Moving Toward Group Conflict Resolution

Turf wars often do more damage than good. Find out how to move beyond “us versus them” toward group conflict resolution.

By — on / Conflict Resolution

group conflict resolution

Over the years, what many believe to be Jesus’s tomb in Jerusalem’s Old City has been the site of tensions that have at times escalated into violence. Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic communities guard the shrine surrounding the tomb, which they consider the holiest site in Christianity. Any attempts at group conflict resolution have failed, as the groups elbow one another for space and authority, and worshippers from the three groups regularly drown one another out with their prayers and have even engaged in fistfights, writes Diaa Hadid in the New York Times.

Mirroring relations between the religious groups, the shrine, a 212-year-old structure held together by an aging iron cage, has grown increasingly unstable. Yet for decades, the rivalrous groups were unable to agree on how to handle much-needed repairs, in part because “the very act of repairing something can imply ownership” of a holy site in Jerusalem, according to Hadid.

Only after Israeli police barricaded the shrine for several hours on February 17, 2015, fearing its imminent collapse, did the three rival religious factions galvanize to devise a plan to save it. Monument conservation experts were chosen to remove the iron cage surrounding the shrine and carefully repair the underlying marble shell, the 12th-century Crusader shrine within it, and, finally, the sacred rock-hewed tomb.

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Conflict continues to flare up at the site, but now the parties can be optimistic that the shrine will endure. “Unity is more important than a turf war,” Franciscan friar Rev. Athanasius Macora told the Times.

In this story, a turf war escalated to the point that the disputants jeopardized the future of the sacred space they were dedicated to protecting. Only the shock of recognizing that their inaction might doom the site jolted them into collaborating on a group conflict resolution.

The example is an extreme one, but self-defeating turf battles—which can be defined as heated conflicts over territory, control, rights, or power—occur in many organizations on a daily basis. Department heads clash over scarce resources and end up fomenting conflict among their subordinates. Companies, community groups, and governments get tied up in expensive lawsuits over the use of undeveloped land. Across the globe, fishing groups have depleted fish stocks to the point of extinction in their rush to catch the biggest share for themselves.

Turf battles can arise over any type of scarce or sacred resource, from a shrine to funding to fish and beyond. Often in such battles, two or more groups are in conflict, each viewing the other(s) as the enemy and its own side as above reproach. Let’s take a closer look at why such battles arise and how we can find ways to encourage group conflict resolution.

In-groups and out-groups

Our social ties, including the bonds we form with members of the groups to which we belong, can strongly influence our decision making in negotiation and other realms.
Group connections bring such benefits as trusting relationships and loyalty; on the flip side, however, they can promote suspicion and hostility toward members of other groups, known as out-group members, writes Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino in her book Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

In one classic study from the 1950s, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues divided 44 12-year-old boys who were demographically similar into two groups over the course of two weeks of camp at a state park. After each group had bonded separately for a week through shared activities and rituals, the groups competed against each other in games such as tug-of-war.

The experimenters then devised ways for the groups to sabotage each other, such as eating the other group’s food. At this point, the groups began to threaten each other and become aggressive, to the extent that the researchers decided to physically separate them and call off the experiment early. Both in-group membership and prejudiced attitudes toward out-groups can be fostered easily, the results suggest.

Group membership also can bias our perceptions. In another famous study from the 1950s, Dartmouth College professor Albert Hastorf and Princeton University professor Hadley Cantril had students from their respective schools watch a film of a recent contentious football game between their two colleges. Princeton students counted twice as many infractions by Dartmouth players as by Princeton players, while Dartmouth students saw half as many infractions by their team’s players. The students’ psychological bond to their teams actually caused them to see different games.

Finally, group membership can compromise our ethical behavior. College students were significantly more likely to cheat on a task after seeing someone who appeared to be a fellow student from their school cheat on the same task, Gino, Shahar Ayal (IDC Herzliya, Israel), and Dan Ariely (Duke University) found in one study. By contrast, students were significantly less likely to cheat when the cheater appeared to be a student from a rival school.

Negotiating with other groups

When anticipating negotiations with out-group members, we tend to view them as less attractive than members of our own group on several dimensions, including intelligence, competence, and trustworthiness, University of Hawaii professor Thomas A. Wills has found. In addition, groups in conflict tend to have an inaccurate understanding of each other’s views and to see the other’s positions as more extreme than they actually are.

The misperceptions and distrust we carry into negotiations with out-group members may be heightened when negotiations center on a single issue, as turf wars often do. When we focus exclusively on claiming as much of a seemingly scarce resource (such as land, money, or power) as we can, we tend to view the negotiation as a competition. As a result, self-serving and unethical behavior is more likely, and group conflict resolution and long-term thinking are in short supply. The belief that the pie of resources is fixed typically leaves value on the table.

