Whether at the international or interpersonal level, terms like conflict management and conflict resolution are often used synonymously, even though both actually have different definitions. Lesser known but equally important is the concept of conflict transformation, which also holds its own unique definition apart from its conflict management and conflict resolution cousins. Considering that each of these concepts holds their own identity, the question must be asked: What are the differences between these three fundamental concepts? For workplace peacebuilders, there is an even more crucial question to consider: How do we differentiate between these concepts and know when to apply each pragmatically in the workplace?
In order for peacebuilders to be effective in handling conflicts, understanding the difference between these three concepts is key. In this article, we define conflict management, conflict resolution, and conflict transformation as well as offer examples of situations in which peacebuilders can utilize each of these methods.
According to Bloomfield and Reilly, conflict management can be defined as “the positive and constructive handling of difference and divergence” (Bloomfield and Reilly, 1998). Instead of focusing on resolving differences between people, conflict management takes a pragmatic approach to conflict by constructing agreements and practices that allow people to effectively cooperate despite their differences. Thus, conflict management does not spend as much time figuring out how a specific conflict can be resolved or transformed but rather offers strategies to mitigate a conflict’s negative effects. These strategies may come at the interpersonal, intergroup, or systemic levels of intervention.
When evaluating whether to use conflict management in the workplace, it is important to consider that conflict management does not attempt to resolve conflicts but simply gives tools to mitigate conflict’s destructive potential. Often, conflict management is utilized in conflicts that have a history and exist due to differing fundamental values between those involved. This being said, conflict management should be applied to workplace conflicts when the possibility of resolution has little to no likelihood. Here are a few examples of workplace conflicts where conflict management training can be useful:
- Conflicts based on a difference of values/opinions between coworkers or associates that must OR choose to work together despite their differences
- Conflicts involving difficult clients, customers, or constituents, with whom an organization must OR chooses to serve despite their difficulties
- Conflicts based on communication or personality style differences between co-executives or business partners who aim to continue working together despite the challenges in their relationship
Pollack Peacebuilding Systems offers workplace conflict management training that teaches coworkers and executives how to improve communication, healthily assert their needs, and effectively manage interpersonal or intergroup challenges.
Unlike conflict management, conflict resolution emerges from an imperative to meet human psychological needs. Conflict resolution theorists argue that simply managing conflict does not meet the underlying psychological needs necessary for sustainable well-being. According to John Paul Lederach, conflict resolution works towards “achieving an agreement and solution to the presenting problem creating the crisis” by using tools, such as the presence of a third party, to end the conflict (Lederach, 2003, p. 33). Conflict resolution is typically more short-term focused, content-centered, and is fixated on solving issues in a relationship where conflict appears.
Conflict resolution is often utilized to create positive-sum constructive outcomes from a conflict that is initially zero-sum. In deciding what conflicts should be solved using conflict resolution, the creative potential of conflict should be considered. Rather than thinking of conflict as purely negative, it is more accurate to describe conflict as a neutral force with constructive and destructive potential. When engaging in conflict resolution, we attempt to spur the constructive potential in conflict instead of accommodating its destructive side. Due to the massive creative potential of conflict resolution, this strategy can solve a variety of conflicts in the workplace, including:
- Task-related conflicts
- Conflicts involving role and job clarity
- Employee interpersonal conflicts based on acute or minimal issues
- Conflicts stemming from miscommunications, misinterpretations, or misperceptions
Pollack Peacebuilding Systems offers workplace conflict resolution training that teaches employees and executives tools to mediate and resolve conflicts through creative and constructive means.
Unlike conflict management, which focuses on providing tools to mitigate conflict, and conflict resolution, which focuses on providing creative solutions through resolving conflict constructively, conflict transformation asserts that individual conflicts are influenced by larger cultures, systems, and structures that promote the continuation of conflict. Like conflict resolution, conflict transformation fulfills psychological needs by not only making sure parties’ needs are addressed in individual conflicts but by ensuring they are being fulfilled by the system surrounding the conflicts.
According to Lederach, actively engaging in conflict transformation is “to envision and respond to the ebb and flow of social conflict as life-giving opportunities for creating constructive change processes that reduce violence, increase justice in direct interaction and social structures, and respond to real-life problems in human relationships” (Lederach, 2003, p. 22). With a focus on transforming conflict through addressing larger structures, “the goal of conflict transformation is peace; the capacity to handle conflict creatively and nonviolently” (Galtung, 2000). Instead of merely arriving at a proposed solution, conflict transformation empowers individuals to creatively and nonviolently handle conflicts on their own while addressing changes in the surrounding system that may allow for sustained peace.
Conflict transformation can be utilized in the workplace in a variety of ways. The most important thing to keep in mind is that transforming conflict in the workplace involves not just managing, preventing, and resolving conflict, but changing the systems that allow conflict to continuously thrive. Here are a few specific examples of conflicts that can be impacted by conflict transformation:
- Management-employee conflicts rooted out of organizational systems
- Conflicts related to unhealthy organizational culture
- Conflicts rising out of claims of a toxic employee, manager, and/or work environment
- ‘Invisible conflict’ showing itself through unproductivity, high turnover, and decreased job satisfaction
- Long-standing, abstract interpersonal coworker conflicts that have been allowed to continue for long periods of time within an organization
Pollack Peacebuilding Systems helps transform workplace conflicts through our workplace peacebuilding program. This program incorporates conflict analyses and interventions to reduce organizational conflict and build healthy, sustainable, and productive cultures.
Bloomfield, D. and Reilly, B. (1998) The changing nature of conflict and conflict management. In: Harris, Peter and Reilly, Ben, (eds.) Democracy and deep-rooted conflict: options for negotiators. International IDEA, Stockholm. Sweden, pp. 7-28. https://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/36911/1/democracy-and-deep-rooted-conflict.pdf
Galtung, J. (2000). Conflict Transformation by Peaceful Means (the Transcend Method). Curriculum presented at United Nations Disaster Management Training Programme. https://www.transcend.org/pctrcluj2004/TRANSCEND_manual.pdf
Lederach, J. P. (2003). The little book of conflict transformation. Intercourse: Good Books.
Miall, H. (2004). Conflict Transformation: A Multi-Dimensional Task. Berghof Foundation Handbook. https://www.berghof-foundation.org/fileadmin/redaktion/Publications/Handbook/Articles/miall_handbook.pdf