Theories for Managing Conflict
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Quinn Associates (n.d.) labels the Collaborate quadrant of the Competing Values Framework (CVF) as the Human Relations management model, which “focuses on creating and sustaining commitment and cohesion” (Quin 2015, 33). This model emphasizes an internal focus and flexibility. Quinn sets out five competencies within the Collaborate quadrant of the CVF: understanding self and others, communicating effectively, developing employees, building teams, using participative decision making, and managing conflict. Although Quinn (2015) does not assign them a number or rank system, understanding self and communicating effectively are foundational to this model (33). Without understanding yourself, it is impossible to understand others and without understanding others, it is impossible to communicate effectively to sustain commitment and cohesion within a workgroup or team.
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Quinn (2015, 35) highlights the work of Taylor & Bright as it applies to one’s own self-awareness. They found that two elements comprise self-awareness: emotional intelligence and social intelligence. The internally focused awareness of our own personalities, core beliefs, motives, strengths and weaknesses, and emotional reactions make-up one’s emotional intelligence. Our social intelligence is externally focused and is our “awareness of how we are perceived by others in a social context” (Quinn 2015, 37). As we increase our emotional and social intelligence, we also increase our interpersonal and social competencies, which in turn improves our ability to manage ourselves and others. When managers are able to understand themselves and others, they can tap into the strengths of their employees and ensure their individual needs are being met and how the individual’s strengths can be optimized to meet the mission goals and objectives. The text highlights the work of Dulewicz & Higgs, which found that “managers with higher levels of self-awareness are much more likely to advance in their organizations than those with low self-awareness” (Quinn 2015, 37). This is logical because the manager who understands their own strengths, weaknesses, personality traits and needs is generally able to help employees in their own self-discovery. This is the foundational for building successful teams or assigning individuals work. This idea is summarized quickly in the United States Air Force as “knowing your people”. The managers who know themselves and their team members are the most successful in building and maintaining commitment and cohesion in the workplace.
On the military base where I work, I was part of an Executive Professional Development Team that worked collaboratively on behalf of the installation commander to formulate a two-year senior management development plan. The team conducted some assessments to determine where flight-commanders (mid-level managers) and above needed further professional development to maximize human capital to meet mission goals. The data revealed that employees did not believe their flight commanders and equivalents knew them as individuals, so the bulk of the first year annual plan was developed around increasing self-awareness and interpersonal communication skills. The military is naturally an example of a hierarchical arrangement, so it is not uncommon to find people who are at least initially managing primarily or even exclusively from the Control quadrant of the Competing Values Framework. We found that most of the officers had received some management training that encouraging at least a cursory understanding of self and others. For our civilian managers, it was even less consistent. We found many of the flight commanders were selected because they were competent in the career field at the production level, but many had very little if any formal training in how to manage human capital. This inconsistency led to the team’s recommendations to focus the first year on building the foundations through training that including self-awareness, interpersonal communication and developing an outward mindset.
The plan began with Four Lenses 4-Temperament Discovery courses licensed by Shipley Communications and based on Nathan Bryce’s (2002) book “Four Lenses Unfolded: A Deeper Understanding of Temperament”. The objective was to use a simple model based on the Myers Briggs Personality Types to aid the mid-level managers to develop foundational competencies related to understanding self and others. The course started with an initial personal assessment and then exercises built around further exploring and identifying the values, strengths, needs, and joys of the mid-level managers who were similar. Then the groups presented their collective responses to the larger group. As one of the instructors, I was able to literally see the “a-ha” moments when the managers realized their employees had different values, strengths, needs, and joys. Quinn (2015) stresses the importance of not only being self-aware, but also using that information to identify areas for personal growth (42). We incorporated into the course a goal-setting exercised where we asked participants to create goals for implementing in their units and for personal growth which were sustainable goals that were specific, measurable and could be implemented within a reasonable timeline (SMART Goals).
As a result of these courses, our team of trainers has been conducting team building sessions based on the foundations of Four Lenses within the smaller units. Because the mid-level managers spent time getting to know themselves and others, they were inspired to do the same for their employees. In these unit-based trainings for the production level employees, we highlighted the importance of being aware of their own traits and those of their co-workers. We are starting to see the data that supports the impact on mission goals as the teams have increased their cohesion and productivity. The largest returns on investment (direct and indirect costs) have been seen flights and units where management was heavily operating in the Control quadrant of the CVF prior to the class.
