Self Help & Education

Managing conflict in public organizations: conflict can be recognized, tackled, and resolved in five not-so-easy steps.

Managers in every type of organization have to deal with conflict,

but those in public organizations are subject to more of it than their

counterparts in private and nonprofit organizations. In extremely

bureaucratic environments, with ever-increasing pressures to do more

with less, subject to layers of laws and regulations, and under constant

public scrutiny, public agencies face a barrage of factors that catalyze internal and external conflicts. Being able to recognize, tackle, and

resolve conflicts is thus a critical skill for public administrators.

Dealing with conflict, of course, is seldom an easy task. In fact,

it requires skills that not many public managers possess. Some

don’t recognize its existence, and others choose to ignore complex

issues, avoid confrontations, or feel powerless to make changes. Sadly,

ignoring conflicts won’t resolve them: even if the conflict itself

goes away, side effects can linger, such as a manager’s reputation

for ineffectivity or a negative impact on teaming. This article offers

public administrators a structured process for managing organizational


What Is Organizational Conflict?

Conflict results when a person’s or group’s behavior or

action negatively affects another. These negative behaviors or actions

result when beliefs, values, attitudes, ideas, needs, goals,

perceptions, expectations, or interests differ. In organizations,

conflict also arises when the behavior or action of a person, group, or

department contradicts the rules, regulations, or even social norms of

part of the organization (group, team, section, branch, division, or

directorate), the organization as a whole, or external entities such as

regulatory agencies. It can also result as a byproduct of the

organization itself, from such factors as interdependent relationships,

hierarchical relationships, task differences, and delegations of

resources and authority. Typical organizational issues also breed

conflict, such as poor lines of communication, lack of effective

leadership, and conflicting priorities. New conflicts can also result

from old ones that were never fully resolved.


One of the primary causes of conflict in public organizations is

the frequently changing, often uncertain environment in which they

operate. National, state, and local leaders constantly change, and with

them, their political appointees. Laws and regulations change to adapt

to customer needs, missions change due to world events, and public

agencies change to respond to private-sector influences (particularly

competition to provide historically governmental services).


Organizational conflict can have negative or positive consequences.

Negative consequences include faltering performance, lower employee

morale, stifled creativity, lack of innovation, impaired teamwork, and

degraded customer service. Employees may become antagonistic. Unresolved conflicts can lead to the intervention of external parties, such as

upper management, customers, policymakers, or the media. The

organization in conflict could be seen as inept, and its manager as

incompetent. Of course, this depends on the conflict type and severity,

but even the smallest issues have the tendency to mushroom if left


When managers deal with conflict by ensuring all parties involved

are heard and understood, foster consensus building and a team

environment, and ensure actions are taken in the best interest of the

organization and its customers, conflict can have positive consequences.

Dealt with skillfully, it can lead to enhanced communication, improved

teamwork, higher morale, improved customer support, increased

productivity, and the generation of creative alternatives to solve

complex problems. In these cases, conflict acts as a catalyst for

innovation and an opportunity for improvement.

In some cases, lack of conflict can be a problem; for example, when

a team is formed to solve a complex issue, but a lack of differing ideas

and opinions (groupthink) leads to a suboptimal solution, or none at



Managers must be able to recognize conflict and then decide whether

they should take action. Generally, they should only act upon conflicts

in their immediate area of responsibility and when their employees are

unable to effectively resolve them. Indications of conflict that need

management attention include the following:

* A decrease in production

* Unmet project milestones

* Low employee morale

* Increased absenteeism

* Uncharacteristic employee mistakes

* Quieter-than-normal employees

* Unusual employee complaining

* Office infighting

* Customer complaints.

Signs of conflict also include any behaviors or actions out of the

ordinary. Rather than just looking for visual cues of conflict, managers

should maintain open lines of communication with their employees to be

immediately aware of conflicts when they occur.

Conflict Resolution

Unfortunately, some managers either ignore conflict when it occurs

(avoiding) or dictate a resolution by “laying down the law”

(forcing).Neither is a long-term solution, and both can actually

increase negative consequences. The proper method to handle conflict is

to strive for positive resolution through joint problem-solving. When

conflict cannot be resolved through teaming or consensual decision

making, the manager must get involved and quickly work to resolve the


One successful approach to handling conflict involves a five-stage

process: planning, facing, following up, resolving, and following up

again. This article addresses these stages from a manager-to-employee

point of view, but they apply to handling conflicts with peers,

superiors, and constituents.

Stage 1. Planning

Planning involves taking actions to prepare for a face-to-face

meeting with the employee first and then other parties involved in the

conflict. First, the manager needs to gain a full understanding of the

issues by investigating the following:

* Nature of the conflict

* Source or reason for the conflict

* Role of each party

* Interests of all parties

* Consequences for the employees, organization, and customers

* Pertinent rules, guidance, laws, and regulations.

