Saturday, February 15, 2020

Managing Conflict at its Sources

In Director Bong Joon-ho’s highly-acclaimed movie Parasite (2019), the wealthy Park family believes that they have a win-win relationship with the lower-class Kims. The Kims, however, view this relationship very differently, allowing them to prioritize their own interests in this relationship. If we were to step into this in the middle of the movie, we’d need to get the Parks to see the actual nature of their relationship, while also addressing the perceptions and emotions that are fueling a simmering conflict between the two families. Moreover, on an appropriately dark and stormy night, the xxxxxxx’s have an unexpected encounter with xxxxxxx and xxxxxxx (redacted to avoid a spoiler). Emotions flare up (especially fear), and magnify the fixed pie cognitive bias that pushes us to assume sharp conflicts of interest, leading all involved to treat this as a win-lose battle for self-preservation. Again, if we were to step in and try to resolve this before it spirals downward and reaches lower depths (an inside reference for those who have seen the movie), we’d need to re-frame the nature of their relationship (they have some common goals), address their decision-making, and help them cool their emotions.

Alex Colvin (Cornell), Dionne Pohler (Toronto), and I call this “managing conflict at its sources.” In other words, to successfully resolve a conflict or dispute, you must first understand its roots or sources, and then appropriately match a dispute resolution method. So we’ve created a three-part typology of the roots of conflict—specifically, structural, cognitive, and psychogenic sources of conflict—to facilitate the identification of effective dispute resolution methods tailored to the particular sources of a given dispute. These are described in my earlier blog posting, but brief definitions are useful here. Structural sources pertain to nature of the parties’ relationship, including their power, rights, and interlinked interests or goals. Cognitive sources relate to mental functioning, including interpretation, perception, information processing, decision-making, and (mis)communication. Psychogenic sources arise from the psychology of feelings, especially emotions, moods, and personality.

We believe that it’s important to diagnose a conflict by looking for these sources because they require different approaches to resolve them. Resolving structural conflicts requires diagnosing the nature of the parties’ relationship. Key alternatives include (i) a self-interested exchange with accessible alternatives (egoist); (ii) lasting interdependence with a mutual gains structure (unitarist); (iii) lasting interdependence with a mixed-motive structure (pluralist); or (iv) lasting interdependence with a win-lose structure (antagonistic). Recognizing these structural forms is important for factoring in issues of power. In an egoist relationship, power is less important than self-interest. If someone gives you a good deal, take it; if not, take your next best alternative. In a unitarist relationship, a focus on power likely interferes with finding interest-aligning policies. In contrast, power differences are likely a significant aspect of an antagonistic relationship, and distributive negotiations would be fully consistent in this structure. Integrative bargaining is very difficult in an antagonistic structure. In a pluralist relationship, both distributive and integrative negotiations are likely, and the parties or third party dispute resolution actors would likely need to ensure that power is not exercised in an overly aggressive way that undermines the shared interests and enduring nature of the relationship.

The effectiveness of third party interventions also varies across these relationship types. In an egoist relationship, the main need for third party intervention is to adjudicate alleged violations of contractual terms, which points toward arbitration-type procedures that provide a clear determination. In a unitarist relationship, in contrast, the importance of mutuality means that the arbitration of conflicts could be counter-productive; rather, mediation-type interventions are most useful in helping the parties recognize their mutual interests and resolve any coordination problems or barriers to achieving the integrative potential inherent in their relationship. But in antagonistic relationships, mediation efforts that search for common interests are incompatible with the fundamental oppositions of interests that drive conflict in this structural form, and thus would likely be futile. By contrast, pluralist relationships are most open to a range of interventions, including mediation- and arbitration-type third party interventions, reflecting the diverse nature of distribution and integrative issues inherent in this type of relationship.

Turning to the cognitive dimension, there are various techniques to address perceptual differences rooted in contrasting cognitive frames, such as a process of unfreezing, changing, and refreezing frames, either with or without mediator assistance. Other interventions can explicitly address cultural differences (more generally, in-group versus out-group conflicts). Regarding conflicts that have an aspect of limited information processing, people can more easily identify cognitive errors made by others than themselves. Providing individuals training in decision-making biases and teaching them critical thinking and self-awareness can help them become aware of decision-making blind spots to work through this type of cognitive conflict. Similarly, recognizing when miscommunication causes or contributes to a conflict also points to specific conflict resolution strategies. This can include avoiding communication channels with low signal-to-noise ratios, listening for the intended meanings of what’s being said, communicating in ways that the listener will understand your intent and that reflects the listener’s perspective, and establishing conditions under which an effective dialogue can occur.  

