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Management approaches to resolving conflict in the workplace
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For a manager, dealing with change presents a dichotomy. Buchanan and
Huczynski (1991) point out the paradox that differences are essential to change
but that it is these differences which can generate disputes. As Deutsch (in
Vayrynen, 1991) points out, conflict is likely if there is a perceived incompatibility
or if the participants perceive that there is utility in conflict, that is, something to
be gained or less to lose than by remaining passive. However, many writers,
including Handy (1993), Mullins (1996) and Edelmann (1993), argue that a
certain amount of conflict is both inevitable and healthy, provided it is directed
positively. The danger is that conflict can become personal and negative, and
undermine individual and organisational performance. Striking a balance
between the two is easier said than done and a manager will need to employ a
variety of methods in attempting to do so. For the most part, the strategies for
managing change and conflict in LIS are no different to those which apply to
organisations in general because, essentially, they all deal with human reactions
to a changing environment. Indeed the LIS literature on the subject reflects these
general themes (for example, Eggleton, 1979; Allred, 1987; Baker, 1989; Buch,
1997; Pettas and Gilliland, 1992). Therefore, the framework for this discussion
will a general one, with examples from LIS where appropriate.
1 1995, Concise, 9th ed. Oxford, OUP.
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According to Daft (1994), managers sense a need for change when they perceive
a performance gap, that is, a disparity between existing and desired levels of
performance. It seems a somewhat narrow definition in that it implies that all
change is planned and positive and seems to ignore the possibility of unplanned
and potentially negative change - for example, unexpected budget cuts. This
said, most change is planned, is intended to be positive and arises from the need
to respond to new challenges and opportunities (Mullins, 1996).
Organisational change may be incremental (linear) or radical (discontinuous). It
may be a reactive response to external, environmental factors or generated
proactively in anticipation of future trends (Hamel, 1998). Both, however, are a
response to how an organisation perceives its current or future environment.
Indeed, one can detect a Darwinian 'adapt or die' thread running though many
authors interpretations (Goble, 1997; Hamel, 1998; St Clair, 1996), a concept
summed up pithily by Handy (1993, p.291) with "change is a necessary condition
Environmental factors include technology, government, the economy and societal
values and behaviour. For instance, in recent years, LIS have had to adapt to
the rapid development of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and
the Labour government's plans for national computer networks in public libraries
and schools. As Goble (1997) notes, they also face competition from external
providers in an increasingly commercialised information services market where
there is rapid price inflation for both printed and electronic sources, adding
pressure to already tight budgets. Further, in a service economy, consumers
have become more demanding and, lastly, the composition of the workforce is
changing, with an ageing population, more women, plus more part-timers and job
sharing (Mullins, 1996).
In response to, or in anticipation of such factors, organisations may initiate
change. This can incorporate both structure (hierarchy and division of work) and
culture (how things are done - values and norms), and such change may involve,
amongst other things, costs, job design, staff development and training, working
conditions and new services or products (Cornell, 1996).
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Implementing such changes is not easy. Likert, in Cornell, (1996) identifies three
styles of managing change: authoritative (imposed by management); consultative
(discussed with staff but still decided by management) and participative (involving
staff in decision- making). Further, Lewin's widely cited model breaks the
management of change into three phases. First, unfreezing - diagnosing
problems and an awareness of the need to change. Second, changing - the
breaking of old habits and adoption of new skills and behaviour and third,
refreezing - evaluating and consolidating the changes (Daft, 1994; Cava, 1990;
Cornell, 1996; Mullins, 1996).
However, Handy (1993, p.292), doubts whether change can be 'managed' at all:
"To 'manage change' is wishful thinking, implying as it does that one not only knows
where to go and how to get there but can persuade everyone else to travel there."
He continues that change can at best be 'cultivated' through channelling and
learning, not controlling. Fundamentally, what Handy is advocating is Likert's
(op.cit.) participative approach or what Senge (in Goble, 1997) describes as the
'Learning Organisation'. This is an organisation in which change is welcome and
accepted and which never 'arrives' but constantly seeks to improve. Senge
stresses that people are the most important element in change, not technology or
processes. This model also emphasises the need for clarity of purpose, and for
dialogue and discussion through teamworking and empowerment, that is, a
participative management style. It is reasoned that by involving staff in decisions
which affect them and giving them greater responsibility for their work, they will
become 'empowered', will 'own' solutions and accept change more readily (ibid.).