The manager must first determine whether the conflict is personal

or professional. Personal conflicts may result from perception rather

than fact, and issues of perception are harder to resolve because they

often concern beliefs and values that have nothing to do with the

organization or its mission, such as differences in race, age, sex,

national origin, or culture. Because these types of sensitive issues can

have far-reaching repercussions, managers should consider consulting

with human resource specialists and union representatives in resolving

personal conflicts. They may also require counseling sessions in

addition to team-building discussions.

In defining the conflict, managers must separate their personal

feelings from their professional responsibilities. They must analyze the

facts and not rely solely on their opinions, working to resolve the

issue and present solutions in the context of their benefit to the

employees, organization, and customers.

Determining the source or reason for the conflict, roles, and

interests requires finding out whether the problem arose horizontally or

vertically. Horizontal conflicts arise from differences among personnel

at the same level; vertical ones result from personnel or offices at

different levels in the organizational hierarchy. Determining each

party’s role involves identifying who initiated the behaviors or

actions, whom they negatively impacted, and whether an aggressor or

victim is evident. The manager should investigate via formal and

informal communication to fully ascertain the interests of everyone

involved. Often, informal networks reveal more valuable information.

Determining the breadth and depth of consequences at this point

depends on how well the manager understands the conflict, in terms of

definition, origin, and parties involved. The consequences may not be

fully understood until later in the process.

The manager must be aware of the pertinent rules, guidance, laws,

and regulations. Their consideration ensures that the conflict is

examined in the context of the functions and mission of the

organization. Presenting them helps the employee and other parties

separate personal feelings from professional responsibilities and

understand how their actions and behaviors have affected the well-being

of the organization.

The manager should develop a script for use in the face-to-face

meeting of Stage 2. This script outlines the discussion topics:

* The manager’s understanding of the conflict on the basis of

the initial investigation

* Current and potential impacts of the conflict on the manager,

employee, other parties, and organization

* Pertinent rules, guidance, laws, and regulations

* The employee’s perception of and interests in the conflict.

The remainder of the conversation depends on the employee’s

responses, but should focus on developing strategies to handle the


The employee should be given advance notification of the date,

time, location, and reason for the face-to-face meeting. This

notification should be in writing, even if simply via e-mail. The

meeting should take place in private, such as in a conference room or

office, where the employee can feel open to fully discuss the issues.

Scheduling ample time for a full and uninterrupted discussion is

critical. The initial meeting should only be between the manager and the

employee; subsequent meetings may require the other parties involved.

Stage 2. Facing

The manager should open the meeting by laying out some ground

rules, making it clear that the discussion will involve full disclosure

of the issue and that the employee will be given time to fully discuss

concerns and interests. The employee should also be notified whether

notes will be taken and allowed to take notes if desired. The employee

should be allowed to have a union representative present if a formal

counseling session could result.

During the meeting, the manager must remain calm and professional

because employees may become defensive if confronted, especially if they

feel they are being counseled. The manager should strive to keep the

employee calm by following the basic tenets of effective communication:

actively listening, allowing the employee to finish thoughts without

interruption, paraphrasing what is heard, having the employee verify the

manager has paraphrased the employee’s words correctly, and

ensuring alternatives are discussed. In a nutshell, the manager should

ensure the employee feels all concerns are being genuinely heard and

understood. The meeting should focus on what has taken place and how the

conflict can be resolved, centering on the issue, not on the individual.

The manager must strive for a mutual understanding of the conflict;

at the end of the meeting understanding the employee’s concerns and

how the employee feels the conflict can be resolved. The employee should

leave understanding how the conflict has affected the manager, employee,

other employees, and organization. If possible, the manager and employee

should try to agree on possible actions to resolve the conflict. If they

cannot agree on a resolution or some alternatives, they should develop a

plan for further action. The employee should also be notified when a

follow-up meeting will take place.

Stage 3. Follow-Up

The next step is to follow up with all the parties in the conflict

and confirm or disaffirm what was discussed with the employee and

discuss alternatives for resolving the issue. The manager should never

rush the process of further investigating conflicts after meeting with

an employee. Discussions should be held with everyone involved, and the

manager should consult with peers, his or her manager, and even human

resources if necessary.

The manager continues the investigation in preparation for a

follow-up meeting with the employee with all the facts, including an

update to the issues discussed in the initial meeting. The manager must

be impartial in meeting with the parties in the conflict, never taking

sides in front of subordinates and focusing on facts, not perceptions.

The key questions to ask are as follows:

* How did the conflict arise?

* What specifically is your involvement?

* What are your most pressing interests?

* What can be done to resolve your interests in the conflict?

