and to escalate more easily and move into escalatory spirals that result in more highly destructive patterns.

Conflict Transparency: This is essentially the degree to which a conflict is explicit or openly expressed. A lack of transparency in personal relationships and professional transactions is often a source of conflict. Generally, the more transparent or explicit a conflict, the easier it is to address constructively through discussion, negotiation, and mediation. However, under some circumstances, such as when the disputants themselves are unclear about what is bothering them, when the timing of sharing one's concerns is bad, or when the social or political repercussions of expressing a conflict are dire, transparency can be less of an advantage.

What we learned about the effects of these three components of conflict in our study was intriguing. The intensity of the conflict was the biggest predictor of the types of behaviors between the parties: the higher the intensity of the conflict, the more unfriendly and disrespectful their behavior. The degree to which the disputants shared common goals was the biggest predictor of whether they'd reach an agreement. The more explicit the issues in the conflict, the more the disputants viewed the mediation process as fair and the more likely they were to find a resolution.

Since conflicts that are low intensity, cooperative, and overt tend to be much easier to manage and more likely to result in positive outcomes than those that are high intensity, competitive, and covert, our most basic goals should be to better understand how to keep conflicts from moving in the latter direction and how to defuse the ones that do.

This might entail moving the conflict from covert to overt, so that you and the other disputants can better understand it and perhaps identify areas of misunderstanding, common ground, or possible compromise. This requires the capacity for self-reflection and contemplation, so that the disputants can gain a better sense of what is at stake, what their priorities are, and why they are reacting in the way they are. It also requires capacity for other-orientation and respectful inquiry, so that the disputants might better gauge the underlying concerns of the others involved and learn why they may wish to keep them hidden.

You may also need to move a conflict from high intensity to lower intensity so that threat, fear, anxiety, and impulsive reactions recede and a sense of possibility, hope, and reason returns. This often begins with space: allowing yourself and the disputants some time and space away from the demands of the conflict in order to regroup. Chapters 4–10 outline a myriad of ways to lower (and raise) the intensity of conflict. To make a conflict less competitive, it helps to identify potential areas of common ground so that the disputants can recognize their shared interests and move the dynamic toward the constructive.

One of the most important things we have learned from the systematic study of conflict over seven decades is that conflict leaves its mark. Conflicts, even trivial ones, tend to have a lasting impact on us. They affect how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about the others involved, and how we feel about the place in which the conflict occurred. They are formative.

Morton Deutsch, one of the founders of the field of conflict resolution, discovered something important in his lab at Columbia University about forty years ago. He and his students had been conducting a series of laboratory studies on conflict for about a decade — using a trucking board game he invented called the Acme-Bolt Trucking Game — when he started to see something intriguing in the pattern of data across the studies. He noticed that certain conditions of conflict would perpetuate themselves. If they began the studies with the players in a cooperative mode (with shared goals or similar backgrounds or open forms of communication or a shared history of cooperation), then it was very likely that they would cooperate in the conflict and continue to do so until they resolved their differences constructively — with both of them winning. If the same participants played again, the same thing would happen. If, on the other hand, they started with the players in a competitive mode, then they would approach the conflicts in the game competitively as win-lose conflicts that would tend to escalate and lead to victory for one or a competitive stalemate. This pattern would repeat itself as well when the players played again. Deutsch called this his "Crude Law of Social Relations" — that cooperative conflict engenders more cooperation in the future, and competitive conflict, more competition.

This means that how we approach and resolve our conflicts initially — cooperatively or competitively — often has implications for the future, beyond the current event. The bottom line with conflict is simple: we want to minimize destructive conflict (where one or both disputants are dissatisfied or disgruntled) and maximize constructive conflict (where all parties are sufficiently satisfied or at least not dissatisfied) whenever possible.

Right (you may be thinking); this all makes perfect sense. But I've heard much of this before, and the real problem is how I do this when the conflict is with my (a) brutal boss, (b) most peevish employee, (c) most demanding client, (d) supercilious trustee, (e) needy union rep, or (f) all the other unhappy campers I deal with at work. How do I navigate those constructively?

We have heard these concerns for years in courses and workshops with managers, executives, and other employees around the world in government, multinational organizations, private companies, universities, and the military. We consistently hear the same questions and comments:

"What if you disagree with your boss and you know she hates conflict?"