3 Group conflict resolution strategies for reducing and avoiding turf wars

Although the prospect of group conflict resolution with out-group members can feel threatening, negotiation has a strong potential to improve intergroup relations, writes Northwestern University professor Leigh L. Thompson in her book The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005).

The following three group conflict resolution strategies can help us find common ground with others.

1. Embrace a shared identity or goal.

Negotiations among individuals who view themselves as belonging to a larger social organization tend to be more mutually beneficial than negotiations among individuals representing different social groups, Stanford University professor Roderick M. Kramer discovered in his research.

The finding suggests an antidote to a turf battle: Look for an identity you share with members of a different group. This often can be accomplished by embracing a shared goal. The religious factions that worship in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre were able to come together by focusing on their mutual devotion to the shrine. Similarly, the world’s nations were able to negotiate an ambitious climate-change treaty in Paris, despite the presence of multiple factions and varying interests, because of a growing belief that significant unified action was needed to forestall disasters.

When launching multiparty negotiations, discuss the overarching goal you share with members of the other groups. Budget negotiators might focus on the goal of fostering the organization’s long-term financial health through fiscally responsible decision making. Emphasize long-term rather than short-term concerns, cooperation rather than competition, and group discussions rather than private caucuses, recommends Cornell University professor Elizabeth A. Mannix, an expert on multiparty negotiations. When parties discuss their constituencies’ needs, you should work to integrate these concerns with the needs and interests of other members of the group.

2. Separate sacred from pseudo-sacred issues.

Most of us have core values that we believe are nonnegotiable, such as our family’s welfare, our religious beliefs, our political views, or our personal moral code. For example, a negotiator might refuse to do business with a casino on moral grounds or might refuse to sell a family heirloom even when money is tight. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists in part because of each side’s refusal to make concessions on issues they consider nonnegotiable, such as the value of sacred land.

Turf wars can be particularly intractable when they center on issues that groups of negotiators consider to be sacred. The religious group members in our opening story had difficulty negotiating repairs to the shrine because their belief in their sacred duty to protect it prevented them from acknowledging the other groups’ similar sense of duty.

Recent research suggests that many of the issues negotiators consider sacred are actually pseudo-sacred, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman. That is, the issues are off-limits in some but not all conditions. In a 2009 study by Ann E. Tenbrunsel of Notre Dame University and her colleagues, for example, pairs of negotiators who had a weak BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement, were more likely to reach agreement on a seemingly sacred issue as compared to those with a strong BATNA. That is, when parties lacked power, they felt motivated to compromise on moral principles that they previously found nonnegotiable.

We tend to err on the side of not negotiating when sacred principles and values are at stake, writes Program on Negotiation chair Robert Mnookin in his book Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Before you dig in your heels in a turf war, thoroughly analyze your group’s decision not to negotiate. Is your demonization of the other group clouding your judgment? What benefits might you gain from the negotiation that could allow you to honor your principles in a different way? The religious groups at the Jerusalem shrine, for example, eventually recognized that collaborating with their rivals was the best way to preserve the shrine.

3. Try the “GRIT” strategy.

Suppose you’ve tried everything you can think of to end a protracted turf battle, but another group refuses to back down. At this point, you might consider following a model that was devised to de-escalate one of the most complicated conflicts the world has known: the nuclear arms race.

In 1959, at the height of the Cold War, psychologist Charles Osgood devised the GRIT model, which stands for “the Graduated Reduction in Tension.” The goal of GRIT is to increase communication and trust between groups in order to de-escalate tensions and hostility.

How does GRIT work? Begin by communicating your sincere desire to reduce conflict by making a small, one-sided, and public concession to the other group. If the other group ignores the concession, follow it up with additional small concessions. The concessions should be designed to capture the other party’s attention, invite reciprocation, and begin a “peace spiral” that will lessen tension. If the other group escalates the conflict, you should maintain the ability to respond in kind.

In the late 1980s, USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev followed a GRIT strategy when he made several unilateral concessions on nuclear issues that captured the attention of U.S. president Ronald Reagan and his administration. Some have argued that Gorbachev’s concessions contributed to a de-escalation of the nuclear arms race and the end of the Cold War.

In negotiation, we sometimes think we should not make more than a single unreciprocated concession, lest we be perceived as weak and desperate. But at times, making multiple minor concessions may be the kind of attention-grabbing move that is needed to demonstrate goodwill and bring groups together.

What is your experience with group conflict resolution?

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