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Volume 7 | Issue 9

Putting it in context

A message from CDC Integrated Services, LLC

Conflict & Ethics

Although managers spend over twenty percent of their time in conflict management, organization theorists have provided very few guidelines to help them do their job ethically. Here are some of the procedural guidelines/styles suggested for managers to use in handling interpersonal conflict, such: 

  • Integrating 
  • Obliging
  • Dominating 
  • Avoiding 
  • Compromising 

These are used with their superiors, subordinates, and peers both ethically and effectively. It is argued that, in general, each style of handling interpersonal conflict is most appropriate when it is used to attain an organization’s goals and objectives.

One way of doing this is by placing the 2 variables:

  • The organizational needs for production and profit 
  • The human needs for mature and healthy relationships

Generally, the best long-term results are achieved and sustained when concerns for production and for needs of people are integrated in the team direction. 

Organizational conflict: Concepts and models

Three types of conflict among the subunits of formal organizations are identified: 

  • Bargaining conflict among the parties to an interest-group relationship
  • Bureaucratic conflict between the parties to a superior-subordinate relationship 
  • Systems conflict among parties to a lateral or working relationship. 

In each of the three cases, conflict is treated as a series of episodes, and the organization’s reaction to conflict in each case is analyzed. Of particular interest is whether the organization members resolve conflicts by:

  • Withdrawing from the organization
  • By altering the existing set of relationships
  • By changing their values and behavior within the context of the existing relationships. 

To enhance the quality of group decision making, to promote affective acceptance of decisions by all participants involved, or to increase joint outcomes, a principal party or a third party may stimulate social conflict. 

When conflict focuses on:

  • Identity issues
  • High tension levels
  • Disputants’ negatively interdependent goals

Conflict stimulation generally decreases joint performance. 

However, conflict stimulation enhances performance when conflict focuses on:

  • Task issues
  • Low tension level
  • Disputants’ positively interdependent goals.

Conflict may be stimulated either by creating or extending conflict issues, or by promoting contentious conflict behaviors.

The positive effects of conflict – A cognitive perspective

In several studies, managers rated the extent to which conflict produces both positive and negative effects. Interestingly, they rated several negative effects significantly higher than any positive effects. 

However, virtually all reported personal experiences in which conflict yielded beneficial outcomes.  These and other findings suggest that experienced managers perceive conflict as having the potential to yield positive as well as negative effects. 

A review of recent literature on human cognition identifies several factors that may play a role in determining whether conflict yields predominantly positive or negative effects. 

These factors include:

  • The impact of strong negative emotions on cognition
  • Stereotype-driven thinking
  • Attributional processes. 

A recent University study had 186 undergraduates play the role of student executive (SE) and discuss important organizational issues with a confederate (C), who disagreed strongly with each SE’s views. Disagreement was expressed in either:

  • A calm and reasonable manner 


  • In an arrogant and condescending fashion. 

SE’s were then exposed to 1 of 3 treatment conditions:


  • Gratitude
  • Amusement

Each designed to induce positive states incompatible with anger or to a no-treatment control condition. 

Results show that relative to these control conditions, the 3 treatment parameters:

  • Improved SE’s moods
  • Enhanced their impressions of the confederate (C)
  • Increased their preference for constructive as opposed to destructive modes of dealing with conflict. 

Disagreement expressed in a condescending manner produced significantly more negative effects on all dependent measures than disagreement expressed in a reasonable fashion. 

When individuals behave in a provocative, conflict-inducing manner, they often attribute such actions to external causes (e.g., “I’m only following orders”). When such statements are perceived as accurate (sincere), they mitigate negative reactions and reduce subsequent conflict. 

However, when they are viewed as inaccurate (insincere), opposite effects result. The impact of such attributional sincerity is greater in the context of high than low pressure to reach an agreement. 

A recent study, involving officers of an urban fire department, reported on how they reacted to conflict with another member of their department under conditions where this person’s provocative behavior stemmed from various causes. Results agreed closely with those of the University study in that subjects reported the most negative reactions under conditions where their opponent falsely attributed his conflict-inducing actions to external causes.

In the University study, male and female subjects negotiated with an accomplice who behaved in a conflict-inducing manner and who attributed such actions, either accurately or falsely, to external causes. These negotiations occurred under either high or low pressure to reach an agreement. The results offered support for both hypotheses. 

Under high but not low pressure to reach agreement, subjects rated the accomplice as less honest and reported stronger preferences for handing future conflicts with him in nonconciliatory ways when this person’s attributional statements appeared to be false than when they appeared to be accurate. 

Surprisingly, the subjects tested attributed concessions in a manner counter to general perceptions/understandings about conflict resolution. Under pressure, subjects actually made more and larger concessions to an insincere opponent, and fewer concessions to an opponent perceived as sincere. 

In conclusion, there are several approaches managers can take to conflict resolution. Concurrently, there are also several approaches subordinates and peers can take to this same conflict situation. When both parties go into conflict resolution mode, whether from a positive or negative point of view, when those views and approaches are sincerely held and articulated, both sides tend to work together toward a mutually acceptable resolution.

When, however, when one or the other approaches the opportunity with falsely attributed motives, the sensing of this by the other side instills skepticism into the process.  The most effective approach is to enter the process from as honest a point of view, be it positive or negative, and with as open a mind as possible to maintain the best of ethical standards.

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