Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 220
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

An Improved Reformed-Sinner Strategy

Researcher discovers the best pattern of force and problem solving that resolves conflicts.

It doesn't take long to get a belly full of conflict . . . the harsh words, the lingering bad feelings. Most of us would be happy if we could avoid it altogether, yet inevitably it intrudes into our days and spoils our good moods.

The desire to eliminate conflict has led many supervisors to embrace problem solving as a strategy to manage conflict when it arises. Problem solving helps people discover areas of mutual interest. It helps them work through negative feelings and merge their insights.

The trouble is that it often doesn't lead to satisfactory resolutions.

Often, people's feelings are so strong and so negative that they genuinely don't want a resolution, and the cost in time and energy to get one just isn't worth it.

Force defines conflict: you have two parties, and each insists that the other party concede, give up. Yet supervisors often find they must use force if they need to implement an unpopular decision or act quickly in response to an emergency.But force carries substantial risks. It can provoke an escalation of counter moves with destructive outcomes, it causes stalemates, and it ruins relationships. So force doesn't come highly recommended either. Both problem solving and force have drawbacks.

This has led researchers to explore the use of both problem solving and force to resolve conflicts. The reformed-sinner strategy and the black-hat/white-hat routine are popular examples that researchers have tested. Each is characterized by a shift from the use of force to the use of problem solving. They've discovered, for example, that conflicting parties are usually more agreeable to problem solve after experiencing a use of force.

Evert Van de Vliert, from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, recently examined the combined uses of force and problem solving in conflict situations in a series of experiments. He explored their use both sequentially, one after another, and also simultaneously. Simultaneous use of force and problem solving can be appropriate for complex conflict issues with many aspects to be settled.

Van de Vliert conducted three experiments, and for each one he arranged people into pairs and then assigned them a contentious problem to solve through negotiation. The first two experiments paired strangers. The third experiment paired managers from a variety of settings who knew each other.

Van de Vliert videotaped each discussion and analyzed the tapes. He identified instances of problem solving, force, and simultaneous use of problem solving and force. He also used objective measures to judge the outcome of the negotiations.

His first experiment revealed that force was ineffective in producing satisfactory results unless it was combined with higher levels of problem solving. The addition of problem solving prevented a disappointing outcome when force was used alone.

His second experiment revealed that repeated sequences of force and problem solving helped people handle conflicts most effectively. Force, followed by simultaneous use of both force and problem solving, also produced good results.

His third experiment explored the pattern revealed in his second experiment. People who best managed their conflicts began with force, then switched to problem solving, then back to force, then back to problem solving, and so on in a pattern that ended when problem solving produced a satisfactory result. The outcome was especially sensitive to the final tactic. If it was problem solving, the outcome was good.

Van de Vliert feels this discovery (that a sequence ending with problem solving produces the best result) is his most important finding. He believes that managers and supervisors who follow this pattern will have the most positive impact in conflict situations.

Maybe we should try it. The next time you find yourself in a conflict or find yourself trying to help others who are in conflict, it will probably be because a use of force has just occurred. The next step should be an attempt to compromise (problem solve), so say "Let's look for ways to compromise." Then turn to the other party and say "What do you really want?"

Reference: Van de Vliert, Evert, Aukje Nauta, Ellen Giebels, and Onne Janssen (1997) Constructive Conflict at Work. Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings from the Fifty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, 92-96.

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