Psychogenic conflict is perhaps the most difficult type of conflict to tackle, and again requires tailored dispute resolution strategies. This aspect of conflict is not easily resolved through negotiation, nor is it likely to be truly resolved by the imposition of a solution by a third party such as a manager or an arbitrator. Indeed, the most accessible strategy is to give people tools to work through their own emotions, or to control their moods in different situations, either in advance of a conflict or during it. When dealing with hot emotions, cooling strategies such as taking a time-out or a break and trying to re-orient an individual’s attention to be more reflective and self-distanced rather than self-immersed can facilitate problem solving. If hot emotions like anger or humiliation  are contributing to a conflict, then facilitators can lessen these emotions by acknowledging them. An understanding of how different personality types approach not only conflict, but feeling, thinking, and behavior more generally also can be useful to understand how to engage with others constructively with others.

Lastly, not only might a dispute be complex (so don't stop after identifying the first cause), conflict can be dynamic and evolve around over time. As such, the source(s) of the conflict can change in the midst of attempts to resolve the initial source(s) of the dispute. This reinforces the need for those trying to resolve disputes to understand the range of possible sources of conflict, so that changes in the nature or sources of a particular dispute can be identified and appropriately addressed, rather than inadvertently contributing to compounding the conflict. In Parasite, the initial conflict between the wealthy and poor families appeared economic in nature, but with greater personal contact came new challenges that were more cognitive and especially psychogenic in nature. To continue to treat this conflict as purely economic (structural) and to ignore other smelly issues (another inside reference) would not produce a lasting resolution to this conflict. To effectively manage conflict at its sources is to recognize that dispute resolution needs to be tailored to the specifics of each conflict based on a careful diagnosis of the possible overlapping and changing structural, cognitive, and psychogenic dimensions.


Source: John W. Budd, Alexander J.S. Colvin, and Dionne Pohler (2020) "Advancing Dispute Resolution by Understanding the Sources of Conflict: Toward an Integrated Framework," ILR Review 73(2): 254-80. https://doi.org/10.1177/0019793919866817. [free access to the pre-publication version here]

Monday, January 6, 2020

A New Culprit in the Decline of American Labor? Robert F. Kennedy and the Long Cast of Hoffa's Shadow

I just finished reading Jack Goldsmith’s In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) which I highly recommend. Who needs fiction when real-life history produces stories like these? The author is a Harvard law professor whose mother married Chuckie O’Brien on June 16, 1975 when the author was 12 years old. In the author’s own words, Chuckie was “a great father” who “smothered me in love” (p. 5). But on July 30, 1975, former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa disappeared and Chuckie—Hoffa’s longtime friend and aide in the Teamsters—quickly became a leading suspect in this extremely high-profile case.

In Hoffa’s Shadow chronicles Hoffa’s rise and fall—often with Chuckie at his side—and his disappearance—where the FBI long thought Chuckie was also at his side, unwittingly delivering him to mob hitmen (a fiction often repeated in popular culture, including most recently in Netflix’s The Irishman). The focus is uniquely on Chuckie—his life, his ties to the Teamsters and the mafia, his personal values, his decades-long public mistreatment at the hands of the FBI, and the sheer improbability of any culpability in Hoffa’s disappearance. All of this is quite interesting, but what really makes this book such a compelling read is how deeply personal it is. Goldsmith is exceptionally candid in describing how he idolized Chuckie in high school but at age 21, renounced him and changed his name from Jack O’Brien to Jack Goldsmith out of fear that “the association with Chuckie might jeopardize my legal career” (p. 26). After 20 years, Goldsmith reconciled with Chuckie, who accepted Goldsmith “back into his life without qualification, rancor, or drama” (p. 41). The author eventually convinced Chuckie to let him tell his story, in the author’s hope that it would solve the 45 year-old mystery of Hoffa’s disappearance. Alas, the author ultimately fails on this last account, but in the end that seems like a minor footnote given the depth of insight we get into Hoffa’s leadership of the Teamsters, the relationship between the mafia and the Teamsters, the likely reasons for his disappearance, the troubling extent of the federal government’s use of its own power, and at a personal level, the complex character of Chuckie.

From a labor relations perspective, one thing that jumped out to me is the provocative claim that the field has overlooked “the most fundamental” reason for the decades-long decline in labor union membership. It is well-recognized that the fraction of workers represented by a union (“union density”) peaked in the private sector in the mid-1950s, and since that time has fallen from around 35 percent to 6 percent. Many explanations have been proposed, including structural change (e.g., the decline of manufacturing, demographic shifts, globalization), decreased demand for union representation (e.g., laws and paternalistic human resource management provide some of the protections that unions provide, or unions have failed to keep up with what workers want), and legal and illegal employer opposition facilitated by hostile legal rulings. But Goldsmith argues that “the most fundamental reason [that membership fell] was the identification of the entire labor movement with corruption, violence, and bossism—an identification that crystallized with Bobby Kennedy’s singular crusade” (p. 108). Wow!