In addition to self-awareness, effective communication is crucial to creating and sustaining commitment and cohesion in the workplace. The text points out that interpersonal communication is “perhaps one of the most important and least understood competencies that a manager can have”, but is also “at the heart of all the competencies” (Quinn 2015, 48). Managers at all levels spend the majority of their time engaging in communication of some form. It is interesting that the task that managers spend the most time in is also the one that is the least understood competency. While conducting the assessment for the development of the senior management development plan, we noted that the managers had specific challenges communicating during conflicts and often saw the breakdown or failure to be on the part of the other individual versus themselves. Quinn (2015) pointed out that “most people in organizations tend to think of themselves as excellent communicators” and “generally see the other people in the organization as the source of the problem” (48). Since conflict can erode the trust among members of the team, it is important to develop interpersonal skills targeted towards reducing conflict.
As a result of communication being an area we identified for mid-level management training during the assessment phase, we opted to have our team obtain certification to provide training created by Vital Smarts, Inc. Their course Crucial Conversations focuses on teaching participants how to communicate with others when the “stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.” (Vital Smarts n.d.) Many of the curriculum components are directly tied to the information in the text related to effective interpersonal communication and relationship conflict (Quinn 2015, 90). My two favorite modules geared toward improving communication are “start from the heart” and “left hand/right hand” column exercise. Start from the heart directly addresses hidden agendas. Hidden agendas are when people believe their message will not be well received so they become deceptive in order to keep their motives hidden (Quinn 2015, 51). Crucial Conversations (n.d.) encourages you to set aside any ulterior motives and begin the conversation only after you have honestly identified your objectives and prepared to start the conversation with a genuine effort to be transparent as you attempt to resolve the issues. The other exercise Vital Smarts includes in the course directly related to resolving conflict is the left hand – right hand column exercise. I was unaware this was taken directly from the work of introducing the participants to the late Chris Argyris of the Harvard Business School (Quinn 2015, 52). This exercise helps participants recognize what is said and unsaid and how that impacts the likelihood of conflict being resolved effectively by people. Only through an honest assessment of what is not being said can there be a resolution of the conflict that can erode team trust.
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Although conflict is traditionally seen as negative due to the erosion of trust, there are times when conflict can propel an organization or group toward better solutions and higher production. In these cases, it is a manager’s responsibility to help manage the conflict productively, so the group can be propelled to better outcomes (Quinn 2015, 88). When we taught the Four Lenses curriculum, this was in part an effort to help managers and employees understand the value of differences when developing teams. Through understanding the value and strengths of other team member personality traits, they reported seeing the value and several groups identified a decrease in relationship conflicts (Quinn 2015, 91). As instructors, we stressed that respectful conflict is simply viewing a situation or solution to a problem from a different lens. An analogy that I used was “handedness”. I asked the participants to write their name on a piece of paper, then put the pen in the other hand and write their name again. Most of them could do it with their non-dominate hand, but it might be uncomfortable. This demonstrated a preference in the way the see and operate in the world. Neither being right-handed nor left-handed is better than the other; they are simply different. There is value in both. It is the manager’s responsibility to model healthy discussions that exam all perspectives. At the end of the workshop, we created teams and had them “build a house out of M&Ms”. The instructions were only that statement. When participants asked from more directions, we simply restated the one sentence. At the end of the exercise, we debriefed each “house”. Some were structured and simple with only a house with a roof, door, and a few windows. Others were very detailed with curtains in the windows, paths leading to the door, flowers, animals, etc. They were able to see that all groups did the exercise, but the way they approached it was different. We made sure to have one or two groups with a very balanced group. Balanced being there were individuals who would represent each of the four primary colors of Four Lenses. These groups had a more balanced approach. Their walls were all the same color of M&Ms like the groups that build very simple houses, but they also included some additional components like a pathway or flowers. In every course, this was the favorite exercise, because they could literally see the value to a balanced group and that “their way” was not the “only way” to accomplish the task at hand.
Conflict will naturally occur in groups comprised of members with different personality traits and management styles, but not all conflict leads to a breakdown in trust and erosion of productivity. If the conflict is respectful and happens within work environments committed to healthy interpersonal communication and group cohesion, production can be increased overall. This is only possible within groups where the manager and each team member is committed to understanding his/herself and others and is committed to the team (Quin 2015, 33).
- Bryce, Nathan K. 2002. “Four Lenses Unfolded: A Deeper Understanding of Temperament Values.” Orem, UT: Insight Learning Foundation.
- Quinn Association. n.d. “Robert E. Quinn’s Competing Values Framework .” Accessed January 23, 2020. https://www.quinnassociation.com/en/robert_e_quinns_competing_values_framework.
- Quinn, R. E., Faerman, S. R., Thompson, M. P., McGrath, M. R., & Bright, D. S. (2015). “Becoming a Master Manager A Competing Values Approach.” Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
- Shipley Communication. n.d. “Four Lenses 4-Temperament Discovery the Kit.” Riverton, UT: Shipley Communication.
- Vital Smarts, Inc. n.d. “Crucial Conversations”. Accessed January 25, 2020. https://www.vitalsmarts.com/crucial-conversations-training/.
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