A new interactionist model of conflict management.

AuthorNussbaum, Barbara B.

    Conflict is currently recognized to be a component of interpersonal interactions, not necessarily inevitable or innately bad, but often commonplace and is an emergent function of people interacting within the workplace (Deutsch & Coleman, 2000; Schellenberg, 1996).

    At the individual-level, more organizations have included conflict management skills as a requirement for recruitment, selection and performance appraisal for employees, especially management and executive positions (Office of Personnel Management, 2007). A quick internet review of the training programs being offered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM, 2007) reveals that "conflict management skills" is listed as a competency goal in the majority of the leadership courses offered to executives. In the private sector, consultants and internal human resource departments are providing training that includes skills building in conflict management strategies (Deutsch & Coleman, 2000; Whetten & Cameron, 2002). The trend in organizations implementing both system-wide processes and individual-focused programs to facilitate management of interpersonal conflict in the workplace coincides with a growing body of research showing conflict, if not managed, can lead to poor organizational (De Dreu & Beersma, 2005; De Dreu & Weingart, 2003; Deutsch, 1949) and individual outcomes (Ayoko, Hartel, & Callan, 2002; Euwema, Van de Vliert, & Bakker, 2003; Friedman, Tidd, C., & Tsai, 2000).

    Conflict interactions that occur in the workplace provide a rich opportunity to explore to what extent specific aspects of the situation influence the participants. The literature suggests that individuals interact within contexts and that meaning, perceptions, and behaviors are emerging properties. While the person may use a set of strategies during conflicts, the specific tools used will be contingent on the situation as it is unfolding. How the situation unfolds is influenced by the specific contextual features evident, manifest behaviors used by parties, and individuals' social cognition processing. The latter may include causal analysis and inferences, attitudes about the specific conflict, perceived behavioral control over the situation, and subjective norms related to the specific conflict.


    The preponderance of the research conducted in the workplace setting still frames conflict management as a stable style, and while there is an acknowledgement that conflict management behaviors are emergent within a specific situation, this is not typically reflected in the empirical research. There is an opportunity to bridge perspectives by integrating a contingency perspective to examine the extent to which specific aspects of the context produce different relationships between personal characteristics and behaviors during a workplace conflict situation.

    This paper reviews existing theories and research related to conflict management taking into account individual background variables, as well as offering an expanded model for consideration. Psychology, sociology, organizational behavior, and education have all embraced this topic as an important one and offer perspectives and research contributing to the current knowledge relating to this complex topic. Opportunities exist for management scholars to assume leadership in enhancing our understanding of conflict in the workplace to create stronger and optimally functioning organizations. The remainder of the paper represents the following sections: Section three provides conceptual and theoretical frameworks based on relevant literature review on conflict style, contingency perspective, individual and behavior, context and behavior, sex of parties, and language and linguistic; Section four recommends a new interactionist model of conflict management, and ideas for future research; and Section five concludes the paper.


    The majority of people who work spend a good proportion of their weekday hours interacting with others at their workplace. The average number of hours worked each week has held fairly constant for a wide range of industries over the last ten year (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2007). This fact alone seems to make workplace organizations a viable context in which to study conflict. Concomitantly, over the last decade there has been increased attention to conflict management in the workplace by organizations, both public and private. Evidence of this is seen in organizations' activities focused at the system and individual level. At the system level, more organizations are implementing alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes and procedures. Cost saving has been an impetus for companies and the Federal Government (General Accounting Office, 1997) to incorporate arbitration and mediation processes as alternatives to formal legal options. Peer and/or management review has been utilized to address interpersonal conflict situations at earlier stages of escalation. Additionally, there has been a growth in the number of companies and agencies creating organizational ombudsmen positions. An organizational or internal ombudsman provides a neutral, independent, and confidential mechanism for employees to deal with conflicts that occur with peers and/or managers.

    There is an enormous body of literature, theoretical and empirical, dealing with conflict and conflict management. This paper is grounded in a body of research specifically addressing interpersonal conflict in the workplace. The following section provides descriptions of a hypothetical situation (conflict) in a given context (the workplace) and two views on conflict management behaviors: style versus contingency.

    3.1 Hypothetical Scenario

    John and Mary are peers at ABC organization. Mary believes that John took all of the credit for their joint work on a task force when he presented the results to the management committee. From his words and actions Mary has concluded that John deliberately meant to mislead the committee about his contributions. Mary decides not to directly confront John but to talk to her friends about how angry and frustrated she is about this situation.

    Does Mary always respond to conflict by avoiding confrontation or does she use different behaviors based upon the situation? If the conflict involved a female coworker or the disagreement was about a more technical issue, would Mary's behavior be the same? A style perspective to conflict management is based upon the premise that a person uses the same behaviors across different contexts and conflict situations (Wilson & Waltman, 1988), while a contingency approach to conflict management suggests that the individual will use behaviors and actions that incorporates situational and contextual factors (Jameson, 1999). What follows is a more detailed look at style and contingency.

    3.2 Conflict Style

    Research conducted in workplace settings has largely framed the individual to have a conflict style that may reflect a predisposition, habit or stable internal preference (Wilson & Waltman, 1988) that is consistent over time and across situations. From this perspective, studies were designed to examine the relationship between individual differences in attributes such as sex (Bullis, Cox, & Herrod, 1982; Gayle, Preiss, & Allen, 1994; LaFrance, Brownell, & Hahn, 1997; Papa & Natalle, 1989), personality (Moberg, 1998; Percival, Smitheram, & Kelly, 1992), moral development (Rahim, Buntzman, & White, 1999), and cultural background (Chua & Gudykunst, 1987; Tinsley, 2001) to explain or predict their conflict style. Intuitively, many of these individual differences may be related to how a person may approach and behave in a conflict situation. However, if behavior is a function of the individual and the environment, the participants and issues involved in a conflict will often vary and may also contribute to the interaction. Additionally, research linking traits, such as sex to conflict management behavioral styles (Chusmir & Mills, 1989; Hottes & Kahn, 1974; Portello & Long, 1994) has had mixed results raising the possibility that sex is not consistently linked to conflict style or that conflict behavior, as a trait, is not the optimal framework.

    3.3 Contingency Perspective

    In contrast to a style framework, a contingency perspective suggests that an individual incorporates salient external variables into their cognitive processing during an interaction and this may affect the individual's conflict management behaviors. Researchers in conflict management behaviors in the workplace have hypothesized and identified some relevant situational variables. The behaviors used by an individual during a disagreement may vary dependent upon the sex of the other person (Gayle et al., 1994; LaFrance et al., 1997; Tinsley, 2001). There may also be different "types" of conflicts. One categorization identified in qualitative research, task versus relationship-related (Jehn, 1995) has been related to differences in outcome variables, such as team satisfaction (Jehn, 1995), performance, (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003) and innovation (Lovelace, Shapiro, & Weingart, 2001). Conflicts in the workplace often take the form of verbal or written exchanges. The words used by a participant become part of the context in which the conflict interaction is occurring. When aspects of the context are relevant to the participant, such as sex or specific words used, a different pattern of conflict management behaviors may be used to manage the interaction (Olson-Buchanan, Drasgow, Moberg, Mead, Keenan, & Donoyan, 1998).

    In summary, a contingency perspective advocates that an individual has a tool kit of behaviors that s/he uses during a conflict interaction. These may be related to personal characteristics such as sex, age, or personality. However, there seems to be a growing interest by researchers to question what...

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