The elephant in the room & conflict resolution

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can
make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening
it. That factor is attitude” – William James

This final post will build on all previous knowledge and examine how to resolve conflict from a theoretical and practical view point.

Conflict resolution, defined as ‘The process of ending a disagreement between two or more people in a constructive fashion for all parties involved’, is central to the development and progression of any organisation. As previously discussed, conflict is often viewed as inevitable within any group or organisation, where different groups of individuals are bound to have conflicting goals, ambitions and interests.

In Buchanan and Huczynski (2007) analysis of the most commonly adopted approaches to resolving conflict they outline five conflict resolution models, and suggest appropriate situations for their use:

  1. Competing/ForcingHere the main objective is to get your own way, regardless of whose feathers you may ruffle along the way, because you know what is right. This approach is more than likely to leave the other party feeling angered, upset and resentful
    [useful for – emergencies, implementing change, crisis]
  2. AvoidingHere the main objective is to avoid dealing with the conflict, viewing conflict as unhealthy you’d prefer to let someone else deal with it. Bigger problems later on down the line are likely to arise though as a side effect
    [useful for – trivial issues, fixed issues, letting people cool off, when the disruption outweighs the benefit of resolution]
  3. CompromiseReaching a quick agreement is the main objective of this approach, where a solution that all parties can live with is more efficient than finding one that actually solves the problem. Although the conflict is now quashed, the best resolution possible has not been reached
    [useful for – temporary resolution to complex issues, time efficiency, reducing disruption]
  4. AccommodatingMain objective to avoid upsetting other party, in an attempt to maintain harmonious relationships. The problem with this approach is that this sort of stance during the resolution process is likely to encourage the other party to take advantage
    [useful for – when you are wrong, building relationships, creating harmony, minimizing loss when you’re outmatched]
  5. CollaboratingSolving the problem together in a way that produces a quality decision, where both parties are committed to the resolution. This approach sees all sides of the conflict examined with equal importance, and is most likely to resolve the issue for good
    [useful for – finding integrative solutions, when the objective is to learn, to merge different perspectives]

However, adopting the wrong approach can have serious consequences for an organisation, and lead to irreparable damage both internally, with staff and externally, with stakeholders.

My case study will highlight how approaching conflict in the wrong way and attempting to incompetently resolve it proved a costly mistake for the organisation in question.

Gate Gourmet, founded in 1992 in Zurich, is the world’s largest independent airline catering and hospitality supplier. In 2005, after the loss of some key contracts, Gate Gourmet found themselves in financial difficulties. In response to the financial strain, internal spending cuts were made reducing the current working conditions, and agency staff who were cheaper than contracted employees, were introduced.

On the 10th August 2005, around 200 full-time contracted GG employees, unhappy with the new working conditions, company policies, and agency co-workers, held an impromptu strike at the end of their tea break, in an attempt to get the attention of managers who had so far avoided listening to, and dealing with, their concerns and queries. Following two warnings from management to return to work, all workers involved with or associated with the strike were sacked.

The following day, the remaining 300 employees were faced with an ultimatum – to either sign a new contract, wavering previous employee entitlements, setting out new working conditions, and introducing a lower wage or also face being sacked. Outraged employees began forming a picket line at Heathrow and ground several flights due to lack of catering, demanding to be reinstated without having to sign any new contract.

On the 12th August, emergency talks began between Gate Gourmet and the Transport General Workers union in an attempt to return to business as usual in the quickest manner possible. On the 26th August after talks between management and staff, GG and TGWU came to an agreement that saw 395 of the 710 dismissed staff reinstated. The others were offered voluntary redundancy packages or compensation. While this settled that matter and allowed business to return to normal at Heathrow, in the long-term this did not solve the issue. Those staff who did return to work were still unsatisfied with the result, feeling that there was a clear lack of communication between staff and management.

Those who did not accept reinstatement or redundancy, which totalled around 167 employees, pursued legal help and the conflict ran on for a further four years until 2009, where the final cases were settled in court.

This example highlights just how dangerous leaving a conflict unresolved can be, if the managers had just spoken to staff in the first place and tried to come to some collaborative resolution, this all could have been avoided. However, by avoiding the initial conflict and then trying to force a resolution on the staff, Gate Gourmet ultimately cost themselves thousands of pounds in legal fees, compensation, redundancy packages and lost business.

In conclusion it’s clear that there a number of ways to tackle the elephant in the room (conflict), but most importantly, is the understanding that there is no definitive answer. Conflict, by the definition of its very nature, is a sensitive and subjective issue that is unique on every separate occasion. Therefore, resolving conflict must be a thought out process which aims to solve the issue in the most effective way, whether this be competing/forcing or the polar opposite collaborating.

What are your thoughts? Is there a style of resolution you prefer to adopt over others? How do you think Gate Gourmet handled the conflict resolution process? Have you been involved in a conflict resolution? Let me know what your thoughts or experiences are by commenting below, and make sure you vote in the poll!

