Approaches to Managing Conflict
By Joseph Parish
Conflict is customarily defined as a clash of actions, directions, interests, values or views. Discord within emergency response operations is inescapable amongst the various partners involved. This should come as no surprise considering the diverse concerns and the conflicting mandates of the dissimilar stakeholders. There are usually a vast number of partners occupied with the issue, so naturally the higher the number the greater the opportunity for conflict. During emergency situations the individuals concerned are stressed to their limits. They have been working long hours under extremely poor living conditions and they continually have been witnessing the unfortunate suffering from the very people to whom they are trying to help.
To understand how potential relationships and conflicting issues often arise between various agencies or organizations bent upon the same essential goals would first require an appreciation of why the conflicts arise to begin with. Reflect for a moment on your own past conflicts and try to see what the central theme for the dispute was and then think carefully of the following causes.
The foundation for conflict can originate from a number of sources especially if the variance is a major emergency response. Usually organizational conflicts are a result of assertion of demands relating to an increased share of the rewards, such as acknowledgement, appreciation, position or monetary benefits. It is not unusual to find these origins to spring from the different organizations which have diverse priorities and goals. It would then be the manager’s responsibility to establish a common objective to put the various partners back on track.
Personality differences present the emergency response manager with the most difficult conflict resolution of all to resolve. Often these personality conflicts are deeply rooted within the pre-established values of the personnel concerned. These values can frequently be extremely difficult to change and thus the manager must attempt to get both parties to see the others point. Ultimately negative effects such as these can reduce the overall commitment to the organizational goals and efficiency. Ultimately it may come down to isolating one or both of the personalities.
Role conflict and the responsibilities associated with those roles is another common response especially between various interagency. It will be up to the manager to reduce this conflict by promoting the understanding of each groups role, and then clearly identifying their respective responsibilities.
Various perceptions of the crisis situation can often be a source of problems but can effectively be resolved by sharing the various views and establishing an agreement based upon the accepted assessment of the emergency situation. People in different cultures usually have some fairly radically varied views concerning the progression of the situation. Conflicts of this nature can often times be reduced by a mere understanding of the opposing culture.
Political factors will occasionally play a major role in the decisions taken by any organization. An example of this was New Orleans during the Katrina catastrophe. FEMA was being un-necessarily blamed for failure to act when in reality the responsibility for initiating the emergency actions lied squarely upon the Louisiana Governor’s shoulders. Without a formal request FEMA is not permitted by law to act. The delays associated with this were motivated by political agendas. The governor did not wish to relinquish the power of the state to the federal government. Naturally in cases such as these the Emergency Response Manager has little influence over the results of the actions of the individual states.
In today’s environment the general actions necessary to head off emerging conflicts prior to them escalating is to schedule regular meetings. In attendance at these meetings should be the various agencies leaderships and stakeholders involved in the efforts. These “get-togethers” should be established on a regular, scheduled basis so the members involved know they have access to a forum where they can voice their concerns. The manager should promote a philosophy of openness and free information exchange at these meetings. This can lead to other partners recognizing pre-emptive conflicts before they become a major issue. Dealing with prevention is usually a much easier process then attempting to resolve an open wound issue. Trust between the various parties involved and even between the Emergency Manager and the groups may be difficult to initially establish but it can be nurtured and built upon by taking all concerns seriously and being honest with the partners involved. Withholding critical information from the stakeholders fosters distrust among the members who will eventually withhold their findings as well.
As an active participant in the resolution process the Emergency Manager would do well to know their partners and the concerns, strengths, and weaknesses of each. This knowledge will allow the manager to resolve most issues before the disruptive repercussions involving the agencies can become locked between opposing positions.
Copyright @2010 Joseph Parish