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Conflict Management: A Study of Alternative Approaches Madelaine Gray, MPA, OTR, FAOTA

SUMMARY. This case study illustrates alternative approaches to conflict resolution. Although the case is fictitious, it describes a situation that is common in the workplace, i.e., the attempt of a coworker to undermine the respect, power, and authority of another staff member. The u p s e of this case is to not only identify several approaches to c o n k resolution but also to illustrate why some approaches can be more effective than others. Clearly, conflict that 1s ignored and unresolved does not usually go away. It festers and eventually becomes an even more serious problem.

OVERVIEW The setting is an occupational therapy department in a major university. The department is a well-established and highly respected program in the School of Health Sciences. The other programs within the School of Health Sciences are the physical therapy program and the speech pathology program. Because all three programs within the School of Health Sciences have experienced a decline in student enrollment and an increase in expenses, the programs are being closely monitored by the Dean. The University Madelaine Gray is Executive Director of the American Occu~ationalTheraw Certification b a r & Rockville, MD. She is past Director of ~rofksionalservices and Associate Executive Director of the American Occupational Therapy Association. This article appears jointly in The Occuparianul Therapy Manager's Survival Handbook (The Haworth Press, Inc.. 1988) and in Occupational Therap in Heolth Care, Volume 5, Number 1 (1988). O 1988 by The Haworth Press. Inc. All rights reserved. 65 '

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The OccuptwnaI Therapy Manager's Survival Handbook

President has put pressure on all the Deans to weed out programs that are not financially productive. About six months ago a new person was hired as the Director of Financial Affairs for the School of Health Sciences. This person, Margaret Blair, has an MBA and lengthy financial management experience in a public school system, but no experience in a university setting. At first, Ms. Blair was very friendly to all the faculty; however gradually the Director of the Occupational Therapy Department, Dr. Jim King, becomes aware that Ms. Blair is telling the Occupational Therapy Department faculty that he is not a good manager. She especially criticizes his financial management decisions and his management style. Dr. King must decide how to handle this situation, particularly in light of the fact that Ms. Blair is a personal friend of Dr. Bullard, the Dean of the School of Health Sciences.

THE KEY PARTICIPANTS Dr. Jim King: He has been the Director of the Occupational Therapy Department for three years. Dr. King has a PhD in organizational development and a MA in occupational therapy. Highly skilled as a practitioner, educator and manager, Dr. King believes in participative management rather than authoritarian management. He is motivated by both the challenge of the work and the enjoyment of interpersonal relationships. Although he is competitive, he is not power driven. He is well liked and respected by the Dean of the School of Health Sciences and allfaculty .The Occupntional T h e ~ pDepnrfment y Staff: Seven OTRs who are experienced educators and who have been at the University from two to eight years. The faculty like and respect Dr. King but some wish that he would leave so that they would have the opportunity to be promoted as Director. Margaret Blair: She is Director of Financial Affairs for the School of Health Sciences and has an MBA and twenty-five years of experience as a comptroller in public school systems. She was hired by the University six months ago. She is sixty years old and is planning to retire in about five years. She was

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fired from her job in the public school system after a major conflict with the school principal. She is a personal friend of the Dean and her husband, Sarah and David Bullard. She feels inferior in the university community because she does not have a doctorate. She is concerned about her job security due to her history of the firing from her previous job and the fact that she is sixty years old. Fearing that no one would hire her if she lost her present job, she feels pressured to show that she is a competent financial manager. She has an authoritarian management style and her staff works well under her direction. Dr. Samh Bullard: She is the Dean of the School of Health Sciences. Dr. Bullard has been at the University for seven years and is quite secure in her position. She is an accomplished educator and manager. The University President has announced his plans to retire in RHO years and Dr. Bullard intends to apply for the job. She is anxious to have no problems within the School of Health Sciences that could damage her chances of promotion. She prefers to "not rock the boat" and tries to avoid conflict.

THE ORGANIZATION The University is a large university in a major metropolitan area. The School of Health Sciences has 20 full-time faculty plus visiting lecturers and part-time faculty. An abbreviated organizational chart of the School of Health Sciences is shown in Figure 1.

CHRONOEOCY OF EVENTS June 2, 1986: Margaret Blair hired as the Director of Financial Affairs for the School of Health Sciences. Ms. Blair starts meeting informally with occupational therapy staff just to "chat" and gain information about the occupational therapy department. July 5, 1986: One of the occupational therapy faculty reports to Dr. King that Ms. Blair has told her infonally that Dr. King is not a skilled financial manager. Ms. Blair stated that "all these faculty discussions about the budget are a waste of time" and that Dr. King's participative approach to financial decision-making is not effective.


