Conflict resolution

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Power differentials must be taken into account in conflict resolution
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See also Bullying behaviours in the workplace | Critical thinking | Managing health libraries | Research Portal for Academic Librarians

Conflict resolution refers to a set of skills and a mindset important in the promotion of harmonious working relationships in organizations. Although supervisors are sometimes expected to mediate conflict between staff in their units, individuals are also advised to learn basic conflict resolution to mediate conflict with others. The focus on resolving conflict among individuals is often on finding a middle-ground acceptable between two opposing viewpoints. In most cases, conflict resolution may involve a neutral third party or mediator, which can be a colleague or peer. CR is an important skill for librarians to manage interpersonal (and intergroup) conflict. The goal in CR is to give aggrieved parties an opportunity to resolve differences and to find ways to move forward positively. This is the hard work of conflict resolution.

Several important factors underlie conflict in libraries. Two important issues are power and control. It is critical that a mutually-agreeable compromise is found and that the two (or more) parties find an appropriate way to move beyond rigidly-held positions. It seems the more important issues are to librarians, the more likely they are to lead to conflict. The most difficult problems occur between two librarians who hold rigid views or those who cannot relinquish power or find compromise / middle-ground.

There are two approaches to resolving conflicts. One is to allow the parties to work together to solve their differences which may be as simple as agreeing to a compromise. The other is to bring in a third party to help with solutions. This may include mediation, arbitration or even therapy. Regardless of the method, several themes emerge in the process. These include cooperation, accepting diversity and problem-solving. One key is to ask those involved to summarize their viewpoint for the other person with whom they disagree. The goal is to lead to a mutually-acceptable compromise for both parties but each has to want to move ahead productively or the conflict resolution will not be durable.

Five basic ways to address conflict

There are five basic ways to address conflict, according to Thomas and Kilmann (1976):

  1. Accommodation – surrender one's own needs and wishes to accommodate the other party.
  2. Avoidance – avoid or postpone conflict by ignoring it, changing the subject, etc. Avoidance can be useful as a temporary measure to buy time or as an expedient means of dealing with very minor, non-recurring conflicts. In more severe cases, conflict avoidance can involve severing a relationship or leaving a group.
  3. Collaboration – work together to find a mutually beneficial solution. While the Thomas Kilman grid views collaboration as the only win-win solution to conflict, collaboration can also be time-intensive and inappropriate when there is not enough trust, respect or communication among participants for collaboration to occur.
  4. Compromise – bring the problem into the open and have the third person present. The aim of conflict resolution is to reach agreement and most often this will mean compromise.
  5. Competition – assert one's viewpoint at the potential expense of another. It can be useful when achieving one's objectives outweighs one's concern for the relationship.

Analyze Your Conflict Style using the Thomas Kilmann Instrument.

Conflict at University of Oklahoma Library: Case Study

Weaver-Meyers tells of a major conflict at the University of Oklahoma in 2002. The conflict began with the University President who wanted to remove the faculty status of librarians at the institution. This move was ultimately opposed by Senate for it was seen as divisive and the faculty feared it would weaken its power at the university. In the library, librarians took different sides of the issue and caused major disagreements among colleagues. For those academic librarians on the tenure track, but who did not want the same publish or perish requirements of faculty, were given the option of a management and professional classification. However, many fought to save faculty status for academic librarians within the institution.

The UofO conflict took ten years to resolve. With the librarians divided, it was difficult for administration to find a suitable compromise for both sides. Some librarians wanted to retain their faculty status while the rest opted for a professional staff position. The day-to-day activities of the library continued; library committees met, searches were conducted, reports were generated but there was warring on both sides. Conflict resolution was attempted repeatedly during the faculty status crisis. Third-party intervention was eventually attempted, cooperative activities in the libraries continued and a creative compromise solution was ultimately found. Arbitration was seen to be helpful in getting an outside but motivated party to help each side find a compromise.


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