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Holmes Marra (2010)

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Paper by Holmes Marra on organizatinal communication.
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  Pragmatics 14:4.439-462 (2004) International Pragmatics Association LEADERSHIP AND MANAGING CONFLICT IN MEETINGS 1   Janet Holmes and Meredith Marra Abstract There is extensive literature describing the characteristics of a good leader in the area of organisational communication and business management. However, the research tends to be based on secondary, survey or reported data, typically interviews and questionnaires. Moreover, the predominant image of a “good” leader tends to be a charismatic, inspirational, decisive, authoritative, ‘hero’. The Language in the Workplace database provides a large corpus of authentic spoken interaction which allows examination of how effective leaders behave in a wide range of face-to-face interactions at work, and identifies a diverse range of leadership styles. The analysis reveals that effective leaders select from a range of strategies available to challenge, contest or disagree with others, paying careful attention to complex contextual factors, including the type of interaction, the kind of community of practice or workplace culture in which they are operating, and the relative seriousness of the issue involved. The analysis identifies four distinct strategies which leaders use to deal with potential conflict. These strategies lie along a continuum from least to most confrontational: Conflict avoidance; diversion; resolution through negotiation; and resolution by authority. The findings suggest that good leaders “manage” conflict: i.e. they choose strategies which address both their transactional and relational goals in order to achieve a desirable outcome. Keywords: Disagreement, Discourse analysis, Argument, Leadership, Meetings. 1. Introduction Leadership is a complex concept which has been studied from a myriad of perspectives across diverse disciplines. Most existing research on leadership has been undertaken in the areas of business communication and organisational science (e.g. Alvesson and Due Billing 1997; Sinclair 1998; Helgesen 1990; Parry 2001). Leadership has generally been defined in the organisational literature, as “the ability to influence others” (Dwyer 1993: 552; Hede 2001). This influence includes the achievement of “complete objectives, as well as influencing the culture of the organisation.” (Gardner and Terry 1996: 153). So these studies tend to define the notion of ‘good’ and ‘effective’ leadership performance “in terms of organisational outcomes” (Hede 2001: 7). They focus predominantly on 1  The research on which this paper is based was made possible by funding from the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. We also wish to thank other members of the Language in the Workplace Project (LWP) team, Maria Stubbe (Research Fellow), Dr. Bernadette Vine (Corpus Manager), and express our appreciation to those who allowed their interaction to be recorded and analysed as part of the LWP database.  440  Janet Holmes and Meredith Marra behavioural strategies which qualify people as good leaders, and they tend to neglect the discursive strategies used to perform leadership. Our definition of effective leadership takes account of a person’s communication skills, as a component in achieving desired organisational outcomes. We define effective leadership for our purposes in terms of consistent communicative performance which results in acceptable outcomes for the organisation (task-oriented), and which appears to maintain harmony within the manager’s team or community of practice (people-oriented). Task-oriented behaviours, such as setting goals, “focus on the task to be achieved, the problem to be solved, or the purpose of the meeting” (Dwyer 1993: 572). People-oriented or maintenance-related behaviours such as on ‘creating team’ (Fletcher 1999), on the other hand, concentrate on group dynamics, and involve attention to relationships. Moreover, the examples we have selected for our discussion in this paper involve people who are considered effective in their own workplace contexts. 2  The definition we have developed also highlights the dynamic interactional aspects of leadership and focusses on leadership as a process or an activity (e.g., Heifertz 1998: 347), rather than just on the outcomes or achievements of leaders. In other words, we examine aspects of the processes used by leaders to “do being a leader” and we put the emphasis on the interaction processes and the communication which takes place between people rather than simply on what the manager does (c.f. Parry 2001: 2). Our analyses also underline the conceptualisation of leadership as a joint construction, not a solo performance; people work together to construct leadership, and it is enacted through relationships. Networking. negotiation and enabling others are central elements in this process (c.f. Parry 2001: 3; Zajkowski 2001). The community of practice framework (Wenger 1998) which we have consistently adopted in our approach to the analysis of workplace interaction is thus very appropriate for examining how particular managers construct themselves as effective leaders in the workplace (Holmes and Fillary 2000; Holmes and Marra 2002a; Holmes and Meyerhoff 1999; Holmes and Stubbe 2003a). An analysis of how different leaders manage conflict serves well as a specific instance of this process. The literature on organisational communication and business management predominantly presents a picture of a charismatic, authoritarian and even autocratic style of management as characteristic of the hero managers who are typically presented as models (Proctor-Thomson and Parry 2001; Jackson and Parry 2001). As Parry (2001: 4) puts it “There is nothing passive about leadership”. The reason for this image, we contend, is that much of the material written about leadership in the organisational literature tends to be based on a very narrow sample, and the methods used to research the behaviour of effective leaders tends to have been similarly narrow and restricted. The reality is much more complex and the evidence from our LWP database certainly presents a more interesting picture. The autocratic, confrontational leadership style which makes for an exciting episode in a TV programme, or raises the temperature dramatically in a film, is exceedingly rare in the day-to-day meetings which take place in most New Zealand workplaces. We have data from over 2000 interactions in 2  Rather than basing this assessment on the discourse of the leaders, their effectiveness in the role was identified by the people who count i.e. we have chosen leaders who were regarded with admiration by colleagues, and where subsequent promotions or movement to other jobs often provided further evidence of their success in the job.   