Book Review: Conflict Meets Power in the Workplace

One of the most consequential blind spots in popular management literature on conflict resolution is the failure to adequately address situations of unequal power. Yet research has demonstrated that power differentials significantly impact the way in which disputants handle conflict. In their book “Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement,” Columbia Professor Peter T. Coleman and Psychologist Robert Ferguson seek to address this gap through a theoretically rich, yet surprisingly practical, contribution to the field.

The authors start off with a brief but fascinating discussion on the nature of power. Building on the work of the unsung management visionary Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933), they define power as “the ability to cause or prevent actions and to make things happen, and the discretion to act or not to act.” The advantage of this admittedly un-parsimonious definition is that it avoids conceptualizing power as solely a form of coercion and emphasizes the role of judgment as an essential aspect of effective uses of power.

Coleman and Ferguson argue that we need to become more cognizant of our underlying assumptions about power. When we see power in our organizations as a fixed-pie resource, for example, then our implicit orientation towards it will be a competitive one leading to strategies of domination in conflict situations. If, on the other hand, we view power as an expandable resource, then our implicit orientation towards it will be a cooperative one leading to strategies of collaboration during situation of conflict.

Throughout the book, the authors make the crucial point that no one approach to conflict is inherently superior to the other – each has its own pathologies – but rather that every situation calls for a context-specific response – hence, discretion.

Based on decades of their own research as well as that of others, Coleman and Ferguson reason that, when faced with a dispute, there are three essential questions to consider: How important are the other disputants to me? Are they with me or against me (or both)? Am I more or less powerful than them, or are we equals?

The authors have found that the combination of these three factors – relationship importance, mutual goals, and power balance – create vastly different types of work situations that “largely determine our reactions and responses to conflict situations.” Coleman and Ferguson then go onto characterize seven different conflict strategies that can be employed in different situations, including Pragmatic Benevolence, Cultivated Support, Constructive Dominance, Strategic Appeasement, Selective Autonomy, Effective Adaptivity and, when all else fails, Principled Rebellion.

The authors devote a chapter to each strategy, demonstrating its use through case studies and research, and then elaborate on a set of tactics and offer questionnaires for self-assessment and organizational-assessment, before outlining the possibilities and limitations of each approach.

For me, the key insight from Making Conflict Work is that no one approach to conflict management is better than others – on the contrary the authors warn of the dangers of chronic default orientations –but rather that conflict intelligence entails effective adaptivity: adopting your response to the particulars of the situation. “Conflict-prone professional environments and political networks”, they write, “require leaders, managers, and employees to have a wide array of conflict-management strategies and tactics and to be able to employ them artfully and effectively.”

Such a flexible approach, their research shows, is associated with a greater sense of happiness and satisfaction with conflict, work relationships and work in general.

Importantly, Coleman and Ferguson recognize that there are limits to their situation-strategy “fit” model. In a chapter entitled “Principled Rebellion,” the authors argue that some conflict situations (e.g. criminal activities, harassment, oppression, etc) call for parties to challenge the status quo and “to respond to a conflict in a disorderly manner.” Such responses, while very risky, include non-violent tactics that appeal to the self-interests and sense of morality of the power-holder, as well as more public-shaming stratagems such as whistle blowing and civil disobedience.

While “Making Conflict Work” covers a lot of original ground, certain sections of the book leave the reader wanting more. For instance, most of the examples in the book look at conflict situations where disputants are either in cooperative or competitive conditions, yet we know that in many instances of real-life scenarios conflicts are both – people are motivated to compete and to cooperate with one another simultaneously. The authors address this briefly in the book but, given the ubiquity of such conflicts, a more detailed discussion would have been helpful. Similarly, the book would have benefited from a more robust discussion of the ethical implications of manipulating people in order to achieve desired goals.

Nevertheless, I left my reading of Making Conflict Work with a heightened awareness of the fact that, in times of conflict, power matters. But not always in the ways we think. This book is a must read for current and aspiring leaders in business and industry, and a welcomed addition to the literature in the field.

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