Mary Parker Follett: Constructive Conflict

“I should like to ask you to agree for the moment to think of conflict as neither good nor bad; to consider it without ethical prejudgment; to think of it not as warfare, but as the appearance of difference, difference of opinions, of interests. For that is what conflict means—difference. … As conflict is here in the world, as we cannot avoid it, we should, I think, use it. Instead of condemning it, we should set it to work for us.”

In 1925, Mary Parker Follet, an American intellectual, social worker, management consultant and pioneer of organizational theory/behaviour, presented a paper entitled “Constructive Conflict” to the Bureau of Personnel Administration conference. Her ideas on conflict analysis and resolution, as articulated in this paper, have become some of the basic premises and principles of the CR field. Yet credit to this woman, who operated in a male dominated world, is not generously given: A quick search of three academic CR textbooks turns up one positive result – two short mentions in Contemporary Conflict Resolution by Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall (p.35 & p.45).

Follet argues that conflict, as a natural and inevitable part of life, does not necessarily have to lead to deleterious outcomes. Rather, if approached with the right analytical and imaginative tools a conflict can present an opportunity for positive or constructive development (hence the title of paper). Follet’s definition of conflict as difference is a bit too parsimonious – difference, in an of itself, does not make a conflict – but this is unimportant as it doesn’t detract from her main insights.

According to Follet, there are three ways to respond to conflict: Dominance, Compromise and Integration. Dominance means victory of one side over the other. This works in the short term, but is unproductive in the long run (to make her point Follet presciently alludes to the results of “The War” – WWI). Compromise means each party having to give up something for the sake of a meaningful reduction of friction. Far form ideal, compromise often leaves parties unsatisfied – having given up something of value. Finally, integration, the option championed by Follet, means creatively incorporating the parties fundamental desires/interests into the solution.

when two desires are integrated, that means that a solution has been found in which both desires have found a place, that neither side has had to sacrifice anything. Let us take some very simple illustration. In the Harvard Library one day, in one of the smaller rooms, someone wanted the window open. I wanted it shut. We opened the window in the next room, where no one was sitting. This was not a compromise because there was no curtailing of desire; we both got what we really wanted. For I did not want a closed room, I simply did not want the north wind to blow directly on me; likewise the other occupant did not want that particular window open, he merely wanted more air in the room….

The example at library used by Follet, and the whole concept of integrative negotiation, would later be copied (without reference or acknowledgment) by Robert Fisher and William Ury in their 1981 national bestseller “Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” (p.40).

Continuing to contrast the integrative vs. compromise approaches to conflict, Follet writes:

…..One advantage of integration over compromise I have not yet mentioned. If we get only compromise, the conflict will come up again and again in some other form, for in compromise we give up part of our desire, and because we shall not be content to rest there, sometime we shall try to get the whole of our desire. Watch industrial controversy, watch international controversy, and see how often this occurs. Only integration really stabilizes. But the stabilization I do not mean anything stationary. Nothing ever stays put. I mean only that that particular conflict is settled and the next occurs on a higher level.

Follet is cognizant that integrative bargaining is not always a viable option (she provides the example of two men vying for one woman), and that there are a lot of obstacles that get in the way of cooperative negotiation. These include, on the one hand, a natural distaste for quarreling, and on the other, a fighting zero-sum mentality.

The method to integrative bargaining according to Follet is to bring the real differences out into the open. Taking her cues from psychology, she writes:

The psychiatrist tells his patient that he cannot help him unless he is honest in wanting his conflict to end. The “uncovering” which every book on psychology has rubbed into us from some years now as a process of the utmost importance for solving the conflicts, which the individual has within himself, is equally important for the relations between groups, classes, races, and nations. In business, the employer, in dealing either with his associates or his employees, has to get underneath all the camouflage, has to find the real demand as against the demand put forward, distinguish declared motive from real motive, alleged cause from real cause, and to remember that sometimes the underlying motive is deliberately concealed and that sometimes it exists unconsciously. The first rule, then, for obtaining integration is to put your cards on the table, face the real issue, uncover the conflict, bring the whole thing into the open….

This type of “uncovering”, in the context of conflict and productive negotiations, explained Follet, often leads to a “revaluation” of one’s desires and interests. Another way of saying this is that uncovering leads people to move from position to interest-based thinking and negotiation.

So if the first step is to illuminate the conflicted parties desires, the second and related step for Follet is to break up the demands of each party into its constituent parts. Breaking up wholes means paying special attention to the language used in the conflict. What is behind the words – is a desire to go to Europe, for example, really a desire to go to Paris or Barcelona or is it a reflection of a deep need to experience life anew and meet different people? If so, is there another way to fulfill this need? Once the whole is broken up it needs to be reconstructed anew – with a focus on the essential.

Follet stresses the importance of interrelation in dealing with conflict. She speaks of circular response: A acts, B reacts, A reacts to B’s reaction, etc. “The conception of circular response throws much light on conflict”, writes Follet, “for now I realize that I can never fight you, I am always fighting you plus me. I have put this way: The response is always to a relations. I respond, not only to you, but the relations between you and me.” One is reminded her of social psychologist Morton Deutsch’s Crude Law of Social Relations: “The characteristic processes and effects elicited by a given type of social relationship also tend to elicit that type of social relationship.”

Returning to the obstacles in the way of win-win outcomes, Follet explains that integrative bargaining entails intelligence and imagination (something that is short supply in general, even more so during times of conflict). Second, our way of life has habituated us to take pleasure in domination. Finding an integrative solution pales in comparsion to the excitement generated by fighting with and (trying to) dominate another. (This would have been an interesting place for Follet to give her critique a feminist flavor, but alas she did not). A third obstacle is that integrative analysis is usually confined to the world of theory. Fourth, Follet points to the way in which we communicate with one another (I have written about this here). In conflict there is a strong tendency to attribute blame to the other. Finally, and Follet thinks this is perhaps the greatest obstacle to integration, misguided education and lack of training.

All in all, it’s easy to see how Follet’s innovative ideas have influenced the field of conflict resolution. While there is a lot to build on and critique in Follet’s analysis (and in integrative negotiations in general), the purpose of this entry was to provide a summary Follet’s concept of constructive conflict. A more critical analysis will be forthcoming.


9 responses to “Mary Parker Follett: Constructive Conflict

  1. This essay on mary parker follet’s theory on conflict has greatly enriched my understanding of her ideas on organization

  2. Glad to be of assistance.

  3. Thanks for this contribution to making Follett’s landmark work better known. Please note that her last name has 2 t’s– Follett.

  4. Thanks Betsy. Much appreciated. I will go through and make the spelling corrections in the near future.

  5. To summarize this, what are the contributions of Mary Parker Follett in the field of Management? Pls specify. Thanks!

  6. Mary has really touches people’s lives positively

  7. It’s really helpful, it helped for my study 🙂 thanks

  8. Really helpful. Improved my understanding of integrated method of conflict resolution

  9. Very enriching article on conflict resolution

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