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.
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
* 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
* 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
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
if constantly used,
parties may begin
offers knowing the
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
Confronting (or collaborating)
Everyone’s interests When all interests
are met are too important to
be compromised; it
is possible to
satisfy all parties
anything of value to
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
health, safety, or
issues vital to the
fare are at stake;
and laws, regula-
tions, or organiza-
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