ISSN Paper Edition: 0214-9915
1997. Vol. 9, nº 1
STYLES OF HANDLING INTERPERSONAL CONFLICT: AN OBSERVATIONAL STUDY
Lourdes Munduate, Pedro Luque & Miguel Barón
University of Seville
Estilos de gestión del conflicto interpersonal: Un estudio observacional. El propósito del presente estudio es el de corroborar si los hallazgos sobre los estilos de gestión del conflicto hallados en estudios previos (Munduate, Ganaza, Alcaide & Peiro, 1994; Rahim, 1992), se confirman utilizando una metodología distinta. En lugar de analizar los autoinformes de los directivos sobre los estilos utilizados en situaciones previas de conflicto, como se ha realizado en los estudios indicados, el objetivo reside en analizar experimentalmente los estilos directamente observados en sus interacciones de conflicto. Se considera también la incidencia del estatus relativo y las tácticas de influencia. Con una muestra de 45 sujetos inscritos en programas de postgrado, se simula una situación de conflicto en el laboratorio, en la que se va modificando el estatus relativo de los participantes - con cómplices de los investigadores que desempeñan el rol de superiores, compañeros o subordinados -, y la táctica de influencia empleada - asertivas, de bloqueo, y racionales. Se filman las interacciones de conflicto, y posteriormente dos jueces codifican los estilos empleados por los directivos - evitación, dominación, integración, compromiso y servilismo. Los resultados indican que los estilos observados en las conductas de los directivos, difieren de los estilos empleados según los autoinformes de los directivos en estudios previos. Se observa también que los estilos varían en función del estatus jerárquico relativo y la táctica de influencia empleada.
One experimental study was conducted in order to observe conflict handling styles used by managers. The objective was to determine if the major findings in previous researches (Munduate, Ganaza, Alcaide & Peiro, 1994; Rahim, 1992) could be replicated with differences in methodology. Rather than considering the perceptions of the subjects in relation to their styles of handling within conflict situation, the aim was to analyze experimentally the actual styles of handling conflict using an observational methodology. The incidence of the relative status and the influencing tactics were also considered. With a sample of 45 subjects registered in postgraduate educational programmes, a conflict situation was simulated. By using accomplices, the experimenter manipulated the relative status among subjects - superiors, peers and subordinates - and the influencing tactic used - assertiveness, blocking and rationality. Then, the styles of handling conflicts - avoiding, compromosing, obliging, dominating and integrating - used by subjects were observed. Structured observations showed that there are some relevant differences between findings got by self-report of conflict handling styles in previous research and observations of managers behavior. Styles also varied by the effects of relative status and influence tactics.
Correspondencia: Lourdes Munduate
Dpto. de Psicología Social. Fac. de Psicología
Universidad de Sevilla
Avda. San Fco. Javier, s/n. 41005 Sevilla (Spain)
The study of styles of handling interpersonal conflict has
increased in importance in recent decades. Among different approaches carried
out to distinguish and classify styles - see Blake & Mouton, 1964; Pruitt,
1983; Rahim & Bonoma, 1979; Thomas, 1976, 1992; Tjosvold, 1989; Van de Vliert
& Prein, 1989 and Van de Vliert & Hordijk, 1989 -, empirical evidence
shows an important support to GRID’s five style of conflict handling behavior
approach (Ruble & Thomas, 1976; Rahim, 1983a; Van de Vliert & Kabanoff,
1990). This category, carried out by Thomas (1976, 1992) and Rahim (1992), is
based on a two-dimensional approach - attempt to satisfay one’s own concerns
and attempt to satisfy the concerns of the other person. As is shown in Figure
1, a combination of the dimensions results in grid’s five different conflict
handling styles: integrating, compromising, obliging, dominating and avoiding.
The relations between these styles of conflict management have
been contrasted using self-reporting questionnaires -with satisfactory levels
of reliability- that were specifically designed to reflect the five styles of
conflict management. Studies carried out in Spain on this subject (Munduate,
Ganaza, Alcaide & Peiró, 1994), using the adaption of ROCCI-II (Rahim,
1983b), have shown that integrating is the style most widely used by Spanish
managers, followed by compromising and avoiding. Obliging and dominating feature
as the least used.