Leadership and managing conflict in meetings  441 professional white collar workplaces, from both the government sector and the corporate and commercial sectors, and we can reliably report that head-on conflicts are vanishingly few. The leaders who are the focus of our analysis are people who play an influential role in the organisations where they work, and especially in the communities of practice which comprise their sections, departments or teams. They provide useful insights into how leadership is done in a range of typical meeting contexts.   In this paper, then, we provide examples of how a range of leaders (who were considered by their organisations and peers to be good, effective managers) in a variety of different white-collar workplaces actually manage situations of potential conflict, demonstrating in particular (1) the range of strategies which they draw on and (2) their sensitivity to contextual factors in strategically managing conflict in formal meetings. In undertaking this analysis, we have not assumed that conflict in meetings is undesirable per se; indeed it is clear that the expression of conflicting views in meetings is often a productive way of making progress towards the organisation’s objectives. Rather we focus on the way that the manager-leader’s judgments about this issue are worked out in the meeting. Our analyses suggest that such judgements can frequently be interpreted as taking account both of the need to reach a desirable outcome from a task-oriented or transactional perspective, as well as the need to maintain good collegial relations, and to consider people’s face needs, i.e. effective relational practice. In other words, it is the effective 'management' of conflict that is our focus. There is, of course, a corresponding body of literature on conflict. In business and communication studies, Rahim and Bonama’s (1979) analysis of conflict management styles is widely cited: i.e. collaborating, accommodating, compromise, avoidance and  competing  (cf. Brewer, Mitchell and Weber 2002; Gross and Guerrero 2000; Morris, Williams; Leung and Larrick 1998). Most obviously relevant, however, are the pragmatically oriented papers in Yaeger-Dror (2002), a special issue of the  Journal of Pragmatics  which focuses explicitly on disagreement and negotiation. In the introduction, Yaeger-Dror (2002) emphasizes the importance of context in the investigation of disagreements; it is argued that differences in setting (e.g. Jacobs 2002; Clayman 2002; Heritage 2002) and culture (e.g. Kangasharju 2002; Kaufmann 2002; Kakavá 2002) have an impact on the enactment of disagreement. In this paper we investigate the New Zealand workplace as a specific interactional setting, where power asymmetries between leaders and their subordinates are especially relevant. Effective managers clearly adopt a range of different strategies in different contexts. In what follows, we identify and illustrate four such strategies along a continuum from least to most confrontational. 1. Conflict avoidance - asserting the “agenda” 2.   Conflict diversion - moving conflict out 3.   Conflict resolution using negotiation - working through conflict 4.   Conflict resolution using authority - imposing a decision 2. How do effective leaders manage conflict? Strategic conflict management The effective management of conflict to ensure that it contributes constructively to the discussion typically begins well before the point at which the conflicting claims or views  442  Janet Holmes and Meredith Marra of two or more participants are overtly voiced. Indeed, our analyses suggest that a good leader ensures that, as far as possible, any explicitly confrontational and aggressive verbalisation of contradictory positions in meetings is minimised. Overtly expressed disagreement is thus relatively infrequent in the meeting database as a whole. In a very detailed examination of ten different meetings, for example, involving over 12 hours of talking time, we identified only 15 instances of overtly articulated disagreement, and less than a handful of those instances could be characterised as serious disagreements expressed in an overtly confrontational way. So the first strategy we consider is the use of avoidance tactics. 2.1.  Conflict avoidance - asserting the “agenda” Conflict can arise in meetings when there are differences in participants’ understandings of what they are supposed to be discussing or deciding, or when participants have different views of what has been agreed. Constructive steps such as setting a clear agenda, summarising progress, keeping the discussion on track, and explicitly verbalising and ratifying implicit decisions, are therefore important strategic moves which contribute to maintaining order and avoiding conflict. One of the most common strategies for meeting management is simply to stick to the agenda. And when a digression promises to introduce contentious but irrelevant material, this can be a useful conflict avoidance tactic. Phrases such as to get back to the agenda  and  just moving on  regularly occur in meetings as explicit discourse markers of this tactic. And, interestingly, when the meeting Chair was someone other than the team manager, it was noticeable that the manager would on occasion “move the meeting along” by overtly indicating that it was time to move to the next agenda item. In this situation, one manager simply said next  , while another regularly used the phrase moving right along. These short intrusions on the rights of the meeting chair were always strategic moves to get the meeting back on track, but on occasion they also served to divert discussion from contentious areas which the leader judged irrelevant to the primary objectives of the meeting. Example 1 illustrates a very effective leader managing the opening of a meeting which includes a   covert challenge to her authority.   (1) 3   Context: Meeting in a large commercial organisation chaired by section manager, Clara, since the usual chairperson is absent. Seth has gone to collect the minutes from the previous meeting which he didn't realise he was supposed to circulate. 1. Cla: okay well we might just start without Seth 2. he can come in and can review the minutes from last week 3. Ren: are you taking the minutes this week 4. Cla: no I'm just trying to chair the meeting 5. who would like to take minutes this week 6. Ren: who hasn't taken the minutes yet 7. Ben: I haven't yet I will 3  This example is analysed from a different perspective in Marra (2003). In this example and in all subsequent examples all names are pseudonyms. See appendix for transcription conventions.

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