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The Big Picture and Conflict Management

4 min read.


Here is a far-reaching question: What causes conflict?

In particular, does conflict largely stem from differences within and between people? Or does conflict primarily arise from the attributes and forces in the situation, that is, the larger system within which people interact with one another?

In my experience, the great majority of the conflict we experience stems from the system—not the people.

What is systems conflict?

Indeed, if you replaced the employees in an organisation and gave the new recruits sufficient time to learn their job and what is expected of them, it wouldn’t be long before the same conflicts arose. Soon, you’d even hear the same disagreements.

As a rough estimate, I’d say that most conflicts are 80% system driven and only 20% people driven. Quality guru W. Edwards Deming repeatedly claimed that this ratio is closer to 85/15.

So, what is the system that creates conflict?

Many years ago, I developed a model, The Big Picture, as a way of capturing the source of all problems and conflicts. This Big Picture does acknowledge individuals—their different styles and skills for managing people and problems.

But that, as I suggested, is only 20% of the equation. The remaining 80% consists of these interrelated, systemic aspects:

        • “The setting (dynamic complexity in general and the needs of external stakeholders in particular).”
        • “The organisation (strategy-structure and the reward system).”
        • “The culture (the rules of the road that dictate “how things are done around here” and sanctioning systems that keep people in line with those unwritten rules).”
        • “The group (the processes by which individuals get together and then address their problems and conflicts).”
        • “The results (satisfying internal and external stakeholders, short term and long term).”

It should be apparent that most formal organisations (for example, businesses) have documented their strategy-structure and reward systems. Even informal organisations also have systems—but they aren’t written down.

For example, families have implicit goals and strategies (to keep members safe, healthy, and nurtured), structure (the hierarchy and authority of parents), and reward systems (the consequences for misbehavior).

So, every social system has the attributes of The Big Picture—they only differ on the scope of the system and what is documented for all to see.

Sources of systems conflict

While there is limited space here to detail all the sources of conflict with The Big Picture, consider a few:

        • External stakeholders create expectations and demands on the organisation, which the organisation may not be able to fulfil (hence conflict).
        • The cultural norms in the organisation may dictate that its lower-level employees avoid challenging senior management, while many members are still eager to speak the truth (hence conflict).
        • Different departments have different goals (cost containment versus expanding the market), which pits people from these departments against one another (hence conflict).
        • The performance appraisal system expects people to take chances and express innovative ideas, while the culture says protect yourself and maintain the status quo at all costs (hence conflict).
        • The external environment and the organisation’s strategy, structure, reward system, culture, group process, and skills and abilities of its members are misaligned, which leads to widespread gaps between what is and what could or should be (hence conflict).

Three ways to gain perspective

Although it’s useful to give people insights and awareness about their five conflict modes, we must also provide them with a deep appreciation of The Big Picture, so they:

        • Can see the 80% that regularly throws the 20% into conflict.
        • Don’t take personally what is far beyond the manifestation of their immediate conflict.
        • Become more knowledgeable and skilled at changing the situation, which will allow them to gain greater control over the resolution of their root, most important, conflicts.

The Big Picture and Conflict Management was written by Ralph H. Kilmann and first published in CPP Author Insights, 2011, by CPP, Inc. (now The Myers-Briggs Company).


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