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Update A R T I C L E R E P R I N T

No. U9707A

Don’t Avoid Conflicts—

Manage Them
by Monci J. Williams


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usually do beautifully only until they
bump up against their first conflict.
Don’t Avoid Conflicts—Manage Them “For all the cheerful talk about team
building,” says Wheeler, “unless we
by Monci J. Williams find creative ways to resolve conflict,
the imperative to work together can be
a burden.”

ONFLICT ON THE horizon? the conflict, people are freed to put The best way to deal with conflict
Got a good reason for taking their focus back on the tasks.” effectively is to radically change the
the easy way out? way you think about it. Mary Parker
Edna Adler, a colleague of Raider’s Follett, a fabled management theorist,
Well of course we do. The lady in the who does conflict resolution training writer, and consultant, laid down the
Lennon-McCartney lyric had a charac- in New York City, views conflict man- foundation for modern thinking about
ter flaw: She was “a day tripper,” agement skills as productivity tools. the resolution of conflict more than
someone who avoided entanglement “Premature agreements, made before 60 years ago. Follett suggested we
by skipping out. When it comes to conflict is aired and resolved, don’t “think of conflict as neither good
conflict and its avoidance, we each last,” she says. Yes, a powerful manag- nor bad . . . not as warfare, but as
have our own reasons. There are peo- er may be able to push through a the appearance of difference.”
ple and institutional issues, that compromise that doesn’t fully address Furthermore, Follett said, since
will—if we let them—soak up our long-term business issues or individ- “conflict—difference—is here in
time and attention like a sponge. Most ual ego needs. But he—or his the world . . . instead of condemning
of us are hard-wired to experience ten- subordinates—will likely spend a lot it, we should set it to work for us.”
sion at even the whiff of trouble, a of time patching up the parts of the
reflex that prepares us to fight or flee agreement that keep coming unglued. Follett viewed the appearance of
when threatened. And any obstacle differences as an opportunity to
between us and the 63 tasks we must “There is a difference between com- improve things that weren’t working.
complete by Friday (no, Thursday; it’s pliance and commitment,” says Surprisingly, and correctly, Follett
a short week) looms as an annoyance. Raider. “When one person is com- said that compromise was unlikely
So we do have a good reason for tak- pelled to a premature agreement in to be the optimal solution to a prob-
ing the easy way out: It’s expedient. which his needs are not met, he is lem, an observation that was echoed
going to get you back. He may sabo- decades later in research on the effec-
Or so we think. But here comes (yet) tage you passive-aggressively, by tiveness of collaborative versus com-
another important insight in the life of foot-dragging and stalling. Or he may petitive approaches to negotiation, and
a Post-Modern Manager, one that may just get you in the back.” in management theorist Herbert A.
enable him or her to make a quantum Simon’s Nobel-prize winning work
leap in productivity and effectiveness. Intramural fratricide aside, negotiating on managerial decisionmaking and
Ducking conflict, say the experts, may conflict is more fundamental to the “satisficing.”
actually make it harder for us to work of the manager than ever. In the
achieve our goals. age of the flat organization, “man- Again anticipating the work (and
agers are constantly negotiating some of the buzz words) of today’s
Conflict arises from people’s needs, with colleagues about rights and consultants, Follett condemned com-
and needs unmet do not go away. They resources,” observes Michael Wheeler, promise as a mediocre response, and
just lie in wait for the next opportunity a professor of management at Harvard suggested that we aim for “break-
to express themselves, which in orga- Business School. Wheeler co-directs through” solutions in which “neither
nizational life usually means they will the Dispute Resolution Project at side has to sacrifice anything” and the
continue to get in the way of some- the Program on Negotiation, a collab- desires of both sides are “integrated.”
thing we want or need to get done. oration between Harvard, MIT, and That’s sometimes easier done than
Says Ellen Raider, director of training Tufts. one might think, as Follett illustrated
in the International Center for with the story of a dairy cooperative
Cooperation and Conflict Resolution Sorting out responsibilities and that nearly fell apart because of a
at Columbia University, “When con- resources has increasingly become relatively trivial fight over delivery rit-
flict is riding, energy is directed away the work of teams. But consultants, uals. The creamery was built on the
from tasks, and engaged instead in academics, trainers, and battle-deco- side of a hill, and the dairymen whose
interpersonal issues. If you manage rated team veterans all note that teams route to the dairy took them down the

