Conflict is a state of unresolved differences between two individuals, an individual and a group, or two or more groups. The differences can be real or imaginary, but the conflict will remain until the differences are resolved. For many people the term conflict means something bad or something people should avoid at all costs. Conflict has both positive and negative effects. It can be positive when conflict encourages creativity and the expression of ideas or for others to understand the reasons for a disagreement.
Conflict can be negative when it creates resistance to change, establishes chaos in organizations, fosters distrust or feelings of defeat, or encumbers communication. Conflicts primarily occur in organizations when people have opposing interests and different personal perspectives. Greater possibilities of conflict exist in organizations that are more diverse. An organization contributes to the existence of conflict if its vision and employee responsibilities are unclear.
Although conflict has been in existence as long as man has, the study of conflict as it relates to business organizations is relatively new. Mary Parker Follett, known as the grandmother of management, was one of the first management theorists to determine that conflict is good and requires a leader’s attention. Her theories asserted that conflict was not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned.
Prior to Follett, it was traditional for business organizations to avoid conflict all together. This belief is part of Adam Smith’s theory of bureaucracy in which he asserts that in a perfect bureaucracy, the workers perform tasks as instructed, and there is very little interaction among the workers on a personal level. Interestingly, the famed economist Kenneth Boulding was the first to address conflict resolution in business organizations in his article “Towards a Pure Theory of Threat Systems” (Boulding 1963).
Although most of this article centred on war and peace, Boulding compared the issuance of threats as a means to entice workers into performing duties, just as one nation will issue a threat of war against another if they do not comply with their demands. He further compared the counter strike threats of the workers to the counteraction threats made the by nations opposing the demands of the issuing nation. Boulding asserts that this type of act or counteract behaviour does not produce effective peace making processes in nations or businesses.
In later works, Boulding contends that conflict resolution attempts should shift the emphasis from the use of threat power to the use of exchange and integrative power. He believes that exchange power, which is associated with bargaining and compromising, and integrative power, which is associated with persuasion and transformative long-term problem solving, is the best choice within organizations to solve conflicts. The current trend to manage rather than eliminate or ignore conflict in the workplace is dependent on successfully aligning the interest of workers and managers.
Unfortunately, this trend became part of the corporate leaders’ way of thinking when employees began using organized and wildcat strikes to get what they wanted. During the 1970s, Ury, Brett, and Goldberg, developed and designed procedures for resolving conflict in troubled organizations. Their quest began when leaders at the Caney Creek Coal Mine were distraught with the expensive ongoing strikes of its employees. After studying the facts surrounding the strikes, Ury, Brett, and Goldberg established three methods to use when analyzing conflict and designing a system to resolve disputes.
These three methods can effectively end conflicts before differences escalate. The study of conflict continued and many social scientist published reports indicating that conflict, if managed correctly in the workplace, could create positive changes to production and processing methods. Businesses began forming quality control circles and re-engineering teams. Assembly line workers got the power to stop the production cycles and correct defects in the production process. The new team structures were very successful in some instances, and failures in others.
Comparing successful teams to the unsuccessful teams made it easy determine the reasons for the success or failure. The results pointed to the methods people use to solve conflicts. As a result, businesses started giving personality tests, such as the Myers Briggs personality type indicator, to place compatible employees on teams. Teams underwent training on conflict resolution methods and they were encouraged to solve their own conflicts as they arose. Framework, Principles, and Tenets Ury, Brett, and Goldberg examined the negotiation of interest, the adjudication of disputes, and the power play options that result in strikes and lockouts.
Their first theory asserts that the preferred method of solving employee disputes was through the negotiating of interests. They argued that solving disputes at this level was less costly for the company and created less hostility between management and the workers. At this stage, the focus is on the desires of the parties involved. Interest-based neutral third parties are assigned to intervene in disputes, and help the parties reach agreements that meet their mutual interests rather than to determine if the other has violated one party’s rights.
Examples of interest-based neutrals in organizations are mediators, ombudsperson, facilitators, and coaches. Interest-based neutral components may be designed as alternatives to rights-based processes, such as in the early stages of grievance procedures and equal employment opportunity cases, or as general workplace conflict management resources. Generally, interest-based neutrals try to maintain the protection of rights-based processes while focusing on helping the parties meet their interests in mutually agreeable terms.
