Conflict Management and Its Relevance in IP Sector

It is said that “effective teams don’t avoid conflict; they learn how to manage it”. When done tactfully, conflict can be an opportunity for embracing new ideas and introducing changes with the evolving times. Conflict between people is an inevitable part of any society, particularly the way it can impact work dynamics in the modern era. While a difference of opinion does not mean a clash of personality, however, when ignored or unaddressed for long, a simple conflict can harm an organization in unimaginable ways. Realizing its importance, a lot of effort went into studying the concept of Conflict Management. 

This article presents types of conflict, benefits and detriments of conflict and the causes of it. We also discuss the strategies to prevent and manage conflict effectively and its relevance in IP sector. 

What is a Conflict?

Conflict could be defined as a struggle or contest between people with opposing beliefs, principles, ideas, needs, values, or goals. In other words, a conflict is referred to as a clash of interests or an escalation of disinterest. The basis of conflict could be personal, racial, class, creed, gender, caste, political and international. But it can also be intellectual and theoretical, in which case, academic recognition may, or may not be, a significant motive. Conflict within teams is inevitable; however, the outcome of conflict cannot be predicted. Left unresolved, it might escalate and lead to non-productive results. Timely resolution of the conflict, however, can produce surprisingly positive results.

Conflict Management in IP Sector

Conflict exists in each and every part of our lives, whether professional or personal. Similarly, conflicts exist in the management of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) also.

A conflict in Intellectual Property domain typically arises in a situation where one person’s work results in a total disregard for another person’s work. Intellectual property is the result of one’s hard work. A conflict on intellectual property can be avoided by declaring the intent. At times, a person cannot accurately determine if there is a conflict with a body of work or if any other person is going to stake a claim. However, it’s better to be safe than sorry and to declare the intent behind the work.

For example, a company named ‘JP Private Limited’ provides global IP solutions to its clients. A man named ‘Mr. A’, an ex-employee of the JP Private Limited, decides to independently practice in the same domain after leaving the company, and establishes a firm named ‘JayPee Private Limited’. In addition to this, Mr. A also maliciously creates a logo which is remarkably similar to JP Private Limited, with an intent to deceive and redirect public towards its firm using the market value and goodwill of JP Private Limited. The representatives of JP Private Limited get to know that Mr. A has applied for trademark registration similar to their company’s logo.

Now, any conflict can be resolved by using the five styles of conflict management (mentioned under the sub-section – Five Styles of Conflict Management). The company’s legal representative shall first evaluate the situation and decide what conflict resolution process they should opt for in order to resolve the issue.

As the company’s legal representative cannot avoid or collaborate in this situation, they may initially choose to accommodate and compromise by contacting Mr. A to resolve the conflict out of court. For example, the representatives may issue a letter to Mr. A informing him about this infringement and sort a solution by gently directing him to take down his trademark application, cease and desist the use of infringing trademark, and resolve the conflict out of court. This style of conflict resolution involves lesser financial risks and legal engagement of both the parties.

Suppose this style of conflict resolution results in an ineffective solution and Mr. A does not cease the usage of the infringing trademark. In that case, the representatives shall opt for a more rigorous conflict resolution process of competing with the other party. They may then sue Mr. A under intellectual property rights infringement and file for compensation and damages that the company may have to bear during the time period. In such a conflict situation, the probability of winning the case against the infringer is very high.

For a better understanding of conflict, it is crucial to know its features.

Features of Conflict:

  • Conflict can never be eliminated; it can only be minimized as it is an inevitable part of work within teams.
  • A high degree of conflict management can lead to increased productivity and a transparent team.
  • Conflicts can be regarded as an opportunity in a veil which needs to be uncovered.
  • Conflicts are an integral part of the modern global work force and need new solutions for different situations and geography.

Based on its origin, a conflict is either constructive or destructive.

Constructive and Destructive Conflict

Categorizing a conflict as constructive or destructive requires appropriate skills, experience and practice; however, some general characteristics can help determine the type of conflict.

