A Catalyst for Change: Managing Conflict in Public Safety Agencies

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series, Finding the Leader in You, which addresses key concepts in public safety leadership.

Public safety work lends itself to repeated situations involving some type of conflict. But what about conflict within the workplace? What are the positive and negative effects of this unavoidable phenomenon? I’ll try to answer those questions this month as we continue our path toward Finding the Leader in You.

Author and self-help guru Wayne Dyer points out how “conflict cannot survive without your participation.” As a supervisor, you must always pay attention to how conflict impacts employees and their performance. Here in the U.S., employers report nearly three hours per week (2.8) dealing with some type of workplace conflict.[1] And the news doesn’t get better from there. In a survey of 5,000 full-time employees represented within nine different countries, 85% reported dealing with some type of work-related conflict. Almost one-third (29%) reported dealing with conflict either frequently or always.[1]

There’s also a cost to employers when it comes to conflict. In this country, employers reported $359 billion in lost time due to workplace conflict. High rates of employee turnover and absenteeism were also recognized in organizations where conflict was inappropriately managed.[1]

The Nature of Conflict

Situations that can lead to conflict arise continually in everyday life but a situation only becomes a conflict when we react in a specific way. Our reactions are often based on learned values, biases and life experiences. Most often, conflict arises when we perceive that we are threatened in some way—usually by an anticipated loss of some kind. The perception of conflict causes a feeling of separation from the other party.

Within public safety agencies, conflict can naturally arise when there is: [1,2,3]

  • A lack of clarity with performance expectations or guidelines
  • Poor communication
  • Personality differences
  • Competing or conflicting interests
  • Organizational change
  • Differences in culture and assumptions
  • Lack of sensitivity to demographic or socioeconomic factors
  • Differences in objectives
  • Incompetence (either perceived or actual)

It’s important to understand there is no one-size-fits-all approach to resolving conflict. Human beings are complex organisms and the problems that evolve between humans are equally complex.

Competition for survival can also lead to conflict. We find ourselves conflicted when there are scarce resources. Think about Black Friday shopping and the competition that evolves within a department store. Although a person’s life likely doesn’t depend on a big-screen television deal, the competition for those limited markdowns creates the same environment. We can also perceive conflict when another person confronts our value system with some action or degrades our standard of life in some way. Finally, conflict can naturally emerge in volatile, fast-changing workplaces.[2] This is clearly an attribute of the public safety realm and an element that should not be overlooked in even the best organizations. Obviously, some conflicts are far more serious than others, yet all are generally perceived in a negative way.

It’s important to break conflict down into some raw components. We take conflict for granted since it’s an everyday part of life, but conflict cannot occur without the following four elements.

  1. Identifying – This is the stage where an individual realizes they have been “wronged” in some way. Perhaps it begins with something another person says. In other situations, it may be an act such as a motorist opening their car door into another individual’s parked car. We recognize the dialog or act goes against our way of thinking or actions and then respond in some manner.
  2. Assigning Blame – At this stage, we’ve recognized the “wrong” and have identified the culprit(s) responsible. It’s here that we expect answers. Maybe it’s an apology or maybe it goes much deeper, and we desire some level of discussion. How an individual makes their way into this stage often dictates the level of conflict that subsequently evolves.
  3. Confronting – At this point, we make our case for our perceived wrong. In some situations, confrontation can go beyond simple words and become physical depending on the level of aggression depicted by one or more of the involved parties.
  4. Disputing – By now, the conflict is fully engaged and both parties disagree on crucial elements that led them down the path to conflict in the first place. Don’t confuse this with the facts; there is often a heated exchange that takes rational thought and behavior off the table.

Conflict as a Catalyst for Change

While normally perceived in a negative light, conflict also can be perceived as motivation for change. Executive coach and writer Gill Corkindale points out positive attributes evolving from conflict that “can promote collaboration, improve performance, foster creativity and innovation and build deeper relationships.”[2] Change is natural, continual, and cannot be avoided; however, it affects everything around us. It makes us uncomfortable and without proper communication can make us feel like the organization (or leadership) is against us.

It’s important for supervisors to clearly articulate elements of change. As a leader, you can help people set aside the notion that sustaining one’s initial position and “winning at all costs” is the most important result. Engaging in appropriate conflict resolution communication can help your people understand that change doesn’t involve taking something away. It’s simply something different—a new opportunity for growth and an essential element for sustaining organizational viability. Viewing change as a negative is a barrier to forward movement and adaptation within the workplace.

