Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Goals of Conflict Management: Have We Lost the Forest for the Trees?

Earlier this month I attended the International Associationfor Conflict Management (IACM) annual conference outside of Leiden in the Netherlands (Hup Holland Hup!). The diversity of presentations was stimulating, including topics ranging from the very micro (e.g., individual interactions) to the very macro (e.g., international diplomacy and peacebuilding), with mid-range team, organizational, and industrial relations conflict topics, too. There was much to be learned about managing conflict, but I kept coming back to one concern—have we lost the forest for the trees? Specifically, have we lost sight of the fundamental goals of conflict management?

The goals of conflict management don’t get a lot of explicit attention, but when pushed I think many would say that a conflict management system should prevent conflict and settle disputes quickly. Sounds good at first, but this is hardly adequate. As a manager I could devise a system whereby anyone who comes to me with a conflict is fired. That would likely prevent conflict and settle disputes quickly. But it hardly seems like a desirable approach to conflict management. So we need to think more carefully about metrics and goals for conflict management systems.

In the Oxford Handbook of Conflict Management in Organizations, that should be in print very soon, Alex Colvin and I have authored the lead chapter titled “The Goals and Assumptions of Conflict Management in Organizations.” We use the trilogy of efficiency, equity, and voice as a framework for considering the goals of conflict management. Our focus is conflict management in organizations, which I will follow below, but I think this could be applied more widely.

Firstly, efficiency. The effective management of conflict is important so that conflict minimizes disruptions to the productive efficiency of an organization. Whether overt or quietly festering, clashes between supervisors and subordinates, co-workers, union leaders and managers, or other organizational actors can be disruptive and undermine individual and organizational performance. A conflict management system should be able resolve these conflicts so that they are removed as barriers to performance. Another aspect of efficiency as a goal of conflict management is that it is desirable to resolve conflicts in an efficient way. Specifically, an efficient conflict resolution system conserves scarce resources, especially time and money. But efficiency by itself is not enough.

So secondly, equity. Equitable conflict management systems reflect concerns with justice, fairness, and due process such that outcomes are linked to objective pieces of evidence and which include safeguards that prevent arbitrary or capricious decision-making. Moreover, an equitable conflict management system treats all participants with respect, sensitivity, and privacy while also generating appropriate and effective remedies when rights are violated. The equity dimension can also include the extent to which a conflict management system has widespread coverage independent of resources or expertise.

Thirdly, voice. This captures our assertion that conflict management systems should be participatory. A system that is unilaterally designed and administered by managers lacks voice. In contrast, a system shaped by the input of employees as well as employers scores higher on the voice dimension. Similarly, participation in the actual conflict management system is an important element of voice.

So it’s important that academics and practitioners continue to find better ways to resolving conflicts. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what “better” means. It’s more than just understanding interpersonal dynamics that prevent conflicts. It's more than finding ways to quickly resolve disputes. We think a better system is one that fulfills efficiency, equity, and voice. Others might prefer other goals and metrics—probably rooted in alternative frames of reference (another part of our chapter, and perhaps the subject of a future blog posting). Regardless of one’s specific goals, it’s important to carefully think about them, and articulate them explicitly. Otherwise, we’re likely to lose sight of what we are actually trying to achieve.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What Do Unions in China Do?

After three decades of fast growth, China has become one of the world’s largest economies, and its labor movement is arguably the world’s largest. But we are still lacking systematic evidence on the effect of Chinese unions on wages, employment, and other important economic variables, such as labor productivity and economic growth. With my friends and colleagues Wei Chi, Yijiang Wang, and Qianyun Xie, I have just published a study in the Journal of Labor Research that uses provincial-level data to analyze such effects.

In a Western context, it’s common to think of unions as having two faces, a monopoly face and a voice face. In the monopoly face, labor unions use their power, derived from the threat of imposing costs on the organization through strikes and other means, to increase wages and benefits above what the nonunion labor market would provide. So unions are associated with higher wages. Moreover, if this higher compensation provides additional motivation or attracts higher-quality workers, then unions would also be associated with productivity gains, albeit suboptimally (if a firm wants to raise wages to boost productivity, it doesn’t need a union to do so!). Alternatively, unions might reduce productivity if their monopoly power allows them to extract more favorable working conditions. As such, unions in the monopoly face benefit union workers, but generally at the expense of others.

In contrast, the collective voice face of unions occurs when unions convey information preferences to managers who are then better able to shape terms and conditions of employment that fit employee preferences. Productivity can improve via improved employee satisfaction and also via a direct channel of employee voice that identifies process improvements and resolves problems. Unlike in the monopoly face, these dynamics do not distort competitive labor market outcomes, and therefore the collective voice face can be socially beneficial.

Unions might act the same way in China. Or not. Unions in China are generally not independent of the business. Indeed, Chinese union leaders have traditionally been appointed by the Communist Party rather than elected by union members and Chinese unions are partly funded by the company and the government. By law, the Chinese labor movement has a single hierarchical structure; all unions are affiliated with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and there is no inter-union competition between unions. And Chinese Union Law does not allow workers to strike nor does it protect strikers from discrimination or retaliation by their employer. So Chinese unions might lack real power, and might serve more as an extension of political and business interests than as a advocate for workers’ interests.