The findings concerning the influence of the hierarchical position
of the other party, indicate that the style of conflict management adopted by
the speaker varies depending on whether the conflict is with a superior, a subordinate
or a peer. It has been shown that subjects adopt a style of domination in the
resolution of differences with subordinates (Philips and Cheston, 1979; Lee,
1990); while they adopt a compromising style when both parties in a conflict
situation hold a similar share of power -among peers, for example- (Lee, 1990;
Philips & Cheston, 1979; Rahim, 1983a; 1986). Finally, subordinates tend
to adopt an obliging style more in cases of confrontation with a superior than
in those with peers or subordinates (Drake, Zammuto and Parasuraman, 1982; Munduate,
Ganaza & Alcaide, 1993).
Research Objectives and Hypothesis
Lee proposes (1990) the need for empirical studies which analyze
the actual styles of conflict management, instead of analyzing the perception
that subjects have about their styles of conflict management through retrospective
field studies, as has been the case in most of research to date. In fact, of
the studies in print, only Lee’s (1990) establishes the styles used by managers
in their relations with superiors, peers and subordinates by observing their
behavior in the moment of confrontation. A different approach to that adopted
through self-reported questionnaires -in spite of obtaining retrospective data-,
is that adopted by Kabanoff & Van de Vliert (1993). They have used managers’
reports about their interventions in real conflict situations which are then
evaluated and classified by coders. Cosier & Ruble’s (1981) study also moves
away from self-reported questionnaires using an experimental game with a computer
The principal objective of the present study is to establish
whether the findings about the styles of conflict management are confirmed using
a different methodology. The first specific objective is to establish whether
managers are more inclined to use the style of integration, followed by compromise
and avoidance, in their conflict interactions in organizations.
Considering the interactive focus for the analysis of conflict
situations put forward by Kabanoff & Van de Vliert (1993), and drawing on
research into processes of social influence (Moscovici, 1976; Mugny & Doise,
1978), we have picked up on the design study used by Lee (1990). This approaches
from the standpoint that in interactions of conflict with a superior, a peer
or a subordinate, one of the factors that influences the style of conflict management
adopted by the manager is the tactic of influence used by the other party. In
other words, the subject tends to adopt a different tactic depending on whether
she/he is dealing with a boss, a peer or a subordinate, and this in turn affects
the style of conflict management adopted by the other party (Lee, 1990). Linked
to the results of the effects of hierarchical positions on social influence
(Lemaine, Lasch & Ricateau, 1971-1972; Sherif & Sherif, 1969), Kipnis,
Schmidt & Wilkinson (1980) point out that subjects tend to use different
tactics of influence depending on the relative status of the other party: superiors
will tend to use assertive tactics, peers, blocking tactics, and subordinates,
The second objective of the present study is to analyze the
style of conflict management used by managers, depending on the relative status
and the tactics of influence of the other party, with the following predictions:
- Hypothesis 1: differences will be found in managers’ use
of styles of conflict management depending on whether they are dealing with
superiors, peers or subordinates, in the following direction: there will be
a tendency to use an obliging style more with superiors than with peers or subordinates;
that of compromise more with peers than with subordinates or superiors and,
finally, dominating more with subordinates than with peers or superiors.
- Hypothesis 2: differences will be found in managers’ use
of styles of conflict management, depending on the tactics of influence adopted
by the other party in the following direction: there will be a tendency towards
using the obliging style more when the other party uses assertive tactics; compromise
when the other uses blocking; and dominating when the other turns to rational
- Hypothesis 3: Differences will be found in managers’ use
of styles of conflict management depending on who s/he is dealing with -a superior,
peer or subordinate- and the tactics of influence used by that person -assertive,
blocking or rational-, in the following direction: they will tend to use the
obliging style more when the superior uses assertive tactics; the compromising
style more when the peer uses tactics of blocking, and dominating more when
the subordinate turns to rational arguments.