Conflict is constructive/positive when it:

  • Encourages people to embrace different ideas and alternatives.
  • Leads to increased participation and a firm commitment to the group’s decisions, objectives and goals.
  • Helps in clarifying the underlying issues or reassessing them for a start.
  • Develops coordination and collaboration among the team members.

Conflict is destructive/negative when it:

  • Causes bullying, discrimination or harassment among team members.
  • Diverts energy from the shared goals and objectives of the team in work.
  • Polarizes groups on a perceived difference of opinion that might not be true actually.
  • Destroys the morale of team members and reinforces poor self-esteem.

Types of Conflict

Three types of conflict commonly found across organizations are listed below:

Task Conflict

Task Conflict is the first type that is caused by work assignments, resource division and allocation, varying opinions on policy and procedures, interpretation of facts and expectation of managing the work. Fortunately, this conflict can be resolved quickly with the timely intervention of leaders. Offering solutions as a de facto mediator, managers can also identify the underlying interest of the concerned parties.

Relationship Conflict

Relationship Conflict is typically caused by differences of opinions, tastes and preferences, experiences, personality, beliefs, etc. The conflict generally takes place between friends, partners, siblings and co-workers. Relationship conflict is quite common in modern organizations as people from different backgrounds and cultures are put together at work.

Value Conflict

Value Conflict arises because of differences in the social and cultural values of two different people. It encompasses differences of opinion about politics, ethics, religion, norms and other deeply held beliefs. Although extreme forms of discussion related to politics and religion are prohibited, disputes can arise in real-time decision-making. An example would be an organization’s decision to implement a positive action program or accept a client with a corrupt background.

Can a conflict be good for an organization? The answer is a surprising yes! There are certain positives from a conflict based on how it is handled.

Benefits of Conflict

In the fast-paced office culture of a modern organization, institutional and interpersonal conflicts are pretty standard. But, unfortunately, the magnitude of time and effort spent in resolving the conflict leaves very little time to understand its benefits.

The five most important benefits that can be identified from a workplace conflict are:

  • Early problem identification
  • Better problem solving
  • A healthy relationship, morale and commitment
  • Improved productivity
  • Personal growth and insight               

Apart from its benefits, there is also a flip side of conflicts, if left unresolved.

Detriments of Conflict

Conflicts can cause far-reaching problems that can damage any business, relationship or commitment and not resolving them in a timely fashion can be dangerous.

The most important disadvantages of conflict are:

  1. Inter-team tension
  2. The winner-loser issue
  3. Time and energy spent
  4. Toll on emotions

Causes of Conflict

Several factors are known to facilitate conflict under certain circumstances. Some of them are as follows:

  • Task interdependencies
  • Status inconsistencies
  • Jurisdictional ambiguities
  • Communication problem
  • Dependence on a common resource pool
  • Lack of expected performance standards
  • Individual differences

Now that we know the types, advantages, disadvantages and causes of conflict, let us move our focus on managing the conflict.

What is Conflict Management?

Conflict Management is the art of managing the present and impending conflict by acquiring and cultivating appropriate conflict resolution skills. The skills can be self-awareness about conflict modes, conflict communication methods and a clearly defined management structure for resolving conflicts. Conflict management aims to minimize the negative impact and maximize the positive effects resulting from a conflict.

The practice of conflict management involves identifying and handling a conflict fairly, sensibly and efficiently. Differences in thoughts and opinions are expected in a modern organization. Hence, there must be people adept at handling conflicts arising from a situation through subtle conflict management skills.

The finest way to manage conflict is to stop it from happening in the first place.

Preventing Conflicts

Conflicts are a part and parcel of the modern work environment. A conflict can be prevented by just avoiding it. However, it does not address the primary issue. Preventing conflict means resolving the core issue before it assumes a more extensive form. Conflict arising from each situation is unique and may also require a unique solution. One of the most effective and time-tested ways of preventing organizational conflict is open communication between employees. An environment of open communication enables people to express their ideas and opinions freely. Individual mannerisms speak a lot about the root cause of the problem. Some of the pragmatic steps for preventing conflict within an organization are listed below:

  • Exercise restraint and patience
  • Be flexible in attitude and approach
  • Show respect
  • Speak with clarity/conciseness
  • Occasionally introduce diplomacy in your speech
  • Be non-confrontational and non-judgemental
  • Openness
  • Develop perceptive mannerism
  • Develop the art of mindful listening
  • Positive body language and voice tone

Notwithstanding the above effective steps to conflict prevention, the problem cannot be rooted out entirely. The only solution is to minimize it by building relationship between the team members. All the members of the team ought to be on the same page while addressing the problem.

