How can conflicts benefit organizations?

As part of their course Current Trends in Leadership and Change (LFCS05), LFC students have written blog posts about resilience, circular economy practices, stakeholder relations, conflicts in organizations and relational frictions in European monarchies.

Even though conflicts can be seen as something destructive that need to be controlled or avoided, they can be productive and generate positive change (Rossi, 2019, p. 168). Furthermore, conflicts can create value and lead to new opportunities. This blog post discusses conflicts in organizations. How can conflicts benefit organizations and what should be taken into account?

Ann had been working in the administration of the hospital for 9 years. She was very good at her job, was comfortable in her position, and had been hoping for the possibility of advancing to a higher job position in the future. During the years in her job, she had the opportunity to develop her human capital (Pajunen, 2019) through evolving job description and collaboration with many co-workers and service-users. However, she lacked social capital (Pajunen, 2019) as she had been very committed to her job and had not put the effort in her social networks in the online and offline environments nor had she created contacts with people from other organizations in the same field.

Then a merge with the administrative department of another hospital came in and took Ann by a surprise. The merge was needed to improve productivity, due to the reduction in the resources given by the government. The news made Ann feel insecure about the future of her position, as she knew that a merger would lead to cutting costs in the organization and letting some of the staff go.

In the next weekly meeting, Ann’s manager discussed the upcoming merger with the employees. Ann noticed that many people felt insecure about the change, but also had very different points of view to it, which created unspoken conflict. The employees with a long experience in the organization and a more stable position saw the merger as a threat to their current position, whereas new workers with short-term contracts tended to see it more as an opportunity to climb up the organizational ladder. The members of Ann’s working team did not feel comfortable to speak up about the conflicting feelings. The situation was new and difficult for the team manager as well and she was not equipped to deal with it.

Many of us can resonate with the situation: change in an organization can create fear and feelings of insecurity. To address the fear, we are advised to talk about it, but what is keeping us away from talking about it openly? Can conflicts be avoided? Are we encouraged to value the conflict?

Let’s look at the theoretical perspective of the situation based on Paula Rossi’s (2019) book chapter Conflicts in leading and managing change: Towards a reflexive practice and Paula Rossi’s and Sanna Tuurnas’ (2019) article Conflicts fostering understanding of value co-creation and service systems transformation in complex public service systems.

Leadership and concept of conflict – Reflexive Practice Framework

Rossi (2019) discusses the leader’s prerequisites for acting in complex change processes within organizations in which both cooperation and conflicts exist simultaneously. Leadership should be seen as “a situated, social, relational and dialogic practice” where people’s experiences are in the focus (Rossi, 2019, p.165). Moreover, it is essential to take into consideration and examine how to exploit people’s differences arising in everyday interactions (Rossi, 2019), which means to address the conflict. Conflict is “an individual’s experience and understanding of a given situation or phenomena which is different from that of others involved” (Rossi & Tuurnas, 2019, p. 4). More experienced and less experienced employees in Ann’s case had a conflicting feeling about their future within the organization, which were not addressed at the beginning of the change process.

Even though conflict can be seen as something destructive that needs to be controlled or avoided, it can be productive and generate positive change and development (Rossi, 2019, p. 168). Rossi (2019) argues that when tensions and conflicts are investigated and reflected upon, and thus leading change becomes a reflexive practice, it can endorse organizational change. By the reflexive practice, we mean: “the need to explore, understand, and reframe the understanding of conflict experiences so that they would give rise to individual development” (Rossi, 2019, p. 171).

Rossi’s (2019) framework is based on four underlying assumptions: a subjective experience, relational life context, sensemaking, and storytelling. The reflexive practice would look at the “being” part in the situation, not only at the “doing” part. This is often forgotten by leaders, to examine what makes employees behave in the way they do, who they are, explore, for example, conflicting values and perceptions. The author believes that conflict is always experienced at an individual level and therefore focus on micro-processes is needed. Does this mean that Ann’s manager should explore deeper what conflict exists and why? How to reach out for the conflict instead of avoiding it? Rossi (2019) suggests enabling dialogue and negotiation, offer sufficient time and opportunity to pay attention to and be reflexive about how and why their work is carried out in practice.

Conflict and value co-creation

The article by Rossi and Tuurnas (2019) looks at the case study in Finland where service systems reform was needed, and cooperation with Vamos Turku (further Vamos) was explored. Same as in Ann’s case, this is a change in the public sector, which is often more complex and has different goals than changes in the private sector.

In the public sector, the discussion about value creation is a trend (Meynhardt, 2009; Page et al, 2015; Bryson et al, 2017; Edvinsson & Bounfour, 2014; Crosby et al, 2017). In this sense, delivered services have to bring value to users and performance measurements should be applied in a way to monitor the quality of the services (Rossi & Tuurnas, 2019; Vakkuri & Meklin, 2006). Conflicts play an essential role in value creation, when conflicting values are addressed to find new solutions. Conflicts come in various forms. In the Vamos example, it’s about conflicts between the actors already working with youths and a new actor (Rossi & Tuurnas, 2019). Mostly because of misunderstandings, the entry of Vamos in the service system wasn’t efficient and didn’t lead to noticeable changes. Authors suggest that leaders should step in to identify conflicts and use their power to initiate, for example, negotiations. The difference between Ann’s case and Vamos’s case is that the conflict in the Vamos case is between internal and external parties, while in Ann’s case it is between internal employees. Avoiding conflicts is the most common thing to do, however, the authors highlight the importance to use conflict to create positive changes despite where the conflict takes place. Managers need to zoom out and see the bigger picture, and address conflicts accordingly.