There is general agreement with this view (amongst others - Underwood, 1990;
Cornell, 1996; Hamel, 1998; Mullins, 1996).
Reality, of course, is somewhat removed form academic models. To return to
Handy's (1993) evolutionary analogy, I would argue that Change is not always a
condition of survival - successful genes, such as those in crocodiles or, more
pertinently, humans, have remained stable over geological time spans.
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Moreover, the norms and mores which our society conditions us to aspire to -
family values, owning a home, upholding the law - are based upon stability and,
as Duening (1997) notes, most people are creatures of habit and crave a sense
of belonging. This is not to say that change is bad or unnecessary. Rather, it is
an observation that, participative or not, change goes against the grain for many
because it upsets the psychological status quo (Baker, 1989). As such, a fear of
change is rational and even change that is commonly agreed to be for the best
can be unsettling and generate conflicting feelings of loss and discomfort (ibid.).
Where there is disagreement over change, resistance will be greater and Smith
in Buch, (1997) contends that a startling 80% of organisational change efforts fail.
Therefore, understanding how and why organisational change is likely to
generate such tensions is clearly of considerable importance.
Sources of conflict during organisational change.
Cornell (1996) identifies four responses to change: withdrawal (including
resignation), resistance, acceptance (a reluctant bowing to the inevitable) and
embracing (welcoming change and the opportunities it brings). The first three of
these indicate conflict. DeBono (1985) provides a simple framework which helps
to explain why such reactions occur. He states that people disagree because
they want different things or because they perceive things differently.
Organisational change provides ample opportunity for either or both of these
scenarios to cause conflict.
The style of change
As discussed above, participation, provided it is genuine, is widely regarded as
the most effective way of introducing change with minimum of resistance. (it is
also seen as one of the more productive strategies for dealing with conflict should
it arise (Baker, 1989; Mullins, 1996; Handy, 1993 - see below: Strategies for
managing conflict.) Nevertheless, Mullins, (1996) points out that it also requires
time and patience to establish, especially where, historically (as in many LIS),
there has been a hierarchical and bureaucratic culture where everyone 'knows
their place' and is not used to being consulted. In practical terms, it is more
decisive, quicker and therefore tempting to impose change with little or no
participation (ibid.). In addition, Duening (1997) warns against the
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heading by using
dangers of what he calls ‘catastrophist' management theories with their emphasis
discontinuous change and the latest management fads. Whilst much is made of
the 'information age' and the 'knowledge economy', it should not be forgotten that
the human brain's capability to process information is unchanged (ibid.). Sykes
and Gerrard (1997), although writing in the context of the convergence of LIS and
ICT services, make the general point that change is unlikely to work if it is too
great a departure from existing practice and culture. Trying to change too much
too quickly is likely to be counter productive as people will not be able to deal
with it effectively. As Mullins (1996) observes, the adoption of an autocratic
approach to change, or an over-ambitious one, shows a failure to appreciate the
human aspects of change and is likely to generate fear, uncertainty and hostility.
Closely linked to the style of management is communication. Managers who do
not communicate effectively run the risk that their plans and motives will be
misunderstood and generate resistance. If the reasons for change are not
justified and explained, rumour and speculation can fill the void (Daft, 1994) and
undermine the credibility of the project. Further, Clampitt (1991) remarks, that
informing people of an idea is not the same as persuading them that it is a good
one. Likewise, Mullins, (1996) warns that managers who are enthused and
motivated by proposed changes must beware of assuming that staff will
automatically be similarly engaged simply by the prospect.
Structure and Culture
Communication is both a contributory factor and a product of an organisation's
structure and culture. To focus on LIS once more, Prince and Burton (1988); St
Clair (1996) and Greenhalgh and Worpole (1995) all note that in recent years
there has been a move away from traditional structures and cultures which were
hierarchical, bureaucratic and function-based. In their place have come flatter
structures, convergence with computing services and more service- orientated,
entrepreneurial cultures which emphasise team-working, multi-skilling (reflecting
the growing use of ICT) and more participative management (Greenhalgh and
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Worpole, 1995; Buch, 1997; Shaughnessy, 1996). Librarians and LIS managers
in all sectors must now possess a wider range of educational, financial and
management skills than was the case when the more passive,
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