Emotional intelligence can be a key factor here. It is essentially regulating and controlling your emotional outburst as per different situations.  A lot of research has been taken to develop concrete and definite ways of conflict management. Broadly, it can be categorized into five different styles.

Five Styles of Conflict Management

                                                            Figure 1: 5 Styles of Conflict Management

  1. Avoiding: This happens when the level of cooperation and assertiveness between people is low as shown by the bottom left quadrant in Figure 1. This style of conflict management is distinguished by the following points:
  • People in conflict choose to side-step an issue diplomatically or simply withdraw from a threatening situation.
  • The conflict situation is emotionally charged. Person in conflict decides that continuing to stay engaged in the conflict will not result in a good outcome.
  • There is a lack of information, influence and resources to achieve a favorable outcome. A person may decide to wait for more information before actually engaging in a conflict.
  • The conflict situation is not worth the effort to waste time and energy on it. Therefore, people in conflict decide to avoid it altogether.

2. Accommodation: This is when the cooperation between the conflicting parties is high but assertiveness is low, as shown in the bottom right quadrant in Figure 1. This style of conflict management is distinguished by the following points:

  • Preserving a relationship occupies a higher priority than coming out on top. Therefore, there is a degree of self-sacrifice involved while accommodating to satisfy the other party.
  • One party has very little to lose while supporting the other conflicting party with a higher stake.
  • One party lacks the necessary experience while the other party has much greater experience and expertise.
  • Competing is going to cost more than accommodating for one conflicting party. This is usually the case when one party in the conflict has greater authority compared to other.
  • The emotional volatility of a situation forces one party in the conflict to accommodate other for diffusing the situation.

3. Competing: This is the situation when the conflicting parties are high on assertiveness and low on cooperation as shown in top left quadrant of Figure 1. This style of conflict management is distinguished by the following points:

  • People in conflict are willing to pursue one’s concerns at another person’s expense.
  • One party in conflict has more significant expertise or better flow of information than other.
  • When the outcome is critical, and the right decision may be unconventional.
  • Time is of essence. A decision needs to be taken promptly without being overly concerned about the alignment of different views. This is usually an emergency case or safety issue.
  • One party in the conflict has a higher stake relative to other.
  • The authority or rights of one party in the conflict is being challenged.

4. Compromising: This style of conflict management follows the middle path. The level of assertiveness and cooperation between the conflicting parties is neither low nor high, as shown by the rectangle (center) in the Figure 1. This style of conflict management is distinguished by the following points.

  • People in conflict aim to find a win-win situation that is mutually acceptable to everyone while maintaining a moderate amount of both assertiveness and cooperation.
  • A quick situation is required and the competing/collaboration style of conflict management has failed to produce the desired outcome.
  • Each team member is willing to sacrifice something because getting all needs fulfilled is unrealistic.
  • Maintaining the relationship with a middle-ground solution is more valuable.
  • The issue is of lower importance to team members and it doesn’t warrant the time and energy required to collaborate.

5. Collaborating: This is theideal way of conflict management although practically challenging to implement. The conflicting parties have a high degree of both assertiveness and cooperation, resulting in a perfect collaboration as shown in the top right quadrant of Figure 1. This style of conflict management is distinguished by the following points:

  • The conflict situation is vital for both parties.
  • Everyone in conflict attempts to work with others to identify a solution that fully satisfies everyone’s concerns.
  • Relationship is important for persons in conflict; as such all the parties are willing to work to address everyone’s concern.
  • There is sufficient time for conflicting parties to engage and arrive at a positive outcome. Strong trust and engagement is present for team members.

In addition to the above five conflict management styles, some common suggestions for managing the conflicts are discussed below. Although not very hard to comprehend, it can be highly effective.

