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Managing Conflict Between Organizations Published: Sunday, November 28, 2004 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

There is a profound base of empirical and practical research, pointing to understanding and overcoming conflicts that have the potential of paralyzing organizations as a whole.

When differences regarding ideological postures lead to conflict over whose interpretations are to be subordinated to whose, and under what conditions, the conflict can easily transform itself into a power struggle. Value and ideological differences do not always lead to conflict among groups and organizations. Differences can coexist in mutually enriching ways, as in the case of integrating music and drama in the production of musical theater. This doesn’t mean that the tension created by the difference in positions disappears. The point is that it is out of these tensions that the overall fabric of the production is created, generating an outcome not possible within the medium of either music or drama alone.

When these tensions are not managed with virtue, however, conflicts between the musicians and actors can degenerate on a kind of warlike experience, making the whole performance less than what music or drama alone could have offered. Thus, groups and institutions have to reflect on the conditions that precipitate the switch from potentially complementary value differences to antagonistic ones. Empirical research, quickly points toward the differences in power that accompanies these groups in their respective settings.

Groups and organizations differ in the amount of power they have. This may result from their differences of access to resources, or from having control over critical information, or from being in a position to influence significantly the destiny of others. Power can also emerge from the perception that groups have of each other. A group or an organization may have power because others are convinced that it will exercise that power in a way that does not undermine the interests of those with less power. Power can also result from the groups or the organization’s sense of impotence. Feeling powerless, an organization may relate to another as though this other was powerful and in acting this way this may give the other organization power over it, not because it was powerful but because the powerless group imbued it with power.

From another angle one can say that power is an attribute of the relationship between groups and organizations, rather than of any group itself. This distinction is important because some groups and organizations could show the tendency of always ending up on the powerful or powerless side of exchanges and hence experience the power or powerless as an apparent attribute of themselves. Despite this however, their actual power in the larger social system is an element of their relationships with other groups.

Some groups and organizations seem to be in a position, either legitimately or illegitimately, to define how interactions among the parts are to be conducted. Such groups can behave in a proactive manner, setting goals, structuring requirements on others, and energetically pursuing whatever they want to achieve. There are other groups in a position of reacting to the initiatives of others, not setting their own goals directly but borrowing from what others want of them or deciding their priorities on the basis of rejecting others proposals. These differences are a matter of proactivity versus reactivity approaches. There are others proposals caught in the middle of these two approaches, seemingly without their own reason for existence but needed as a buffer or mediator between proactive and reactive units. These groups define themselves not so much in terms of the others as in terms of how the others interact.

Power differences create the settings for both a large number of potential conflicts and creative possibilities that otherwise would not emerge if the conflict is not present. The conflicts may be played as power struggles or fused with value and goal differences over who have access to what resources and for what purposes. There are at least three guiding rules for coping and managing these contexts: (1) Go toward, rather than away the anxiety or tension associate with an issue or an event. (2) The role of the leader is one that facilitates the exploration of the profoundness of tension realities. (3) Be aware of the way others define the single group or organizational reality. 

Copyright 2004 QBS, Inc.
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