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July 10, 1986: Dr. King has an informal talk with Ms. Blair about the differences in their management styles. He does not tell Ms. Blair that he has heard what she has said about him. August 1, 1984: The occupational therapy faculty mention to Dr. King that Ms. Blair continues to privately criticize his management of the occupational therapy department. Dr. King asks everyone to increase their efforts to support Ms. Blair in handling her new role. Dr. King concludes she is only criticizing him because she feels insecure and is trying to establish her own status. He hopes the problems will go away in time as she feels more secure and selfconfident. August 15, 1986: Now Ms. Blair is not only criticizing Dr. King but is also openly criticizing the occupational therapy faculty in Dr. Bdlard's presence. She is telling Dr. Bullard that the facultylstndent ratio is too high and that some faculty positions should not be renewed next year. The morale of the faculty is becoming low and they wish Dr. King would take some action. August 27, 1986: Dr. Bullard, in a brief meeting with Dr. King, mentions that she has heard there may be some problems with Dr. King's management of the occupational therapy department. She asks Dr. King to do more "belt-tightening" but she makes no other

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suggestions. Dr. King does not express his concerns about Ms. Blair other than to say he is aware he and Ms. Blair have different views on appropriate management style. September-October 1986: Dr. King is angry with Ms. Blair over many financial and general managerial issues. They frequently are in disagreement and Dr. King sends her memos stating his position. Dr. King sends copies of the memos to Dr. Bullard and the occupational therapy faculty. Dean Bullard does not respond to Dr. Kings' memos. Ms. Blair continues to criticize Dr. King behind his back. He realizes that his previous methods of handling this conflict have not worked and that he must handle the situation in a different way. He debates what to do. November 1986: Dr. King takes action.

CONTEXT Conflicts in the workplace are common, are to be expected, and can be growth-enhancing if dealt with constructively. Unresolved conflicts or conflicts that are dealt with destructively can drain physical and emotional energies and can result in low motivation, reduced productivity, low self-esteem, and poor staff morale; therefore it is essential that a manager know how to resolve conflict between himself and others or conflict among hisher staff. Some conflicts are rather simple and can be relatively easy to resolve through frank discussion and establishment of trust and mutual respect. Other conflicts can be extremely complex in relation to the cause, the symptoms, and the solution. Resolution of these complex conflicts require maturity, psychological stability, high self-esteem, self-confidence, excellent interpersonal skills, and keen insight and understanding of human behavior. Complex wnflicts require the manager to be consistent in hisher approach to the problem and persistent in carrying through with a plan to resolve the conflict over a period of time. Such conflicts usually require lengthy time to resolve, often testing the manager's patience and requiring the utmost skills. The conflict presented in this case study is a straightfonvard situ-

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The Occuparwnal Therapy ManagerS Survival Handbook

ation, without a great deal of complexity in terms of numbers of people, the scope of the conflict, and the nature of the problem behavior. Nonetheless, the case illustrates the basic, alternative approaches to all conflicts, whether simple or complex. There are many textbook formulas for conflict resolution. However, although the semantics in the formulas may be different, the basic concepts are the same. 1. Conflict on the job should be dealt with directly, assertively, and as soon as possible. 2. The steps to conflict resolution i n ~ l u d e : ' ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ' J -focus on the problem, not the personalities involved, -define the problem, -look for areas of mutual agreement, -understand the feelings of the other person(s), -state viewlopinionslrequests calmly and briefly.

3. It is more effective to express the conflict in the form of "I" statements, e.g., "I feel," "I hear," "I understand," rather than to say "you should," "you can't," "you don't," etc. 4. Appropriate body language during conflict negotiation sessions is as important as the words spoken. For instance, an open body posture (hands relaxed at the sides), gives a non-threatening message as compared to a closed body posture (hands on hips or arms across the chest position.) Facial expressions and head gestures should be consistent with the verbal message; e.g., smiling when stating what the problem is results in a mixed-message. Conflict resolution is not an easy process; however the skills and knowledge can be learned, practiced and will be useful not only in one's professional life but also in one's personal life. The result of successful conflict resolution is not only the solving of a problem but can also lead to more satisfying and more intimate personal relationships. Thus, conflict, although painful, can truly be a gift. It may be viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Madelaine Gray



