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Conflict Handling in the Healthcare Environment


Conflicts are common in any context as they involve various attitudes, behaviors, and events. Specifically to nursing, a conflict may occur in response to change or the process of the transformation of care provision methods. Therefore, it is essential for nurse leaders to be aware of conflict-handling strategies at individual, group, and organizational levels. This paper aims to discuss change and conflict theories as well as their impact on leadership in nursing.

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Change and Conflict Theories

From a range of change theories, it is possible to distinguish between three main perspectives, including Rogers’ theory, Lewin’s idea, and Spradley’s model. Lewin suggested the three stages of change, such as unfreezing, moving, and refreezing (Smith & Parker, 2015).

The first stage involves understanding the current situation, identifying the driving forces, and describing the desired ultimate condition. At this stage, a leader rethinks the views and processes, abandoning or promoting some of them. The second stage of movement marks the process of transition to the desired state. This phase targets the participation and involvement of staff in the organization, and management needs to keep employees confident in success, having a clear image of the desired future. The refreezing stage is the stabilization of the organization and the new state.

The innovation diffusion theory developed by Rogers presents the modification of the one proposed by Lewin. There are five stages that are, as a rule, used for long-term projects: knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation. Smith and Parker (2015) claim that compared to other theories, Rogers’ model implies that change is not adopted immediately, and the main role is played by the persuasion of resistant nurses by their colleagues who already understood the value of change.

In this connection, nurse leaders are expected to act as transition advocates who empower their employees to increase their awareness and attempt to provide higher care quality. The author of the mentioned theory also identified some factors that affect nurses’ decision to implement change in their practice (Smith & Parker, 2015). For example, the degree of complexity, relative advantage, and observability may be noted among the most important issues that nurses consider while pondering over whether to reject or adopt innovations.

Elaborating on Lewin’s theory, Spradley prepared the model that points at the constant assessment of change during its adoption. There are eight stages, the first of which is recognizing the symptoms to reveal the key signs that are characteristic of the need to initiate change (Cherry & Jacob, 2017). After that, the problem should be diagnosed, several solutions should be offered, and one of them is to become the course of development. The change agent leader should properly plan the project, implement innovation, and continuously evaluate it. When all the previous stages are implemented, the last stage implies that the change should become constant in case it is proved to be successful.

The conflict theories are useful for interpersonal issues between two or more individuals and for larger problems such as organizational struggles. According to the conflict theory, the problem lies in the competition for the limited resources. In nursing care, professionals often face a lack of resources when they are asked to change their practices (Cherry & Jacob, 2017). This theory suggests that the conflict between the team members occurs due to different motivators they have. For example, one nurse may be better stimulated by a non-monetary reward system, and the other one may be more likely to be attracted by the opportunity to build relationships within the team.

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Another theory is based on the social cognitive aspect of the social ties, which is expressed in learning through observations. The latter compose the key for the staff members, which should be taken into account by leaders. The theory emphasizes that they can affect the perceptions and behaviors of other people via aligning the organizational goals with their motivators. In its turn, the social exchange theory states that relationships and their benefits are significant to people, and the balance of such exchanges explains the conflicts. Organizational conflicts often appear due to inappropriate management and leadership and are caused by disagreements between departments, care teams, or leaders.

A Leader as a Change Agent and Effective Leadership

The leaders as the change agents should come up with positive change in the context of healthcare. Conflict resolution and communication are the two key strategies that allow handling conflicts (Bender, Williams, Su, & Hites, 2016). Conflict resolution includes several ways to work with adverse situations: avoiding, collaborating, accommodating, and compromising. Depending on the situation, the leader should select the most suitable model.

The change agents are expected to empower their nurses, involve them in change, and ensure that necessary support is provided. The knowledge and competencies of leaders should be strong and relevant to a particular context (Bender et al., 2016). Thus, the ability to address the conflict is vital to effective leadership as the success with handling problematic issues shows that the leader uses proper strategies and skills.


In conclusion, at the individual level, nurses may have face-to-face conversations or apply interpersonal communication tools to cope with problems. The team level requires nurse leaders to cover every member or opposing side to find a compromise and resolve the conflict by means of open discussions or trying one of the change theories. At the organizational level, the management team should also be included in the change process and the subsequent evaluation.


Bender, M., Williams, M., Su, W., & Hites, L. (2016). Clinical nurse leader integrated care delivery to improve care quality: Factors influencing perceived success. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 48(4), 414-422.

Cherry, B., & Jacob, S. R. (2017). Contemporary nursing: Issues, trends, & management (7th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Health Sciences.

Smith, M. C., & Parker, M. E. (2015). Nursing theories and nursing practice (4th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: FA Davis.

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