Reducing Conflict and Increasing Solution Creativity

By Jan H. Katz Phd., Cornell School of Hotel Administration

September 14, 2016

A group of students almost got into a fistfight in my office a few years ago over a difference about the location of the conclusion in a report. Each subgroup attributed the other’s position to poor training or stupidity and didn’t investigate further.

Then, I pointed out that the difference was cultural – Americans put conclusions up front; Japanese, at the end – and the situation immediately calmed.

The conflict above helped to remind students about culture’s importance, but it also raised stress levels and wasted time. Research has shown, however, that well managed conflict can be very functional. It can force people to improve ideas and develop innovative solutions and it can increase employee buy-in and job satisfaction.

Effective conflict management is particularly necessary in the hospitality industry because, all other things being equal, diversity tends to increase conflict and there are few industries more diverse than hospitality, both in personnel and in tasks. So, managers must learn to reduce the level of conflict and channel it effectively.

The industry has long dealt with conflict (between wait and kitchen staffs, for instance) and found one of the major management strategies: keep those in conflict apart. Using technology (order wheels and now computer systems) and personnel (runners), restaurants have done that and reduced conflict. Typically, however, more active management is needed.

Conflict that is due to superficial differences may only require making the source of the conflict explicit.  As in the opening example, people often attribute stupidity, maliciousness, egocentrism, etc. to those with whom they are in conflict. Stepping in and pointing out the misattribution and explaining the real source of conflict can be helpful. It allows people to respond rationally rather than emotionally and that’s half the battle.

At times, managers have that more accurate information (someone just transferred from a different company and so, was only doing what he had learned). At other times, managers must ask the participants for information. It’s very important to do this in a non-judgmental way. For example, better to say, “I’ve noticed that you often do X. Can you help me to understand why?” instead of “Why are you doing that annoying behavior.” Of course, it’s best to train all employees not to make false attributions and instead investigate differences without judgement, but if training can’t be done, managers need to step in.*

Much more difficult to manage is conflict arising from differences in opinions, priorities or assumptions (e.g. the best way to improve customer service). If time is short, it may be necessary for a manager to step in and make a decision and enforce that.** When there is more time, however, research shows that collaborative solutions work better.

For collaborative conflict reduction, employees interact to provide information and ideas. Someone is assigned to moderate (possibly, but not necessarily a manager). That person makes sure that information is accurate (the internet is helpful). Also, ideas must be probed (e.g. “Can you tell me what you particularly like about that idea?” or “What are your assumptions for that suggestion?”). The goal is to reduce flaws in ideas, but everyone should remember that even flawed ideas are helpful. They can contain a kernel of a great idea or in thinking about the flaw, people may start in a new direction that generates a great idea.

Collaborative conflict resolution always includes intragroup differences and it is critical for the moderator to keep a positive tone or the collaboration itself turns into conflict. Everyone needs to be reminded that, “We’re all helping to generate the way forward,” and “We’re better off when everyone participates.”

At the end of the discussion, a consensus may be reached, but it may be that a manager ultimately decides what will be done. When the latter happens, she should explain the decision within the context of the discussion. That process is likely to lead to a better idea and will generates more buy-in, something that all managers should want.***

So, though conflict always arises in a workplace, it can be managed effectively as long as people are prepared. Rather than trying to dampen conflict, we can manage it to generate superior solutions and increase employee satisfaction.


*There are cases of where behavior causing conflict needs to be changed because explaining the difference isn’t enough (e.g. workplace gossip and rumor-mongering), but changing behavior is another topic and I’ll address that next month.

** When people already trust their manager, it’s much easier to enforce a management decision and so, managers should always work to develop subordinate trust.

*** As mentioned in an earlier column, most hotels and restaurants have employees from cultures that are less likely to get into argue and complain. That seems to eliminate the conflict “problem”, but it really doesn’t: it eliminates the benefits of conflict and replaces it with employee dissatisfaction which causes higher turnover. So, as I mentioned in that column, you need to find ways to allow even reticent workers to voice disagreement.


Contact Jan H. Katz Phd. if you have any questions or for more information:

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