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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Promoting positive conflict in business, March 3, 2006, 2D.

One of the things that makes organizational study so interesting is the diversity of organizations.  Missions, goals, strategies, sizes, and methods of operation are just a few of the dimensions on which organizations differ.  Unfortunately, the diversity of organizations also sometimes makes their study frustrating and difficult.  What can be shown true for one type of organization might be completely opposite of what works best in another.

Sometimes even the concepts that we study seem riddled with paradoxes.  Conflict in organizations, for example, is one of those concepts.  Conflict arises from differing viewpoints about expectations, beliefs, and processes.  It tends to emerge when people work together setting goals, determining courses of action, or resolving problems.

The traditional view of conflict in organizations has been that conflict is dysfunctional and should be minimized or eliminated.  Because conflict tends to distract the minds and energies of workers from the task at hand, it was thought to be something that organizations should avoid.  However, research support for this viewpoint was mixed.  In some cases heightened organizational conflict was associated with lower levels of organizational performance, but in other cases the opposite held true.

Upon further investigation, the apparent paradox was resolved when it was determined that there are actually two types of conflict—one associated with negative outcomes and the other with positive outcomes.  These two types were identified as person-based and problem-based conflict.

Person-based conflict is harmful, emotional, and has little or nothing to do with work or the task at hand.  It manifests itself through fighting with and personal attacks on others and results in restricted communication, hostility, fearfulness and distrust of others, and an unwillingness to work together cooperatively.  An organization full of person-based conflict will see its people nervous to offer new suggestions or ideas or to take initiative to make new and better things happen.  Ultimately, communication, initiative, creativity, and teamwork can be squelched by rampant person-based conflict.

Problem-based conflict is directed at solving organizational problems.  It involves examining problems from multiple and perhaps differing viewpoints and requires people to rationally analyze, critique, and weigh the merits of suggested alternatives.  This type of conflict is focused on solving organizational problems without fear of personal attack.  Workers also understand that critiques and rejection of their ideas are not personal rejections of them as people, but important steps in the creative, problem-solving process.  To reap the benefits of problem-based conflict, organizations must build cultures that value trust, respect, risk-taking, diverse ideas, initiative, ownership, and teamwork. 

The traditional view that all organizational conflict should be eliminated seems unrealistic and undesirable.  Organizational conflict should be managed.  Problem-based conflict should be encouraged and person-based conflict controlled as much as possible.  Perhaps the greatest responsibility of organizational leaders is creating a culture that promotes positive conflict.

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