Conflict exists everywhere. Whether we work with a close team of like-minded people or a diverse group of individuals, sooner or later conflict may arise. No two individuals can think alike and there is definitely a difference in their thought process as well as their understanding. Organizational conflict arises when the goals, interests or values of different individuals or groups are incompatible, and those individuals or groups block or thwart one another’s attempts to achieve their objective.

So, what should we do? We learn to resolve conflict. However, the only way to resolve conflict is to first recognize conflict by understanding the stages of conflict.

Before we get to understanding the stages of conflict, let us look at a normal office scenario.

Two senior managers Ravi and Kumar work together and are competing for the role General Manager- Sales. Soon, due to his ability to work with international clients, Ravi is promoted, and he now holds the position of General Manager- Sales. However, the relationship between Ravi and Kumar is now tense. Kumar has more seniority with the company than Ravi does, however Ravi is the one promoted which did not make Kumar happy. He thinks Ravi was promoted simply because Ravi shares a personal relationship with the department head as they both studied in the same college.

Kumar has been openly hostile towards Ravi’s promotion and tries his best to make Ravi feel like he did not deserve the promotion. Ravi chooses to let it go without confronting Kumar about his behaviour. He thinks that Kumar will eventually make peace with the situation and things will be fine again. Meanwhile, Kumar’s behaviour towards the team is aggressive as well. Instead of having constructive conversations like before, Kumar now just bosses around without giving his team a chance to put forth their ideas or concerns. His team goes to Ravi to discuss their concerns regarding Kumar’s behaviour. Ravi decides to be a part of one of the team meetings to understand what exactly is happening.

During the meeting, Ravi notices that Vijay, one of the executives had an opinion on the new marketing strategy which was being discussed. However, Kumar ignores Vijay whenever he tries to say something. Ravi interrupts Kumar and gives Vijay an opportunity to speak. This annoys Kumar and he lashes out on Ravi saying, “I know how to treat my team, you need not interfere when it comes to my team and the way we work. You have become the GM merely due to your connection with the department head. Do not teach me how to handle my work or team.” Kumar walks out of the meeting room leaving everyone stunned.

Do you think the conflict occurred because Ravi interrupted Kumar during the meeting as a result of which Kumar lashed out? Well, let me tell you something, this conflict started brewing right since Ravi’s promotion.

Let’s see how by understanding the 5 stages of conflict!

Latent Conflict:

This is the first stage of conflict in which the factors that could become a cause of potential conflict exist. In the “Latent Stage,” there may be some tension or awareness that something is not right";. Mostly, nothing is said or done about the issue as it is not clearly identifiable.

In the above scenario, the factor that could cause potential conflict is the promotion. There is no conflict present, however Ravi and Kumar are aware that the promotion will cause tension between them.

Perceived conflict:

The phases of conflict build on one another. After the latent stage, comes the perceived stage, where one or both parties in the conflict become aware that it's happening. Here, the basic source of conflict results due to groups and individuals misunderstanding each other’s true position/intention. Once both parties are aware of the issue, it is important to take the time to clarify what went wrong and why the parties are upset about it.

In Kumar and Ravi’s case, Kumar has a misunderstanding that Ravi is promoted because of his personal relation with the department head. His misunderstanding and Ravi’s lack of efforts to clarify it, escalated the latent conflict to perceived conflict. In this case, Ravi and Kumar should have spoken about how each of them feels and should have addressed the tension brewing between them. They should have figured out a way to work as a team and not let the positions affect their work relationship.

Felt Conflict:

Felt conflict is the stage when the conflict is not only perceived but felt and cognized. During this stage of conflict, stress and anxiety are felt by the people involved. Minor incidents or events may occur with negative feelings attached to them, which moves people from mere negativity to mistrust. Conflict at this stage can be resolved by open and fair communication.

Kumar’s hostile behavior towards others is a sign of anger and Ravi’s ignorance is a sign of stress and fear of what will happen if he says something to Kumar knowing that he is angry. However, rather than avoiding any type of confrontation and showing frustration on other things, these two need to address the elephant in the room!

Manifest Conflict:

Manifest conflict is the stage when the two parties engage in behaviours which evoke responses from each other. The most obvious of these responses are open aggression, apathy, sabotage and withdrawal. At this stage, it is time to openly discuss the conflict since everyone is aware of the issue. It is best to talk to the other party as clearly and openly as possible while trying to keep emotions in check. The most important part of this stage is to listen to the other side.

After avoiding the confrontation about the promotion and how each one feels, Ravi and Kumar have reached a point where their frustration and anger is at its peak. This results into Ravi interrupting Kumar during the meeting and Kumar openly expressing his anger in a harsh manner. This could have been avoided if Ravi and Kumar would have discussed the impact of Kumar’s behaviour on others and the reason for his hostile behaviour alone, rather than going at each other during the meeting with everyone.

Conflict Aftermath:

After the four stages of conflict comes the aftermath stage, which describes what happens as a result of the conflict. The aftermath of a conflict may have positive or negative repercussions for the organization depending upon how the conflict is resolved. If the conflict is genuinely resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, the basis for a more co-operative relationship may be laid. On the other hand, if the conflict is merely suppressed but not resolved, the latent conditions of conflict may aggravate and explode in a more serious form until they are rectified.

As a result of the conflict between Ravi and Kumar, the relationship between them is now strained and working together will now prove to be a challenge for them. However, if they decide to discuss the crux of the issue even now, they can find a middle ground and find a way to work together without any further conflicts.

It is extremely important to deal with issues and communicate clearly and transparently at the early stages like latent or perceived, because if conflicts escalate further, the discussions in the later stages get more difficult and the larger build-up of felt emotions may lead to major blow-ups.

Now that we can successfully understand and recognize the stages of conflict and ways to avoid escalation at each stage, half our work is done, because well begun is half done!

However, we cannot always avoid conflicts, and the second half which is conflict resolution is not easy. Stay tuned to understand how we can effectively resolve conflicts and turn them into healthy conversations!

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