* How do you feel this conflict can be resolved in the best

interest of the organization and our customers?

Stage 4. Resolution

Naturally, the resolution ultimately reached should be in the best

interests of all involved. The manager must ensure the resolution is

fair, based on any precedents set by similar conflicts, consistent with

laws and regulations, and in accordance with organizational policies.

The conflict is resolved through one of the traditional modes of

conflict resolution: confronting, compromising, smoothing, forcing, or

avoiding (seeTable 1). Each has pros and cons, and all have a proper use

in organizational settings. After discussing the alternatives, the

manager should choose the most appropriate technique on the basis of the

situation, in concert with the parties in conflict. This increases their

commitment to reaching a resolution, which should be documented and

routed to all concerned.

In techniques that do not result in satisfaction for both parties,

the party that wins may not be the one to pay the costs of those

benefits. This may lead to more problems over time.

Stage 5. Final Follow-Up

The final step in the process is to ensure the resolution technique

selected has achieved the desired results. The manager again meets with

the employee and the other parties involved to garner an updated status

(feedback) on the conflict. In some instances, an alternate resolution

technique may be needed. The manager should be alert to any side effects

of earlier decisions.

Organizational Climate for Conflict Resolution

The best way to handle conflict in any organization is to create a

positive organizational climate. A manager can never create a

conflict-free environment and should not want to do so. The goal is to

create a conflict-friendly environment where positive consequences

result when conflicts arise. The following are characteristics of such

an environment:

* Employees feel comfortable discussing problems with managers.

* Employees are encouraged to openly express differences in


* Employees possess the skills to handle differences through

consensual decision making.

* Manager expectations are clearly presented and understood.

* Rewards are fair, meaningful, timely, and based on individual and

team accomplishments.

* Resources are fairly distributed.

* Employees are involved in goal setting.

* Employees are informed, included, and supported when change


* Techniques to enhance trust at all levels are constantly


* Teaming is a staple of the organization.

* Multidisciplinary sharing and learning is a requirement.

* Managers embrace and strive for diversity.

* Procedures are developed to manage interdependencies between


Glenn L. Starks is chief of planning and requirements at the

Defense Supply Center Richmond, Defense Logistics Agency. He has spent

fifteen years as a public administrator in the Department of Defense and

holds a PhD in public policy and administration from Virginia

Commonwealth University. He has published numerous articles on public

administration, leadership, and management and can be contacted at

Table 1. Conflict Resolution Techniques

Definition Pros Cons

Confronting (or collaborating)

Everyone’s interests Builds commitment, Takes time, energy,

are met satisfies all and focus

parties, and ensures

common goals

Compromising (or synergizing)

Each party agrees on Can improve trust Important issues can

some issues at the and team-building, be ignored, long-

expense of others each party achieves term focus lost, and

some degree of those with unreaso-

satisfaction, and nable interests

work can continue rewarded and those

with reasonable

interests punished;

if constantly used,

parties may begin

with unreasonable

offers knowing the

compromise will

result in what they

really want, and one

party may be obli-

gated to another for

a future favor

Smoothing (or accommodating)

One party sets their Enables quick agree- The interests of one

interests aside to ment and ends the party are neglected,

satisfy the other conflict causing it to feel

resentment and that

the other owes a


Forcing (or competing)

One party wins Quickly ends the Short-term solution,

through power or conflict the conflict can

coercion and the resurface later, and

other loses loser feels resent-

ment and may seek


Avoiding (or withdrawing)

Conflict is set Quickly, simply, and Short-term solution,

aside or ignored easily deals with and the conflict

the problem remains and can grow

worse over time

Definition Use

Confronting (or collaborating)

Everyone’s interests When all interests

are met are too important to

be compromised; it

is possible to

satisfy all parties

without sacrificing

anything of value to

the organization,

constituents, or

customers; and each

party can be trusted

to be considerate of

the needs of the


Compromising (or synergizing)

Each party agrees on When there isn’t

some issues at the time to conduct

expense of others extensive negotia-

tions, a temporary

solution is needed,

and it is important

to reach a consensus

on priority issues

Smoothing (or accommodating)

One party sets their When it’s obvious

interests aside to one party’s inte-

satisfy the other rests are more


Forcing (or competing)

One party wins Quick resolution is

through power or a must; the future

coercion and the relationship of the

other loses parties will not be

compromised or is

not important;

health, safety, or

issues vital to the

organization’s wel-

fare are at stake;

and laws, regula-

tions, or organiza-

tional policies

dictate the solution

Avoiding (or withdrawing)

Conflict is set The cost to resolve

aside or ignored the conflict out-

weighs the benefit,

the conflict can’t

be resolved now,

dealing with the

issue will cause

more harm than good,

more is accomplished

by delaying the

issue, and the

problem will go away

if ignored

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