Suggestions on Managing Conflicts

  • Accept conflict: Accepting conflict is the first step towards its management. Unless we acknowledge the fact that conflict is in existence, a solution can never be found. Conflict is an indication that there is a need for change, opportunity for new growth and improved communication between the team members. A conflict can be resolved smoothly if addressed with a suitable individual.
  • Be a calming agent: A calm demeanour has always been encouraged for conflict management. Conflict arising from emotional outburst can be easily tackled if at least one person plays the role of a calming agent. The calming effect of one rubs onto another and the tension is diffused in no time.
  • Listen actively: Being a good listener is vital in this fast-paced work environment. It is essential to listen to other’s point of view with empathy and address the concern fairly. Listening allows judging a conflict objectively and arriving at the right decision.
  • Analyse the conflict: This helps in clarifying the specific problem. Some of the questions that may be asked are listed below:
  1. What was the trigger for the conflict?
  2. What was the problem area?
  3. What is there to lose in the conflict?
  4. Is the conflict/anger fair or over-exaggerated?
  5. How can the conflict be resolved?
  • Model neutral language: Refraining from using harsh language (name-calling, profanity, hand gestures, loud and aggressive words) makes the conflict seem less emotional and helps manage the conflict much faster. Therefore, while resolving the conflict, the aim should be to model neutral language for negotiation and arriving at a settlement.
  • Separate the person from the problem: Detachment of person and the problem is vital for resolving the conflict. The issue of associating a problem with the person is a mistake that is made often. The separation of problem and person allows objective treatment of the conflict and better management. 
  • Work together: Nothing can beat the age-old solution of coming together onboard, taking ownership for the conflict and finding a resolution.
  • Agree to disagree: If a conflict seems unmanageable and the conflicting party cannot arrive at a common ground, the best solution is to agree to disagree. This leaves room for managing the conflict in the future rather than escalating in the present.
  • Share your interests: Sharing your interest and position is necessary to manage the current and future conflict. Conflicting parties get to know the overlapping interests when it is shared clearly. Expressing individual interest eliminates any chance of ambiguity creeping in. The conflicting parties will move back from the position of others interests and try to find a middle ground for shared interests.
  • Be creative: Creativity in managing conflict is paramount in a modern office environment. There may be unique problems associated with the conflict and it requires thinking out of the box. Care should be taken not to reach an agreement in haste. Think over the problem for a creative and long-lasting solution to the conflict.
  • Be specific: Beating around the bush does not help in managing a conflict. While solving the problem associated with a conflict – conceive and implement a precise solution to a specific problem. Defining the core problem of the conflict at the start is a good idea. Then, whether finding the problem or solution, stick to specification and don’t move around.
  • Maintain confidentiality: Maintaining confidentiality helps in building trust while managing a conflict. Try to avoid venting out to others which can act as fodder for the rumour mill. The conflicting parties should sit down and try to resolve the issue without feeding unnecessary information to third parties which are not privy to the conflict. If the news about the conflict is already out, stop further flow of private conflict information.

Conclusion

From the above article we can conclude that conflict is an inescapable part of a modern office. Understanding the type and category of conflict is the first step towards its management. Ideally, conflict should be prevented in the first place by imparting and cultivating necessary skills in employees. Practically, however, preventing every conflict is not possible. That is where the five styles of conflict management concepts can prove to be useful. Depending upon the type of conflict and the time available to manage it; any of the five styles (Avoiding, Accommodating, Competing, Compromising and Collaborating) can be used. Conflict management is best when the parties are committed to each other and the process of doing so will ensure that the parties move closer to a resolution that is great for all involved. Practicing effective conflict management will ensure that conflicts within an organization or relationship are dealt with efficiency and will build credibility and trust between the parties.

Sagacious IP is one of the leading research and consulting companies in India, as well as abroad. Our IP Filing services help clients to take care of their cumbersome and complicated patent, trademark and design filing tasks in a professional manner. Through this service, we have helped many prestigious clients, irrespective of their size, to manage the conflict arising out of intellectual property infringement successfully.  Click here to know more about our services.

-Sameeksha Shukla (India Filing & Prosecution) and the Editorial Team

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