Ultimately there is no guarantee that we will be able to prevent conflict. The point was made in the section entitled, What causes conflict? that the complex dynamics between people in social interaction will inevitably lead to conflict sooner or later. However, there are steps that we can take to try to keep conflict to a minimum – not to prevent it altogether (as that would clearly be unrealistic), but rather to prevent certain occurrences at least. Many conflicts can be seen to arise as a result of a breakdown in communication. A key issue, therefore, in preventing conflict is the importance of ensuring that communication takes place as effectively as possible. Conflict frequently arises from people having different perspectives on a situation or different interests in relation to that situation. The differences in their perspective can therefore easily lead to a communication breakdown in which each party fails to take on board the perspective of the other, and they therefore fail to ‘connect’ with one another in a meaningful way. Conflict can also arise as a result of the misuse or abuse of power (for example in the case of bullying or harassment). At certain times at least, therefore, preventing conflict is likely to involve making sure that policies and procedures in relation to bullying and harassment are in place and are actively used, rather than simply being pieces of paper on a shelf gathering dust. The same can be said of discrimination. Where an individual or group is being unfairly discriminated against, we should not be surprised if the situation leads to conflict. Conflict can also be closely associated with value differences. For example, it is often said in relation to particular teams that there is a lack of teamwork because of personality clashes within that staff group. However, it can be argued that differences in value positions play a much greater role in team conflict than individual personality differences. For example, it is not uncommon for people to be able to get on well together socially (and therefore have no apparent personality clashes), but still not be able to work effectively together because of their different approaches to the work task. These differences of approach are likely to owe a great deal to differences of value perspective. A further important way of preventing conflict, therefore, is to be clear about the value base of a team’s work and attempt to deal constructively with any differences of perspective. Similarly, much conflict can be prevented by making sure that there is a suitable forum for dealing with any differences and tensions in the early stages before they develop into much more serious conflicts. This, therefore, involves creating a working environment in which openness, honesty and trust are valued – something which requires leadership skills. Preventing conflict is therefore an issue closely associated with leadership. A good leader is someone who is able to nip conflicts in the bud wherever possible, and to deal with them positively and constructively in those situations where they cannot be avoided.
Neil’s website and blog are at www.neilthompson.info