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Volume 3, Number 1, Oct 2002

Leadership Development: Conflict Management for College Student Leaders

by Judy Rashid, Ed.D

Conflict is a pervasive part of group and organizational culture (Fasnacht, 1990) and unmanaged group conflict can be very chaotic (Kormanski, 1982). At the same time, the absence of conflict indicates or results in apathy. Therefore, the goal of groups should not necessarily be to avoid conflict, but to use conflict as a means of creating a more positive group atmosphere (Hungenberg & Moyer, 1996). Increasing the acceptance and management of group conflict, however, requires effective leadership to increase as well (Kormanski, 1982). As a result, conflict and leadership are inseparable (Burns, 1978).

Important leadership functions determine whether or not a group will work together, accept improvements, and try to develop better ways of doing a job. Knowledge of conflict management skills is very vital to those in leadership roles (Fasnacht, 1990) and is an "integral part of leadership effectiveness" (Korabik, Baril, & Watson, 1993, p. 406). Despite the growing industry of conflict management training, little research and theorizing has been done in this area (Deutsch, 1994), in particular on the impact of skilled leaders on the group participants' conflict management style. The study described below provides a step in this direction. It examines the effectiveness of conflict management skills intervention training on the conflict management style of college student organizational presidents, key leaders within the larger campus community.

The Problem and Its Background

Historically college student organizations have been seen as falling within the educational mission of colleges and universities (Schmitz, 1997) and particularly within student leadership development (Komives, 1994). More specifically student organizations have been viewed as "learning laboratories" (Street, 1997). Student organizations offer many opportunities for students including the chance to develop meaningful relationships, to pursue special interests, to clarify a sense of purpose and identity, and to develop interpersonal, leadership, organization, and social skills (Street, 1997). On the other hand, there are many variables at play within student organizations that influence individual and group behavior. Schmitz (1997) applied organizational behavior theory to college student organizations, depicting the student as the core of the group, surrounded and influenced by task, technology, structure, leadership, and culture all within the university environment. Conflict is caused by the constant interplay of these variables. Franck (1983) reported that research conducted at the student activities divisions of three midwestern colleges indicated that the three major conditions that promote conflict in student organizations are role conflict, interdependence and scarcity of resources. These findings indicate the potential for constant conflict in student organizations.

Certain leadership skills are thus demanded of any leader in charge of a group (Maier, N.R.F., Solem, A.R., & Maier, A.A., 1975; Coyne, R.K., Harvill, R.L., Morganett, R.S., Morran, D.K., & Hulse-Killacky, D., 1990), and it is the job of educators to equip students of all ages with the relevant skills needed. These skills may also be key to their success in a rapidly changing society. In presenting their research on views of effective group leadership, Conyne et al., 1990, reported that experts in the fields of group counseling, training, research and practice responded similarly in urging more group leader training. Conyne and others also reported that leadership training with groups is often directed to group process and less to the mechanics of group leader skills, which address what leaders do. On the college campus, for example, there seems to be a general assumption that student leaders of campus organizations are automatically effective leaders that are

"flexible, prepared, knowledgeable about self, and are able to create therapeutic climates, intervene critically and to successfully apply 'problem-solving processes'" (Conyne et al., 1991, p.34).

This may very well be an expectation of group leaders but it cannot be left to chance by student affairs professionals that are engaged in student leadership development. Without proper training, many students are unable to effectively assume leadership responsibilities (Lamoureaux, 1984). These

"idealistic, energized students are quickly 'burned out' by unrealistic demands they place upon themselves and by the frustrations that develop as a result of the absence of a systematic approach to solving their organizational problems" (Duvall and Ender, 1980, p.145).

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A project of Campus Conflict Resolution Resources.
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
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