Sample. From a class of subjects attending a post-graduate
managerial course, 45 subjects were selected (27 men and 18 women, with an average
age of 31). The subjects’ jobs involved them in tasks of a managerial nature,
or their curriculum was one which would lead to them assuming responsibility,
as this was one of the criteria for them being accepted on the courses.
Experimental design. A 3x3 factorial design was used
with the following intergroup variables: Relative status of the manager and
Tactics of influence used by the managers. The first of the variables has three
dimensions: Relations with superiors vs. Relations with peers vs. Relations
with subordinates. The second independent variable has three dimensions: Assertive
tactics vs. Blocking tactics vs. Rational tactics. The dependent variable is
the style of conflict management adopted in each experimental condition, according
to the following five dimensions: integrating, compromising, obliging, dominating,
Procedure. The 45 subjects are randomly assigned to
one of the groups of six subjects, from the nine experimental conditions. Each
group is made up of five experimental subjects and an accomplice. The group
is asked to carry out an exercise, and each subject is given a role which specifies
the department they are going to represent as well as the position they hold
within it. General information is also given about the organization and the
aims of the meeting which is the same for all the participants. They are given
twenty minutes to prepare the exercise during which time they are not allowed
to exchange information. The accomplice subject is treated in the same way as
the rest of the members of the group so as not to arouse suspicion, but his
position at the table has been previously agreed so as to give him the planned
As the exercise unfolds a conflict situation develops. The
exercise consists of the allocation of a half-yearly budget in which each member
assumes the managerial role of a certain department and has to negotiate with
the other subjects -acting as managers of other departments- the quantity corresponding
to each one. They must reach an agreement within the 40 minutes allowed for
the meeting. The accomplice provokes the conflict situation by requesting an
excessive proportion of the overall budget. In each of the nine experimental
situations the accomplice is assigned a different managerial role - high-ranking,
low-ranking, or same hierarchical level-, and adopts different tactics of influence
-assertive, blocking, and rational. The meetings of the nine experimental situations
are filmed from the control room for subsequent evaluation of the variables.
Evaluation of the dependent variable. Two coders carried
out structured observations of the videos. The categorial system used to codify
the interactions corresponds to the five styles of conflict management, and
also includes a sixth style labelled miscellaneous which caters for those behaviors
that cannot be included in the previous categories and that will be left out
of later analyses. The units of observation selected for the codifying of the
interactions are the intervention turns. These turns are the utterances that
the subjects make during the sessions. Each intervention turn must be codified
into one of the categories mentioned. The aspects of the intervention turns
that are recorded have a mainly semantic content while not ruling out the possibility
of recording non-verbal aspects when these clearly substitute utterances.
The intercoder reliability of 0.91, calculated using Cohen’s
Kappa coefficient (1968) is very satisfactory. The disagreements in codification
of the categories of analysis are resolved by going back over the videos, discussing
them and agreeing on a codification. To settle differences in the event of a
disagreement persisting, the codification is carried out by a third observer.
Every four intervention turns the observers compare to see whether they have
been codifying the same intervention turn -by comparing the first and last phrase
of the turn codified. The disagreements over intervention turns are sorted out
at that point by the observers.
The success of the experimental manipulation. To test
whether the accomplices have correctly fulfilled their roles as superiors, peers
and subordinates, observations are made of these behaviors by the judges with
coefficients being obtained of 0.93, 0.93, and 0.94 respectively. The same procedure
is repeated for the tactics of influence used by the accomplices, with coefficients
being obtained of 0.95, 0.85 and 0.87 for rational, blocking and assertive tactics,
respectively. In short, the success of the experimental manipulation for both
variables is confirmed.
Although Table 1 confirms the greater overall use of the integration
style, the highlight of the findings in this paper is the use of domination
in second place. There is then a large distance to the style of compromise which,
according to findings in previous studies, should have been in second place.
As for Hypothesis 1, concerning the incidence of relative hierarchical
status of the other party on the style of conflict management, there is confirmation
(see Table 2) of the following: the use of integration more often with superiors
than peers; compromise more with peers than superiors; and domination more with
subordinates and peers than superiors. There is nothing to show that an obliging
style is used more with superiors.