In our analyses, we use provincial-level data spanning 15 years from 1994 through 2008 to estimate the relationship between union density and various economic outcomes. As an aside, provincial-level analyses are somewhat old-fashioned because of the greater level of aggregation compared to enterprise- or individual-level studies. So it is hard to disentangle the reasons that underlie various the statistical results. But we think this is a useful exercise because the existing micro-level studies are all drawn from limited samples (for example, a notable recent study  uses data from a limited number of medium to large cities, excludes small establishments, and might be biased because the focus of the survey was corporate social responsibility practices). Our provincial approach therefore captures a much broader spectrum of the geography and economy of China than the previous studies. The use of provincial data also allows for a fuller identification of the overall effects of unions if there are externalities, spillovers, or aggregate-level effects that might be under-estimated by firm-level or individual-level data.

So what do we find? We find that Chinese unions have a positive and significant relationship with provincial GDP and productivity in the secondary sector (mining, manufacturing, utilities, and construction), no significant effect on average wage levels, and uncertain effects on employment. These results are consistent with a weak monopoly face and strong collective voice face of Chinese labor unions. However, under the unique institutional conditions faced by Chinese labor unions, these results are also consistent with an alternative explanation in which Chinese labor unions act as agents of the enterprise and the state in delivering productivity enhancements at the expense of, rather than through the cooperation of, workers. So our findings cannot indicate who actually benefits from a positive productivity effect of Chinese labor unions. There is still much to be learned about the roles of Chinese labor unions in influencing individual and macroeconomic outcomes.

Source: John W. Budd, Wei Chi, Yijiang Wang, and Qianyun Xie (2014) "What Do Unions in China Do? Provincial-Level Evidence on Wages, Employment, Productivity, and Economic Output," Journal of Labor Research, vol. 35, no. 2 (June), pp. 185-204. Here is the complete paper.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Contested Ideas About Work: The Crowding Out of the Occupational Citizenship Conceptualization of Work

Last week I had a stimulating time in Montreal at a conference on “New Frontiers for Citizenship at Work” sponsored by the InteruniversityResearch Centre on Globalization and Work (CRIMT, from its French equivalent Le Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur la mondialisation et le travail). But what is citizenship at work? Unfortunately, some presenters didn’t say. Others used citizenship in the common legal way that distinguishes between citizens and non-citizens. Clearly, citizens and non-citizens can experience work in very different ways, especially as the latter typically has fewer rights and their work authorization might be tied to a particular employer. And there is a need to redress these differences.

But there is another important way of thinking about citizenship at work. From my perspective, the foil of seeing a worker as a citizen is not seeing him or her as a non-citizen in some legal sense, but is seeing a worker simply as a commodity or as a productive (human) resource. In other words, to see workers as citizens is to decommodify them to give them a status as more than just factors of production or individuals seeking personal fulfillment or identities. As such, citizens should be seen as having inherent equal worth and are thus entitled to certain rights and standards of dignity and self-determination irrespective of what the market or management provides. In my book The Thought of Work, I call this an occupational citizenship conceptualization of work, where the occupational adjective is to denote a work context, not to imply identification with a particular occupation.

But as I described in my CRIMT presentation, this is only one of a variety of important conceptualizations of work. More importantly, occupational citizenship is not the view of work embraced by many scholars, business leaders, policymakers, judges, and other influential individuals. Rather, the dominant mental models of work tend to be either hostile or indifferent towards citizenship at work. When work is seen as a commodity—as in the neoliberal market ideology—the workplace is prioritized as a place of production with economic efficiency as the key goal. Citizenship activities in the workplace, labor unions, and other practices and institutions are sharply criticized and resisted for interfering with productive and allocative efficiency. To see work as a curse or disutility—as in popular culture and mainstream economic theorizing—is to see work as a necessary burden to survive and earn income; deeper pursuits such as citizenship are left to other spheres of life. When work is viewed as a source of personal fulfillment—a common embrace in the behavioral sciences and high-commitment human resource management—then voice and autonomy are supported, but largely as individual rather than collective activities that improve satisfaction and commitment rather than citizenship. 

Feminist theorizing that sees work as caring is supportive of broadened citizenship ideals, especially via a greater valuing of caring activities, but greater citizenship practices in the workplace is not a core feature of this paradigm (and citizenship perspectives on work have, regrettably, traditionally focused narrowly on paid employment to the exclusion of unpaid care work). Views of work as identity and service could also be supportive of citizenship at work, broadly defined, but greater work--no pun intended--is required to integrate these perspectives.


So occupational citizenship / citizenship at work are under siege. The public discursive space in which work is defined is contested terrain, and there are academic divisions even among camps that should be supportive of citizenship at work (pluralist industrial relations v. critical industrial relations and feminist thought, for example). Neoliberal market and unitarist HRM discourses are at best indifferent to the ideals of citizenship at work, and at worst are openly hostile towards it, especially in the context of anti-unionism. 

I claim that in the public discursive arena, these dominant narratives have overpowered and crowded out conceptualizations of work that are supportive of citizenship at work. So promoting citizenship at work requires thinking fundamentally about what work is, and in turn making the case for the deep importance of work not only for workers, but for families, communities, and societies in complex ways. In other words, clashes over citizenship at work are as much contests of ideas as  they are contests of practices and institutions.