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Managing Conflict
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The internal characteristics or dynamics, as they are referred to, of a conflict strongly affect the behavioral style of the participants and the potential outcome of the conflict. The dynamics are controllable, but only through effective management. The first dynamic that management of conflict would focus on is perception of the goal. All too often, per­ception of the goal is defined as doing better than the other person does. With this perception, competition can become so fierce that all positive gain is forsaken, and costs will be incurred based on the belief that the other person's costs are greater. The focus is on the solution rather than the attainment of the goal. Perception of the other can also be equally disastrous as the wrong perception of the goal. This process can take on the characteristic of "we versus they." In competitive situations, we iden­tify with our similarities and focus on their differences, even to the ex­tent of assigning destructive labels. If, however, we focus on the concept of cooperation, the similarities of the individuals or groups will be em­phasized and their differences downplayed.

A competitive situation will make every behavior suspect, placing a great deal of emphasis on conflict orientation. When we are suspi­cious of other's actions, we tend to focus on them with a competitive attitude. With a cooperative spirit in mind, people who are involved in a conflict will be more focused towards relationships and will there­fore view one another more benevolently, even if differences arise. Also, given a cooperative situation, the problem size tends to be lim­ited so that a solution can be found. If it becomes competitive, the pressures focused on the problem cause the problem size to escalate, therefore clouding the original issue and bringing out unrelated issues that lead to distortions.

Communication is a dynamic that must always be managed. Com­petitive attitudes within a conflict tend to breed deceit and produce misinformation. Because of this mistrust, information may even be purposely withheld, or there may be a total lack of information be­cause no one is willing to communicate. If we can manage the situa­tion with a cooperative attitude, communication will tend to be more open, honest, and continuous. Along the lines of communi­cation is also the question of group loyalty. In a hostile or competitive environment, loyalty demands within each group will be high, such that people will be expected to support the desires and wishes of their own group above the objective of the conflict. Therefore, dissent within each group will be minimized, and conformity will be empha­sized. The task will then dominate the member's needs and the group structure will be formal and rigid. If we convert the situation to a cooperative attitude, the opposite will pre­vail, and the environment will be safe and open.

The previously stated postures and dynamics of goals all tend to indicate that a conflict is nothing but hardship and disadvantages. This, however, is not the case. Conflicts can be beneficial to an individual, a group, and even an organization. However, as in most cases, benefits can quickly turn to disadvantages if they are not managed correctly. Conflicts can be ener­gizing. They can arouse people and stretch their imaginations. But they can also be debilitating and all-encompassing, and can sap the strength of the participants if not managed properly. Conflicts can act as a safety valve, avoiding larger issues while blowing off steam at the temporary situations. Conflicts can also, if left unmanaged, spiral and escalate into issues that no longer resemble the original conflict. Conflicts have a diagnostic value to the organization. They indicate something is wrong that requires investigation. However, conflict can also obscure issues, bring in different issues, and create distortion through exaggeration, deception, and omission.

Conflicts create the potential for new and creative solutions, and they force the participants to examine old problems from fresh per­spectives. On the other hand, conflict, if left uncontrolled, can obscure alternative solutions because people harden and become inflexible as conflict grows and causes them to focus only on their way. Conflict is inevitable. It can't be silenced; management can't mandate that it go away, and it won't go away if people don't talk about it. Conflict re­quires management. It requires overt action, which is aimed at enhanc­ing the positives of the situation and limiting the negatives. With these characteristics of conflict in mind, we'll briefly look at some common areas of conflict within manufacturing organizations before discussing techniques of conflict management.

It would be extremely difficult to describe an all-encompassing list of typical conflicts that occur in a manufacturing organization. The items that we'll speak of are only representative of what could occur. The issue itself is not as critical as the manner in which the issues are dealt with, because the approach will contribute significantly to the success, or lack of success, of the outcome. Perhaps the most common areas where conflict arises within our organizations are in the inven­tory management area and the bill of material structuring area. These areas are two of the cornerstones for systems development and opera­tion. Conflicts are likely in the areas of cycle counting, the concept of locked stockrooms, and transactional accuracy. In the area of bill of material structuring, conflicts generally arise during discussions of how the product is built versus how it is designed, the accuracy of the engi­neering input to the structure file, and the age-old argument of the part numbering system.

To Be Continued


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