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Dr. King considers several choices for how to handle this conflict: a. A direct, aggressive, "hard" approach: Call a meeting with Dr. Bullard and Ms. Blair and severely criticize her to what she is doing to sabotage his reputation, authority, and effectiveness. Criticize her publicly just as she has been criticizing him.' b. An indirect, aggressive approach: Send a memo to Dr. Bullard, with a wpy to Ms. Blair, complaining about what she is doing and criticizing her behavior.' c. A passive-aggrrssive approach: Start criticizing Ms. Blair to the occupational therapy faculty and other faculty in the School of Health Sciences. Complain bitterly about what she is doing to him. Stop cooperating with Ms. Blair, e.g., delay reports she has requested. d. A do-nothing approach: Keep quiet and hope she will change her behavior. e. An indirect, assertive, ''sofl" approach: Cultivate a friendship with Ms. Blair and search for a solution to the conflict that she will accept. f. A direct, assertive approach: Meet with Ms. Blair; define the issue; cite specific instances where she has criticized him; tell her how he feels when she does this. Request that she stop this behavior. Tell her that if her behavior does not change he will bring the problem to the attention of Dean Bullard.'"' RISKS AND CONSTRAINTS

Dr. King, Ms. Blair, and Dean Bullard all face some potential professional risks as a result of this conflict. Their reputations as effective managers are at stake as are their job security and possibilities for advancement within the University. They all risk the possibility of poor staff morale and lowered productivity during this con-


The Occupational Therapy Manager's Survival Handbook

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flict period. Physical and emotional energy is drained away from all who are directly or indirectly involved. They know that it is important for everyone to work closely together. This conflict cannot be solved by increasing the distance between Dr. King and Ms. Blair. OUTCOMES

Dr. King consults with some university faculty in other departments on how they have handled similar problems. He reads some books on conflict management and attends a seminar on assertive techniques. He concludes that his previous methods of conflict management with Ms. Blair were not successful: -he tried avoiding the problem, hoping it would go away over time, -he tried figuring out the psychological reasons for her behavior and trying to meet her presumed psychological needs, -he tried to "teach her a lesson" by giving her the same treatment she was giving them, -he tried writing memos to put pressure on her to stop. He tried everything but a direct, assertive confrontation. He finally realized that, although he felt uncomfortable handling this situation on a one-on-one basis, he must do so. He asked Ms. Blair to have lunch with him at a local, off-campus restaurant. She reluctantly agreed. During lunch, he politely but firmly told her why her actions were causing him problems. He cited specific examples of what she had said about him. He specifically requested that she stop this behavior immediately, but he did not discuss his perspective on the reasons for her behavior. Instead, he clearly and explicitly told her what she had done, how it made him feel, and what he wanted her to do about it. He defined the problem, expressed agreement that the occupational therapy department must be financially productive, described his understanding of her position, and concluded with what his views were. He expressed a desire to work cooperatively with her and offered to assist her in any way he could.

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Madelaine Gmy


Ms. Blair was nervous and apologetic during the luncheon meeting. She said that she really hadn't meant what she had said and that she had been misquoted. Dr. King listened, but kept repeating his message, that her behavior, i.e., her "bad-mouthing" him behind his back, must be changed. After the luncheon meeting, Dr. King documented the details of the discussion and sent Ms. Blair a confidential copy of his memo. For about three months after this meeting, Ms. Blair changed her behavior. However, gradually she slipped back into her previous pattern. Dr. King then met with Dean Bullard, showed her the rewrd of the action he had taken and described the results. Dean Bullard agreed to look into the matter and she said she would call a meeting of Ms. Blair and Dr. King to discuss the problem.

QUESTIONS 1. Are there any other conflict management approaches that Dr. King could have used? 2. Why did Dr. King's first attempts at conflict management fail? 3. What is the difference between aggressive and assertive techniques of conflict management? 4. Could Dr. King have prevented this conflict from occurring in the first place? What could he have done? 5. How could Dean Bullard have handled this conflict between her staff? What alternatives did she have? 6. What do you think will happen next? Why?

REFERENCES 1. Fisher. R and Ury. W : Getring to Yes, Negotiating Agreement Wdhou Giving In. New York: Penguin Books, 1981 2. Kennedy, M: W u e Politics. New York: Warner Books, 1980 3. Swets, P: The Art of Talking So That People Will Listen. Englewood Cliffs. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1983 4. Miller. Set al.: Straight Talk. New York: The New American Library, 1981 5. Bloom, L et al.: The New Assertive Womun. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1978

Conflict management.

This case study illustrates alternative approaches to conflict resolution. Although the case is fictitious, it describes a situation that is common in...
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