Oliver Bailey

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11 thoughts on “The elephant in the room & conflict resolution

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  4. Dave says:

    Read the post, but was left asking myself; what about people’s predisposed nature? It’s all good and well saying here’s a bunch of alternatives to resolving conflict, but undoubtedly it’s easier said than done. As someone who doesn’t enjoy conflict, and never will avoidance always does the job for me, because things always seem to blow over.

    • Hi Dave,

      I fully understand the point about predisposed nature, but while avoidance may work for you, can you be sure this doesn’t leave the other party unsatisfied?

      I think the whole idea about conflict resolution, must come from an understanding that not resolving conflict in the appropriate way is unhealthy, and could lead to other problems later on down the line.

      However, if avoidance is working thus far for you, then maybe this is because it is the best response to the types of conflict you are involved with.

      Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  5. Linda says:

    Hi Oliver great post.
    I remember the Gate Gourmet incident well as I work very closely to Heathrow. I remember thinking at the time what a pig’s ear the management had made of the situation.
    I like the fact you talk about the appropriateness of all the resolution approaches, as it’s obvious at face value most people would write off things like avoidance and competing/forcing.
    Good Job!

    • Hi Linda,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree, on paper we are probably all more than likely to consider some of the approaches as useless.

      Glad you managed to take away the key points from the post.

  6. Michael Gilmartin says:

    Great post, you make good points about the varied approaches to conflict resolution and the different contexts in which they have some baring. I think understanding this, is really important for organisations, and isn’t something often addressed in enough detail. What has become standard today, is these silly little books handed out by HR detailing the ins ad outs of how to deal with things like conflict, however what these books fail to do is highlight a range of approaches. Going back to what you’ve said in the post, these books of which I speak seem to adopt the idea that there is always one right approach and I think because of this, many manager often handle conflict resolution in the wrong way.
    I’m almost sure that the Gate Gourmet managers would have spoken to someone at HQ before sacking all the staff, and after searching through company policy guides and management texts, came to the conclusion that threatening the staff with immediate dismissal (because they probably counted the strike as gross misconduct) was the right thing to do. What often lacks in big corporations nowadays is the human touch and gut instinct. So many companies want to cover every angle and leave nothing to chance, that everything is too stiff and regimented, meaning in my opinion that conflict resolution is fact becoming an almost impossible task.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your contribution to this discussion, I thoroughly agree with the many points you’ve made, in particular about the way in which big corporations seem to deal with conflict as a one-dimensional problem with a one-dimensional approach to resolution.

      I’ve worked for a number of retailers where this has been the case, but in relation to what Josh said which is also a valid point how do big companies like these approach conflict and resolution, without some sort of guideline in place? What might your suggestion to this be?

      However, having said that I do agree that there is nothing in my opinion as the human touch – dull, lifeless employee handbooks are such a sad state of affairs!

  7. rolesrelations says:

    Hi Oliver,

    Conflict resolution: Sounds like a title from the Call of Duty franchise doesn’t it?

    I think that listening to your employees first and taking a collaborative approach is the most effective way, however I agree with you when it comes to situation or circumstance and I think you’re right in saying it may be neccessary to adopt various other approaches given the context.

    I think that the five approaches you have described from B&H are all applicable, but to different organisational structures or professions. Where avoiding and accomodating are probably the least attractive and beneficial approaches, they are probably the most relevant in a retail/sales situation. The saying ‘the customer is always right’ enforces the idea that if there is a disgruntled customer, you should avoid conflict and accomodate them to resolve the issue. I won’t go into the full reasonings behind this, but in general, customers will leave the store unhappy if they are challenged, and this could lead to a whole host of uncomfortable issues for the store or employees in question later on.

    However, in a more corporate setting, say the banking profession (they may want to learn from this, given their past actions) the best approach to dealing with conflict is to collaborate – As you pointed out, the ability for a more dynamic and integrative solution can mean that the issue can be resolved – for good. This is surely and ideally the best way to ensure conflict resolution is handled appropriately and both parties leave the situation happy. However, as your Gate Gourmet case proves – there was a definite lack of communication and manegerial force that enabled the resolution to be settled. I believe that conflict resolution is down to the people involved, it relies on certain individuals or teams to work together and enforce the measures that are needed to make it work. It’s all very well coming up with a plan, but if you don’t have the right staff, with the neccessary skills and expertise, that ingenious plan you’ve just concocted is as much use as a chocolate teapot.

    Saying that, I don’t think that an organisation with a vast number of employees will always be able to please every single member of staff. There’ll always be differing interests and differing motives of each member of the workforce, so although a collaborative approach is the most suitable way for the business and majority of employees to resolving conflict, it won’t have the most suitable outcome for the minority. You can’t please everyone!

    Josh

    • Hi Josh,

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the comments!

      From what you say, it seems like you’ve taken away the main points I was trying to communicate within the text, so that’s good news!
      I completely agree with your closing statement, you can never make everyone happy, especially if the conflict is between a mass number of employees… In this case my personal approach would be to try and please the most people possible, by way of creating a solution that at least everyone has a chance of enjoying/appreciating.

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