In the case of Hypothesis 2 about the incidence of the tactics
of influence used by the other party on the style of conflict management (see
Table 3), there is only confirmation of the greater use of domination when the
other turns to rational arguments.
The predictions in Hypothesis 3 about the interactive effect
of both variables are not confirmed (see Table 4).
The data about the greater use of the style of integration
confirms the tendency observed in managers in recent years of addressing the
interests of other parties as well as their own, seeking new and improved alternatives
for both sides (Munduate, Ganaza, Alcaide and Peiró, 1994; Rahim, 1992).
However, what stands out is that domination is the style least used by Spanish
managers according to the self-reporting questionnaires (García-Echevarría,
1991; Munduate, Ganaza & Alcaide, 1993; Osorio, 1992; Serrano & Remeseiro,
1987; Vidal Abascal, 1991), and the second to last style used by American managers
(Rahim, 1992), while in this paper it appears as the second most widely used
style. This seems to indicate a difference between the findings previously obtained
through managers’ reports about their styles of conflict management, and those
obtained through the observation of their behavior in conflict interactions.
The differences found concerning the use of different styles
depending on the relative status of the other party, confirm data from Kabanoff
& Van de Vliert (1993) and Mannix, Thompson & Bazerman (1989) about
the influence of relative power. They state that as the imbalance in the power
relations grows, the likelihood of mutual cooperation in the resolution of the
conflict decreases. In fact, we have observed that although managers are seen
to be more integrating with superiors than with peers, and have a greater tendency
towards compromise with peers than with superiors, they do, however, tend to
use a dominating style with subordinates and peers.
As a conclusion of the present paper, we should highlight the
significant differences between managers’ perception of the way they act in
conflict interactions, and their actual behavior. One explanation for this could
lie in the behavior-attitude inconsistency described by LaPiere back in 1934,
and which has emerged as the difference between the cognitive, affective, and
behavioral components of attitudes. The cultural and social changes which Spanish
society has undergone in recent years may explain the development of styles
of conflict management on a cognitive level, but not on a behavioral level.
A study carried out by Porat (1970), to analyce the influence of cultural differences
in the way executives of various countries handle conflict, indicated that when
Spanish executives of the beginning of the seventies reached agreements, they
did so in shorter times than Danes, Swiss or British, but that Spanish executives
tended to lead negotiation to a zero-sum situation in which both parties lost.
They adopted hard and inflexible tactics, higly coercive, when they could not
arrive at an agreement in the first part of the process. Although the data in
the present paper about the presence of integration and domination as the most
widely used styles tie in with the tendency described by Porat (1970), the temporal
phases of the process have not been analyzed. As Haire, Ghiselli & Porter
(1963) pointed out in their study about managerial styles in different countries,
we see the absence of a link between the ideas about managerial practices -that
tend to be based around persuasion and participation- and basic beliefs about
human nature -that tend to remain traditional and unchanging. The authors point
out that this paradox between a basic lack of confidence in other people and
at the same time a tendency towards group-based participative styles may be
showing the effect of a partial acceptance of modern managerial concepts (Munduate,
Ganaza, Alcaide & Peiró, 1994). It may be possible to stretch this
explanation to cover the discrepancies between the descriptions that the managers
gave about their styles of conflict management, and the actual styles of conflict
management they were seen to adopt. In fact, although the use of bargaining
styles similar to integration and compromise have been present in studies on
the subject in recent years (García-Echevarría, 1991; Munduate,
Ganaza & Alcaide, 1993; Osorio, 1992; Serrano & Remeseiro, 1987; Vidal
Abascal, 1991), the data obtained in the present study by using an observational
methodology show that managers continue to fall back on pressure styles on more
occasions than they are willing to admit.
This research was supported by a grant from the Spanish CICYT
(Comisión Interministerial de Ciencia y Tecnología)(PB91-0955).
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Aceptado el 20 de mayo de 1996