Criticism of the theory

For a conflict to be the main driver of change, the leader, who is not affected by the change itself, is an important element. Both Rossi (2019) and Rossi and Tuurnas (2019) put an emphasis on managers and managers as leaders to encourage conflict. However, managers, just like other employees in the organization, are exposed to negative emotions and have a high pressure to deal with their own emotions and fear. One of the key success drivers for the conflict is dialogue. However, the ability to reflect and be aware of one’s emotions is an acquired skill, and it should not be taken for granted. How can such skills be developed before dealing with the conflict? Another weakness of the proposed reflexive practice is the focus on individual development. Does individual learning and development always lead to group or organizational learning and development? This is a very debated topic, especially if we look at the organizational learning theory based on Argyris (1978).

Social capital

What abilities would Ann’s manager need to obtain positive outcomes of the conflict? Pajunen (2019) offers interesting insights into this question by discussing the importance of dynamic managerial capabilities in strategic change. These are tools by which managers work to create and modify firms’ strategies (Pajunen, 2019). One of these abilities is social capital, which comprehends the resources and information a manager can obtain from both formal and informal relationships (Helfat & Martin, 2015). Although the conceptualization might appear too abstract, the social capital of individuals contributes to learning and action (Pajunen, 2019) in a conflict situation that has been triggered by a change process.

In the case of Ann, for example, social capital could have helped the manager identify the conflict sooner; if Ann’s manager had developed trustworthy relationships with the staff, they would feel safer to share their fears at the very beginning. Furthermore, a strong relationship with other individuals in her organization could have provided her with insights and experiences about the merge in other sectors.

How about Ann’s manager? How did she cope with the conflict?

As months passed by, new definitions of work positions became more concrete, internal events related to merging took place, and Ann’s manager organized the first workshop intending to discuss the conflicts and build the future vision with employees. The main focus was to make a safe environment for dialogue and encourage employees to express their thoughts, address the conflict and come up with solutions. After a non-expected struggle for dialogues, extra workshops were organized to eventually create a mind map that included employees’ feelings, thoughts, and possible solutions. Many surprising facts were learned, and the manager was able to keep a balance between the conflicts, listen to everyone and come up together with the team with new solutions through an honest dialogue. The workshops helped to relieve fears, make employees feel better and increase the trust in the manager. Thus, conflicts can generate value and new opportunities.

Key takeaways for organizations:

  1. Treat conflicts as opportunities and tools to explore deeper differences between the employees
  2. Give sufficient time to create an open dialogue
  3. Consider using someone else than the manager to facilitate workshops (the manager is involved in the same process as the rest of the employees and thus goes through the same changes)
  4. Train employees for a productive conflict

This blog post was compiled by Camille Saudrais, Gresa Shemsedini-Sylejmani, Raysa França, Saka Olakunle, Santa Bürkland and Sari Veripää.

Bibliography

Argyris, C., & Schön, D. A. (1978). Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

Bryson, J., Sancino, A., Benington, J., & Sørensen, E. (2017). Towards a multi-actor theory of public value co-creation. Public Management Review, 19(5), 640–654.

Crosby, B. C., ‘t Hart, P., & Torfing, J. (2017). Public value creation through collaborative innovation. Public Management Review, 19(5), 655–669.

Edvinsson, L., & Bounfour, A. (2004). Assessing national and regional value creation. Measuring Business Excellence, 8(1), 55–61.

Helfat, C. E., & Martin, J. A. (2015). Dynamic managerial capabilities: Review and assessment of managerial impact on strategic change. Journal of Management, 41(5), 1281–1312.

Meynhardt, T. (2009). Public value inside: What is public value creation?. Journal of Public Administration, 32(3–4), 192–219.

Page, S. B., Stone, M. M., Bryson, J. M., & Crosby, B. C. (2015). Public value creation by cross‐sector collaborations: A framework and challenges of assessment. Public Administration, 93(3), 715–732.

Pajunen, K. (2019). Introduction to Strategic Leadership in Change: Case Gösta Serlachius [Course Lecture]. Current Trends in Leadership and Change.

Pajunen, K. (2019). Introduction to Strategic Leadership in Change: Case Gösta Serlachius [PowerPoint slides]. Current Trends in Leadership and Change. https://moodle.tuni.fi/pluginfile.php/369235/mod_resource/content/2/LFC%20current%20trends%20in%20leadership%20Pajunen.pdf

Rossi, P. (2019). Conflicts in leading and managing change. In A. Kangas, J. Kujala, A. Heikkinen, A. Lönnqvist, H. Laihonen & J. Bethwaite (Eds.), Leading change in a complex world (pp. 165–181). Tampere University Press.

Rossi, P. (2019) Introduction To Strategic Leadership In Change: Challenges in Leading Change [PowerPoint slides]. Current Trends in Leadership and Change. https://moodle.tuni.fi/pluginfile.php/369219/mod_resource/content/2/Lecture%20slides%2C%20Rossi.pdf

Rossi, P. & Tuurnas, S. (2019). Conflicts fostering understanding of value co-creation and service systems transformation in complex public service systems. Public Management Review. DOI: 10.1080/14719037.2019.1679231

Vakkuri, J., & Meklin, P. (2006). Ambiguity in performance measurement: a theoretical approach to organisational uses of performance measurement. Financial Accountability & Management, 22(3), 235–250.

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