Perceptions of Public Officials and Citizens of the Public Decision-Making Process in the Midwest United States Jeff Ehrlich,Ed. D assistant Professor, Health Care Leadership

How should conflict be dealt with?

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How should conflict be dealt with?

The role of conflict in groups has been a matter of debate among public administration and management theorists since the early 20th Century. Views about the nature and utility of conflict fall along a continuum of two extremes--those that argue that conflict should be avoided and those that contend that conflict should be embraced.

The predominant view in the early 20th Century was that conflict is dysfunctional. Robbins and Judge (2009) explain that “the traditional view of conflict was consistent with the attitudes that prevailed about group behavior in the 1930s and 1940s. Conflict was seen as a dysfunctional outcome resulting from poor communication, a lack of openness and trust between people, and the failure of managers to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of their employees” (485). This perspective was shared by theorists such as Elton Mayo who argued that conflict should be avoided (Fry and Raadschelders, 2008).

One notable exception to this early trend was Mary Parker Follett’s work on social conflict. Unlike her contemporaries, Follett saw social conflict as “neither good nor bad, but simply inevitable” (Fry and Raadschelders 2008, 113). Her message was that “healthy solutions” to conflict are possible (Fox, 1968, 524). Follett’s approach to conflict was echoed in the human relations view which dominated from the late 1940’s to the mid-1970’s (Robbins and Judge, 2008). Like Follett, this school of thought argued that conflict was natural, inevitable, and potentially beneficial.

More recently, the interactionist view of conflict has emerged. According to this approach, conflict should not only be accepted, it should be encouraged. The premise is that managers in organizations should encourage constructive conflict in order to keep the group innovative, self-critical, and creative (Robbins and Judge 2008).

In addition to these three views on the nature of conflict, there are also a variety of conflict management techniques. Conflict resolution techniques include problem solving, creating shared goals, expanding resources, avoidance, smoothing, compromise and using formal authority to promote a resolution (Robbins and Judge 2008 citing Robbins 1974). Conversely, there are also conflict-stimulating techniques such as bringing in people with diverse backgrounds and designating a devil’s advocate (Robbins and Judge 2008).1

These various views and techniques have been used by theorists and practitioners to explain, describe, and manage conflict in the workplace and in other social groups. It is acknowledged, however, that public meetings differ from other organizational settings in some fundamental ways. For example, a person may work for an organization for many years, while a public meeting may last for only a matter of hours. The limited duration of relationships in public meetings can alter the incentive for resolving conflict in a meaningful and healthy way. On the other hand, the manner in which conflict is viewed, as either harmful or beneficial, can change the manner in which conflict is perceived and utilized in any setting. If conflict is perceived as unhealthy, techniques may be used to avoid conflict in the workplace or in a public meeting. On the other hand, if conflict is viewed as healthy, then techniques may be employed to welcome different viewpoints, encourage conflict, and seek creative solutions. In other words, the various perspectives on conflict and conflict management techniques used in other organizational settings may also be relevant to public meetings.

How do you define civility?

Perhaps civility could be considered the quality of the public deliberation and those involved. Civility breeds opportunities for both the citizen and the public official. Lack of civility in public meetings may bring a well-meaning meeting to a disturbing end.

Civility is about more than merely being polite, although being polite is an excellent start. Civility fosters a deep self-awareness, even as it is characterized by true respect for others. Civility requires the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and perhaps fierce disagreements. It is about constantly being open to hear, to learn, to teach and to change. It seeks common ground as a beginning point for dialogue when differences occur, while at the same time recognizes that differences are enriching. It is patience, grace, and strength of character Institute for Civility in Government (2012).

Public meetings in the United States are designed in theory that offers a large range of opportunities to participate with one another as well as public officials regarding public problems and policies. While mentioned previously in this paper, the concept that with fewer people attending public meetings, those with professional interests and vocal activists eventually create a hostile atmosphere (Williiamson and Fung, 2004). Rogers (2011) points out that the approach people take to discussion and debate is characterized by an attitude that public meetings can become a dialog of "I disagree with you - and not only that, but you're a bum and I'm going to yell so loud I can't hear what you're saying."

Defining the principle of civility is difficult. As a foundation for democracy and civil discussions, civility urges public officials and the citizen public to set a high standard for civil discourse as an example for others in resolving differences constructively and without disparagement of others Rogers (2011). The lack of this form of civic engagement is assumed to result in a democratic deficit (Rose and Saebo,2010). Certain types of civility behavior lead to poor consequences. McComas, Besley, and Black (2010) note that while some participants in the meeting may perform as part of the ritualistic behavior often found in public meetings, may also provoke criticism and less than desirable outcomes. Costa (2002) states that one can understand the frustrations and anger when attending public meetings, but the only thing that will get everyone through the process is the ability to respectfully listen and then respond. This lack of civility may lead others to avoid or ignore public meetings because of the poor behavior of other citizens and public officials.

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