"When I disagree with one of my employees, I do everything I can to make it a healthy give-and-take discussion. I want them to work with me, not just for me. Even so, my subordinates seem reluctant to tell me things or to offer their opinions."

"My boss says he wants a candid exchange of ideas, but we all know what outcome he really wants from the beginning, so why stick my neck out?"

"I was promoted and had to manage my old friends; one of them couldn't handle it. It was awful."

"My manager is a bully. How can I use these conflict-resolution techniques when he's yelling at me or telling me to shut up?"

"Technically I am at the same level as the other team leaders, but in every meeting they try to overpower me by being argumentative and sarcastic."

Probably the number-one thing that aggravates and complicates conflict dynamics at work is power. Having it, not having it, hoarding it, sharing too much of it, bestowing it, abusing it, fighting it, channeling it, enhancing access to it by others, or wielding it over them. Power differences between people are a common source of conflict, and conflict makes people acutely aware of power differences.

This is a primary reason we had for writing this book. The effects of power on conflict management and of conflict on power dynamics have been largely neglected and marginalized in both the scholarship on conflict and especially in the practice and training side of conflict management. This gap is glaring given the fact that the vast majority of conflicts happen between people and groups with differences in power, authority, and status.

We wrote this book to help people better understand, cultivate, and more effectively leverage power for constructive conflict management.

Power means different things to different people. We prefer a rather straightforward definition derived from the work of the management visionary Mary Parker Follett. Follett was an American social worker by trade and is one of the great unsung heroes of conflict resolution and management theory. In the 1920s, she worked with labor-management conflicts in business and industry, was an advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt, and was one of the first women invited to address the London School of Economics. Follett offered a view on power and authority in organizations that was a radical departure from the prevailing emphasis on power through control and coercion. She defined power simply as "the ability to make things happen." Building on this, we define power as "the ability to cause or prevent actions and to make things happen, and the discretion to act or not act."

In conflicts, relative power is key: our ability, relative to the ability of the other stakeholders, to cause or prevent things from happening. Can you veto or obstruct my goals and desires? Can you help me achieve them or prevent me from harm, and can I, in turn, do the same for you?

The accuracy of our assessments of relative power is affected by several factors, including, most importantly, how we think about this thing we call power.

Our Assumptions about Power

In a series of studies conducted in our lab and elsewhere, we have found that a major factor in interpersonal relations and performance at work are the implicit theories we hold about abstract things like leadership, followership, intelligence, and power. These four constructs are central to everything that goes on in work organizations, but people think about them in very different ways, and these differences affect their attitudes, feelings, and actions.

We all operate on a set of unconscious assumptions or theories about constructs like power and rely actively on them when making sense of the world. These implicit theories guide the way we process and comprehend information about events, ourselves, and others.

For example, a basic assumption underlying many managers' views of organizational power is that it is a fixed-pie, or scarce, resource — that there is only so much of it to go around. If I delegate authority to you, I lose some power and control. This fixed-pie theory has been found in our research to automatically set up a competition for power between supervisors and employees (and even more so between peers). This win-lose perspective leads to more politicking, power hoarding, and a reliance on strategies of domination in conflict, which increase the need for constant scrutiny and control of subordinates.

Alternatively, some managers view power unconsciously as something that can be grown and increased in cooperation with others. They believe that by working together with their employees they can all gain more power and influence. This more cooperative and incremental theory of power, called an incrementalist theory, has been found in our research to be associated with managers who are more likely to share power and information with employees and support employee empowerment initiatives.

Which power theory do you hold? Fixed-pie? Incrementalist? A bit of both?

When it comes to power differences in conflict, your basic assumptions matter. The more you hold a fixed-pie theory of power, the more likely you are to take a competitive approach to power politics and conflict. The more you hold an incrementalist theory, the more likely you are to empower your peers and supervisees whenever possible and share your power and resources. You'll be more likely to try a more cooperative, win-win approach when appropriate.


Excerpted from "Making Conflict Work"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  Introduction ix
 1. The Nature of Power and Conflict 1
 2. Power-Conflict Traps 17
 3. Conflict Intelligence 37
 4. Pragmatic Benevolence 55
 5. Cultivated Support 86
 6. Constructive Dominance 114
 7. Strategic Appeasement 141
 8. Selective Autonomy 167
 9. Effective Adaptivity 192
 10. Principled Revolution 221
  Conclusion 246
  Acknowledgments 253
  Appendix 255
  Notes 261
  Index 271

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