Resolving Conflict

Since we can all agree that conflict within the workplace is inevitable, we should also discuss ways to mitigate the adverse impact conflict can have on our people. There are different schools of thought; however, most conflict resolution strategies focus on six underlying principles.[1]

  1. Realize conflict is inevitable and there can be both positive or negative consequences, depending on how the supervisor or organization manages conflict.
  2. Positive results are more likely through active engagement rather than avoiding the problem or situation.
  3. People must be motivated in some manner to appropriately address the conflict.
  4. Behavioral, cognitive or emotional skills can be acquired through appropriate implementation of adequate conflict-resolution strategies.
  5. Emotional skills require some level of self-awareness.
  6. The environment must be neutral and feel safe for each party to feel empowered to resolve the conflict.

Once we satisfy these principles, it’s important to understand there is no one-size-fits-all approach to resolving conflict. Human beings are complex organisms and the problems that evolve between humans are equally complex. Consider these eight conflict resolution strategies and use the one that fits the situation best when choosing among alternatives.

Avoidance – This style is characterized by deliberately ignoring or withdrawing from a conflict rather than facing it. Be warned that people who avoid conflict may appear to be nonassertive or uncooperative. They may even appear apathetic about their own issues or the issues of others. To some degree, they may even hope the conflict goes away on its own. Consider this style if the issue is unimportant, others can take responsibility, or if you’re simply unsure of how to respond.

Accommodation – This approach typically involves a person conforming to the will of the other party during a conflict. This style will generally appease others to keep the peace and involves sacrificing some personal needs or desires in the process. It can be viewed as being over-cooperative and nonassertive but is an effective style if using one of the more aggressive styles has the potential to create long-term negative effects.

Passivity – This style is characterized by pretending there is nothing wrong. It may be useful if others are more active or informed in their positions and the issue is not that vital to the affected party. It’s important to note that a passive person can be pushed to aggression if there is no timely solution to an ongoing issue. Use this style if others care more about the situation and the issue isn’t vital.

As a leader, you can help people set aside the notion that sustaining one’s initial position and “winning at all costs” is the most important result.

Compromise – This can be viewed as a “this for that” approach, whereby each party gives something to get something in return. Compromising doesn’t necessarily avoid the problem but can involve full collaboration with the other party. This style is effective if power is distributed equally among those involved and if each party loses or gains something in return.

Aggression – This style is competitive and frequently unpleasant. It tends to send the message that one’s own concerns are all that matter and winning at all costs is the primary objective. It often creates power struggles and is likely to polarize the disputing parties to the greatest degree. The style may be effective when dealing with a person who only understands an aggressive approach or when the issue is a high priority, requiring a quick decision or fast action.

Assertion – This approach involves a person who addresses their issues and the issues of other parties with equal respect. The individual displays a desire to meet his/her needs, but not at the expense of others. This is an effective style most of the time, but it may not be the best choice if the receiver is apt to translate the message as patronizing or condescending.

Collaboration – Collaborators are typically assertive and cooperative, attempting to meet both their needs and the needs of the other party. This style is much more likely to result in a potential solution that all parties can agree to. It can be very effective if the desire for resolution and results have a long-term, positive outcome.

Problem Solving – This resolution style is a combination of cooperative and collaborative approaches that seek common ground and explore mutually satisfactory options rather than holding on to one position or the other. As such, this can be one of the most useful of all conflict-management strategies. Focus is driven toward the problem or conflict, thereby generating creative options for resolution.

Address, Don’t Avoid

Avoiding conflict in any organization is impossible; however, effectively managing conflict in the workplace is quite possible. Public safety leaders should be prepared to address conflicts as they emerge. As with most things in leadership, effective and straightforward communication is a must. Ignoring problems opens the door for employee dissatisfaction, inhibited personal performance and organizational disruption at all levels. Your people depend on you to resolve conflicts and work as their advocate when problems arise. A successful resolution to one conflict will encourage personnel to think creatively about how to solve the next conflict. As Nelson Mandela noted, the opposite is also true: “One effect of sustained conflict is to narrow our vision of what is possible. Time and time again, conflicts are resolved through shifts that were unimaginable at the start.”

References

  1. Overton AR and Lowry AC. (2013). Conflict Management: Difficult Conversations with Difficult People. Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery. 26(4). Accessed 10/23/21 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3835442/.
  2. Corkindale G. (2007). How to Manage Conflict. Harvard Business Review. Accessed 10/23/21 from: https://hbr.org/2007/11/how-to-manage-conflict.
  3. Wang N and Wu G. (2020). A Systematic Approach to Effective Conflict Management for Program. SAGE Open. Accessed 10/23/21 from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244019899055.
Rex Scism

CAPTAIN REX M. SCISM (Ret.) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Mr. Scism also served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, as well as a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and serves as a content developer for Lexipol.

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