Copyright © 1997 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. 3
Managing Conflict . . .
hill thought they should unload their on. Find out, by asking questions, moved from the No. 2 slot running
milk first. The dairymen whose route proposing alternative solutions, and the economic forecasting department
took them up the hill thought their exploring the responses of all parties. of a large money management firm to
unloading should take precedence. take over the forecasting department
at a slightly smaller competitor. His
An expedient solution, a compromise 2 new subordinate, a highly competent
designed to reduce the amount of time If you’re in a negotiation, don't economist, had researched and written
spent on conflict, might entail giving think your main task is to assert her forecasts with little interference
each group a chance to “go first” by your needs. Your first job is to from her old boss. But her new boss
alternating deliveries. It took a media- understand the other party. second-guessed every draft she gave
tor to suggest the optimal solution: The next time you see a conflict him, and she was forced to spend
Change the position of the platform so boiling up, you may notice that both hours rewriting her work. With each
that both groups of dairymen could parties repeatedly assert their own barrage of skeptical feedback, her irri-
“go first,” unloading their milk cans needs and wishes, and tell each other tability increased.
at the same time. why the other guy is wrong. The
experts call this the “attack/defend The two were experiencing a clash
True, some conflicts cannot be spiral,” and it's where most of us in identity needs. She had a strong
resolved unless one party, or both, flame out. need for autonomy and deep pride of
give something up. And some con- authorship. But he derived a strong
flicts can never be resolved because Conflict resolution trainers recom- sense of himself from his nose for
one or more of the parties would mend using neutral “opening” and trends, and from his previous depart-
rather fight than work things out. “informing” statements to encourage ment’s track records for accurate
But if you wish to proceed from the the other person to open up. Com- forecasting. For situations like these,
idea that you and your partner(s) in ments such as “I know we’ve both Roger Fisher and William Ury,
conflict can have it all, a breakthrough been very concerned about X, but I authors of Getting to Yes, suggest
solution that satisfies everyone, these also noticed that Y is very important stepping back—which they call
additional tips from the experts should to you; I’d like to understand that bet- “retiring to the balcony”—to get an
help. ter” encourage the other person to talk overview of what’s really happening
about her concerns and wants. Get in during a conflict.

1 the habit of seeing the other person’s

position and demands as valid. A view from the balcony might make
What people demand is not clear to the female economist that her
necessarily what they must have new boss wasn’t attacking her compe-
to be satisfied. 3 tence. He was, for legitimate reasons,
merely asserting his own. She might
The difference between the two lies Concentrate on common
in the distinction between “positions” interests, not differences. explore giving him an outline before
taken in a dispute and “underlying she writes her drafts, and dropping in
Focusing first on the ways in which to exchange intelligence so she can
needs.” Conflict resolution trainers you are “at one” with your opponent
use “the orange,” another classic integrate his thinking into her writing.
will bring you closer to agreement.
Follett example, to illustrate. A mother Discussing differences without defin-
has two children and one orange. The
children are fighting over the orange,
ing—and returning—to common 5
ground will widen the gap between Just to complicate matters:
so the mother cuts it in half and gives you. Remember that there are times
a half to each. But as it turned out,
when avoiding conflict is the right
while one child was hungry and
thing to do.
wanted to eat the fruit, the other child
wanted only the rind, so she could
4 Some conflicts do dissolve with time.
Get to know your own hot
make candied orange peels. Each Some institutional issues may be
buttons and needs. bigger than you and your antagonist,
party got half of what it wanted when
both could have been fully satisfied. What we bring to a conflict—suspi- resolvable only by senior manage-
cion, anger, the conviction we can’t ment, leaving you and your colleagues
The story illustrates a classic bungle win—may drive the conflict in direc- to work around it.
in problem solving—the failure to tions we become helpless to correct.
probe for the real underlying need or Whether you go around a conflict
want. Advice from the experts: Don’t To cite an example based on a real- or tackle it head on, the range and
assume you understand what’s going world situation, a male economist desirability of the solutions you create

4 H A R V A R D M A N A G E M E N T U P D AT E J U LY 1 9 9 7
Managing Conflict . . .
will expand if you make a considered
choice on how you respond. The work
of the manager is made more complex
by the diffusion of authority and
competition for resources in the flat
organization. But however changed,
the game still belongs to those who
think through what they are doing,
how others are likely to react, and
why. ■

If you want to learn more . . .

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement
without Giving In by Roger Fisher and
William Ury (1981, Viking Penguin,
161 pp., $8.95, Tel. 800-526-0275)
Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of
Management, edited by Pauline Graham
(1995, Harvard Business School Press,
309 pp., $29.95, Tel. 800-988-0886 or
No Contest: The Case Against Competition
by Alfie Kohn (1992, Houghton Mifflin,
320 pp., $11.95, Tel. 800-526-0275)

■ Reprint # U9707A

H A R V A R D M A N A G E M E N T U P D AT E J U LY 1 9 9 7