How do you make organizational conflict work for you? In the 1920s, Mary Parker Follett asked herself this very question. It’s a question we often ask ourselves today. Follett, a management theorist and social philosopher, proposed “integrative behavior” as the answer. This is an idea she compared to playing a violin: apply the bow to the strings and create friction. When it’s played properly, you achieve beautiful music.

Simply put, “integrative behavior” means that people can connect their ideas to those of others to create new ideas. This is the creative process of human interaction, and an approach that promotes growth and transformation from conflict, tension, and interpersonal differences. It is an idea that formed the core of the principled, or interested-based approach, to conflict resolution and negotiation popularized by Fisher and Ury in the 1980s.

What is the main idea?

From on Follett’s work, I identified five main ideas that make up the integrative approach:

1. Conflict is both a natural and potentially functional aspect of our relationships

2. It is possible for adversaries to approach conflict in a joint manner

3. Conflict management and resolution is highly influenced by power relations

4. Interpersonal dynamics and its history matter when negotiating conflict situations

5. There is no need for compromise

I want to pause here on the word “compromise.” Integration does not require compromise. Integration operates within a creative framework and represents the construction of solutions through collaborative behaviors. Alternately, compromise operates within a distributive framework of negotiation.

Compromise is like cutting a pie in equal parts to appease the parties in a conflict. Integration is the collective making of a new and improved pie.

This means that with an integrative approach, conflict becomes an opportunity for organizational growth. It is a transformational experience which draws on human interaction and human learning to show us where processes and organizational relationships need attention or change. Yet, to access this growth potential one must handle conflict in a certain way.

How does it work?

Integration requires a process of opening, dissecting, and re-defining or re-evaluating a conflict. Rather than dividing a fixed pie, integrative bargaining it the collective baking of a new pie. The recipe for this pie involves three steps:

1. Identify and acknowledge the conflict. This involves getting all the facts and feelings on the table, in plain sight.

2. Explore the conflict by noticing and working on its parts and sub-parts, allowing time for each part to been seen and understood in relations to the larger conflict. This analysis of the sub-parts of a conflict leads to a re-evaluation and possible re-definition of the larger conflict.

3. From the re-evaluation and possible re-definition, those involved can work together on a clearly defined problem in which all parties in the dispute have their priorities addressed.

The ideas present in integrative behavior appears not only in conflict management but also in the management ideology of “creative problem-solving”. Research on creativity is important in the current understanding and study of integrative behavior. Research into theories of creativity provides new frameworks from which organizations can use integrative behavior in many types of problem-solving negotiations, as well as in daily organizational conflict management.

Key insights

Mostly, in this short piece, I wish to highlight three key insights:

1. Conflict is both creative and destructive. The application of integrative behavior helps us access the creative aspects of conflict. It is the creative aspect that opens us to a greater understanding as to why a conflict might become so adversarial and what is preventing that conflict from becoming an opportunity for organizational growth.

2. The study of integrative behavior shows us that there are more options available to us than we sometimes realize while dealing with conflict. With third party mediation operating from an integrative approach, it is possible to access these options.

3. The way one handles conflict is of central importance to its outcome. Badly handled conflict leads to organization breakdowns, loss of trust, apathy and absenteeism, and lost productivity. Well-handled conflict leads to organizational growth and change that produces stronger synergies and improved productivity.

Today’s managers and organizational leaders will find value in understanding the integrative behaviors and applying it in their organizational relations and conflict management.