Mediation is the most commonly implemented interest-based neutral component in organizations. Communication that would not have flowed between two disputing parties will flow from each party to the mediator. Information unknown to either party is useful in designing agreements that meet the underlying interests of both parties. Rights-based processes involve third parties determining the outcome of a dispute based on laws, contracts, or standards of behaviour. Examples of rights-based processes in organizations are arbitration, formal complaint investigation, and peer review panels.
These methods began in companies that had unions to provide a means of resolving contract interpretation disputes without resorting to strikes or lawsuits. Rights-based procedures with third-party decision makers are effective because they create a structure in which dispute resolution is systematically improved to enhance fact-finding and reduce biases. Their enforcement powers deter subsequent violations by holding managers accountable for professional and impartial treatment of their employees. Issues not resolved at this level would naturally move on to the next level of adjudication.
The cost of arguing a case in court is both expensive and time consuming. The outcome produces a winner and a loser, and the decision is not based on the rights or the desires of the parties involved, rather it is decided on the governing statutes relating to the case. Additionally, the conflict will continue until the courts rule on the issues, which in some cases takes years. Adjudication often creates mistrust between workers and managers. The third and most objectionable method of solving disputes is by strikes or lockouts. This method is costly to both employee and employer, and always creates mistrust between the worker and management.
The losing party may have a need or desire to retaliate against the wining party upon their return to work creating further conflict. In a second theory, Ury, Brett, and Goldberg created the Dispute Systems Design to resolve “intractable” (Brahm & Ouelllet 2004) or repeated conflicts in distressed organizations. Ury, Brett, and Goldberg describe six design principles of the Dispute Systems Design. The first principle is to “focus on interests” (Brahm & Ouelllet 2004) by starting with direct negotiation or mediation methods to solve problems through interest-based bargaining.
Leaders must understand that this approach is the first step in resolving conflicts. The second principle is to make available “low-cost rights and power backups” (Brahm & Ouelllet 2004). Arbitration, voting, and protests fall into this category. It is not hard to see that the second principle is less expensive than adjudication or violent force. The third principle is an avenue called “loop-backs” (Brahm & Ouelllet 2004) to negotiation. This principle allows the parties to return to negations anytime in the entire system. Make all parties clear that this is an option.
Ury, Brett, and Goldberg cite settling a “lawsuit out of court” (Brahm & Ouelllet 2004) as an example. Principle number four promulgates the exchange of information before and after in the form of discussions and feedback. In the fifth principle, leaders must establish a system that resolves or attempts to resolve problems at the lowest level. This process continues to move up the ladder from low to high cost measures. This will help prevent the quick intensification of conflicts. The system has to be credible. If not, the parties will quickly resort to the method that will achieve the fastest response.
In principle number six, leaders must dedicate themselves to the new systems design by making available time and resources to infuse the organization with new knowledge, skills, and behaviours. The third piece of Ury, Brett, and Goldberg’s theory describes the four stages of dispute resolution implementation as diagnosis, design, implementation, and exit, evaluation, and diffusion. The basic premise is that there are many ways to design a dispute resolution system. Foremost, it must meet the specific needs of the organization (Brahm ; Ouellette 2004).
Ury also list six basic functions of an effective Dispute Systems Design. One is to develop a method to prevent disputes from arising. It will not be possible to intercept every dispute, but having a highly visible system in place will prevent many of them. Two, it is important to resolve disputes by healing the parties’ emotional wounds. Sometimes someone has to say a “sorry” or identify a mistake to mind a relationship. Three reconcile the parties’ divergent interest by ensuring all parties have a chance to be heard. Also, meet the needs of as many people as possible. Four, Determine the parties’ rights.
Educate people on their rights and the norms of the organization. Violation may well be due to ignorance of a particular rule. Five test the parties’ relative power by attempting to avert the use of power. Sometime, one party will just have to put some distance between each other. Six contain unresolved disputes to prevent escalation so the dispute does not get out of hand. The goal is to resolve the dispute before irreparable harm occurs (Ury 1995). As an alternate course of action to the one set out by Ury, Brett, and Goldberg, Stephen S. Zashin developed the Alternate Dispute Resolution System.