Corporate Managers turn to Sullivan University to Handle Office Disagreements

Lexington, KY – Conflict management is a hot topic in the 2009 workplace. It’s an issue every leader, manager and employee will deal with sooner or later. It can be stressful, demoralizing, wasteful and ugly, but it needs to be dealt with quickly and completely. Managing conflict will require teamwork, communication and a systematic approach to solving disagreements.

The desire to resolve workplace clashes is becoming so important to executives that universities are setting up courses to teach them the ropes. Sullivan University, with campuses in Lexington and Louisville, offers an online master of science degree in conflict management. "When the program started in 2002, there were about 20 master’s programs in conflict resolution and management around the country," said LaVena Wilkin, director of the Graduate Conflict Management Program at Sullivan University. "Today, at last count, there are more than a hundred."

Sullivan’s program, consisting of nine core classes and two electives, evolved over the years from responses inside focus groups that included hiring and human resource directors, said Wilkin. They were asked what kind of graduates they would like to see come out of such a program. "They were looking for people with good communication, conflict resolution and negotiation skills, and also diversity and leadership skills," explained Wilkin. "So we redesigned the curriculum based on what they told us so our graduates would emerge with added value."

Since the courses are taken online, students come from all across America, "A myriad of people," said Wilkin. There’s a captain and airline pilot for American Airlines, people who work for the federal government or hospitals, attorneys, many people from Fortune 500 or 100 corporations or simply anyone who works with people. "They benefit from this program because of the skills they gain," according to Wilkin.

Students can bring the lessons to work with them. Any time there is conflict in their organization, they are better equipped to deal with it. They learn better ways to communicate but perhaps more importantly, they learn their own conflict style, "because until you understand yourself and your own hot buttons and communication style, you won’t be able to help others. We start with that," Wilkin emphasizes. "Graduates come to understand the reason for conflict, whether it’s race, age, gender or ethnicity, but also corporate cultures, personalities, family issues and education levels. There are root causes. They also work through problem-solving models to learn to resolve conflicts."

Ruth Ann Childers, director of marketing and public relations at Central Baptist Hospital in Lexington, is currently enrolled in the master’s program and has already learned valuable lessons. "I work in a hospital with 2,400 employees and deal with the public every day. What I learned is that conflict is a natural part of life and not always negative. When you deal with the public or with employees, it’s a healthy thing to have it," Childers said. "I found normal, healthy conflict doesn’t mean someone is wrong, just that there is a difference in how something is perceived. It depends on a lot of things — your background, where you’re from, your upbringing and the attitude and perspective you bring to the job," she concluded.

Are workplaces becoming more volatile? "Definitely," said Wilkin. "With more women and minorities in leadership roles in the workplace and with aging workers staying until they’re 70 and people right out of college stepping into supervisory roles, there are a lot of battles based on cultural issues. There are also downsizing and company mergers, which may bring two different corporate cultures together. That can make it rife for conflict."

The conflict management program has 84 students enrolled. Classes are limited in size to 20 students. Some class work is even done in chat rooms where students do role playing and then write reflection papers on their experiences. Next year, Sullivan will offer a Ph.D. program in management with a concentration in conflict management.

Childers said her favorite class has been facilitation. She said the course gave her all of the tools needed for facilitation, all the way down to how you should arrange chairs in a room. "Since this course, I have facilitated two classes at the hospital on smoking cessation." It helped Childers understand different people and their attitudes and perspectives about smoking and the history of how they started, she said. "That’s not a negative; it’s about how to overcome something bad to do something that is better for you."

"Every organization has conflict," said Wilkin. "They just don’t know there’s a better way to deal with it." She said research has shown that unresolved or mismanaged conflict can cost an organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost time with high turnover, absenteeism and illness. Companies that are proactive and have people within the organization who know how to deal with conflict can literally cut costs and increase profits. "We give people the skills to do that," Wilkin said. (

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