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Managing conflict: Supervisory Skills and Strategies (2)

Peter Gabor and Carol Ing

Different consequences result from the various approaches to conflict resolution. In general four types of consequences are possible: (1) Lose-Lose, where neither side’s needs are met; (2) Win-Lose or Lose-Win, where the needs of one side only are met; (3) Compromise, where the needs of both sides are partially met; and (4) Win-Win, where the needs of both sides are met.

Where avoidance or delays are used to resolve conflict, the consequence often is that everyone loses. Essentially, the problem remains, and indeed often worsens. For example, a supervisor may choose to ignore the behavior of a staff member who does not consistently follow through agreed upon plans. Negative consequences may include: (1) The supervisor loses respect among members of the working group; (2) The program operates less effectively than might be possible with a consistent approach; and (3) The inconsistent worker does not receive feedback which might have helped to improve his performance. In a real sense supervisors who fail to confront problematic situations show low concern for their own needs and for the needs of others (Graham, 1980). Such supervisors are like a giant turtle hiding inside its shell; they are difficult to ignore but they make very little impact on their surroundings. For all intents and purposes they are “not there” when needed.

When power is a major factor in the resolution of a conflict a Win-Lose result often emerges. Typically, the use of power involves forcefulness, threats, demands, intimidation, deceit and manipulation. Thus, a supervisor may summarily tell a worker to follow instructions. In such a situation, the supervisor essentially says: "I am the supervisor, I hold the formal authority, and you will do what you are told." Alternately, the supervisor may use threats and intimidation, implied or explicit, suggesting that a worker’s performance evaluation will be contingent upon her support of the supervisor’s goals and plans. A supervisor may also use manipulation in his approach, assuming the role that Warschaw (1980) calls, “Big Daddy”. Such a supervisor will explain to workers that only he has the "big picture" and suggest that, given his access to all the relevant facts and his greater experience, his ideas are the best. He is asking others to trust that he will take care of them and that what he is proposing will ultimately benefit everyone.

For their part, workers will also, sometimes, resort to the use of power in situations of conflict. For example a worker may have a strong and forceful personality and persist in arguing a point until the supervisor finally gives way. Alternately, a worker might obtain the agreement of other workers for a particular point of view and use this support as a power lever. A worker might also attempt to manipulate by raising other issues of concern and attempting to divert attention from the matter at hand.

The examples above give an illustration of some ways that power may be used in conflict resolution. Obviously, other power-based approaches are possible and, indeed, are frequently used. People who use power to achieve their objectives reflect an attitude that indicates: “My expertise is greater, my knowledge is superior, my needs are more important.” As a corollary, they consider the needs and opinions of others to be of secondary importance. When they succeed in resolving conflict to their satisfaction, they inevitably leave in their wake a sea of bad feelings, bruised egos, and resentments. Supervisors who rely on the use of power are likely to face heavy costs in the form of low morale, loss of motivation and inadequate commitment in the work unit.

In some situations, rather than relying too much on the use of power, people will fail to make legitimate use of their power and authority. Such people, in effect, show a higher regard for the concerns and needs of others than for their own. A supervisor, for example, may want to ensure that her workers are happy and that the work team is functioning harmoniously. Thus she may place few demands on the work group and shield her workers from organizational demands, thereby abdicating her leadership role. Alternately, a worker may be unassertive regarding his views and needs, taking the position that since the supervisor has more experience and holds a more senior position, the supervisor must know best.

Evidently, the personal needs of such people are rarely met. Often they pay a price by experiencing negative feelings such as resentment, anger, a low sense of worth and decreased job satisfaction. Moreover, because they are unassertive, their views and opinions remain unheard, depriving the work group of their experience and perspective. Because a lack of assertiveness does not necessarily mean that the quality of ideas and opinions is low, the work group may lose the benefit of valuable ideas through this process.

People will sometimes negotiate when faced with conflict but lack a commitment to work towards solutions which can meet as many needs as possible. They approach conflict resolution as a bargaining session and are willing to give up some of their goals if others will give up some of theirs. Thus they seldom arrive at a solution that meets all their needs or those of others but the solutions arrived at allow some of the needs of both parties to be met. A major shortcoming of compromise solutions is that such bargaining is a negatively oriented process where the main objective is to equalize gains and losses. The bargaining may not take into account the quality of the solution but merely concern itself with what is being traded for what. Thus, the worst part of each side’s position may be retained in a compromise solution, while the more desirable elements of each position are discarded as bargaining chips.

The most constructive solutions are those which take into consideration the views of all persons involved and are acceptable to all. Such outcomes are the result of negotiation strategies where the needs of both sides are considered important and an attempt is made to meet all needs. These solutions are appropriately called Win-Win because there are no losers. While often difficult to arrive at, the process leading to such solutions builds interpersonal relationships, increases motivation and improves commitment. Win-Win solutions are the most desirable outcomes of conflict resolution.

Gabor, P. & Ing, C (1989). Managing conflict: Supervisory Skills and Strategies. The Child and Youth Care Administrator. Vol.2 No.2 pp. 53-55

Warschcaw, T (1980). Winning by negotiation. New York: McGraw-Hill. 


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