What was this singular crusade? Senator Estes Kefauver led a special Senate investigation into organized crime in the early 1950s, and the resulting public attention on the sensational hearings helped propel Kefauver to national prominence (including being selected as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate in 1956). According to Goldsmith, Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy saw this as a model for elevating the profile of the Kennedys (which included his older brother John F. Kennedy), and perhaps, too, for Bobby Kennedy to prove his worth within the Kennedy clan. So in 1957, the United States Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management (“the McClellan Committee”) was created to investigate labor racketeering (the corruption of labor unions by organized crime), with Bobby Kennedy as its chief counsel. Enter Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters. Goldsmith quotes historian Arthur Schlesinger as saying that before the hearings even started, Kennedy had already concluded that Hoffa was corrupt and ran the Teamsters solely for his own benefit. As such, Hoffa was “the enemy [Bobby Kennedy] had been seeking” (p. 99).

The reality of Hoffa is seemingly much more complex. Hoffa seemed to genuinely care for the economic well-being of truck drivers and other workers, and fought hard on their behalf—albeit often too hard in terms of taking an extreme ends-justifies-the-means approach, even if this meant hiring mob goons to literally fight employers and giving kickbacks to the mafia to maintain his own power. So of course Hoffa was no angel, but In Hoffa’s Shadow shows the extent to which Kennedy became obsessed with publicly vilifying Hoffa. And each time this failed, “Kennedy got angrier, become more vindictive, and invariably cut more corners” (p. 102). This included sending the IRS on a fishing expedition looking for evidence of criminality in over 3,500 tax returns, and then illegally entering confidential IRS information into the public record.

Students of labor relations know that these hearings resulted in the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959 which sought to make unions more democratic while also placing a few additional restrictions on union activities (especially banning secondary boycotts). But Goldsmith interestingly argues that the larger effect was that the hearings led by Bobby Kennedy “embedded in the public mind, including the minds of many workers, the idea that unions were flawed institutions exercising illegitimate power” (p. 106). And thus we have Goldsmith’s provocative claim that “the most fundamental reason [for declining union power] was the identification of the entire labor movement with corruption, violence, and bossism—an identification that crystallized with Bobby Kennedy’s singular crusade.” Whether we can trace 65 years of union decline to this one moment is debatable and would represent an influence with remarkable staying power, but it is certainly stimulating to consider its role among other factors.

Goldsmith doesn’t let Hoffa off the hook: “his defiant embrace of criminal tactics and associations [even if done in with the sincere belief that this was to help the rank and file] allowed Kennedy [and others] to paint him as a subversive force…and his performance tarnished the entire labor movement” (p. 107). But Kennedy was anything but balanced, and ignored, for example, the role of employers in fighting workers. Kennedy’s campaign against Hoffa continued in the 1960s with Kennedy’s appointment (by his then-president brother) as U.S. attorney general. In the end, according to Goldsmith, Kennedy “neglected, elided, or interpreted away ethical and legal restrictions that are supposed to channel and constrain the federal government’s colossal power to destroy one’s reputation and liberty” (p. 121). This included a sharp rise in the government surveillance of individuals, including breaking into homes and businesses to plant listening devices, typically without any warrants or legal oversight.

The extent to which this rise in illegal government surveillance connects to Goldsmith’s own work in government is another unique aspect of In Hoffa’s Shadow making for a compelling read. But a larger take-away, in my eyes, is that these revelations implicitly highlight the need for democracy, transparency, and institutional balance. When the government holds all the cards, where are the checks on its power? Or to what end is government power being exercised? These questions are as important as ever when legislation and judicial rulings are seemingly weakening organized labor for political gain, and we seem to have forgotten the importance of the labor movement and other groups for a vibrant democracy. Hidden in In Hoffa’s Shadow, then, is a strong conservative case for labor unions, even if the focal union in this book has historically struggled with democracy and corruption.

So in the end, this book is about much more than Hoffa’s disappearance. Indeed, I assume that “in Hoffa’s shadow” refers to the personal experiences of Chuckie O’Brien. But as we continue to confront questions of power, democracy, and surveillance, it seems that we’re all living in the shadows of Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy, with their lasting implications for labor unions and democracy.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Legislative Election Rules and Industrial Relations—Representativeness is Good

Last week’s UK parliamentary election has highlighted the importance for election rules for determining the representativeness of a legislative body. In particular, the Conservative party won 56 percent of the seats in Parliament while only receiving 44 percent of the votes cast. The Labour party’s representation better matches its vote share (a 32 percent vote share yielded a 31 seat share), but the Liberal Democrats were left with not even two percent of the seats in spite of receiving more than 11 percent of votes. So the composition of seats in Parliament is not very representative of the distribution of votes across the electorate.

These mismatches were further highlighted when the Electoral Reform Society simulated the results if the UK followed the proportional representation electoral rules used elsewhere in Europe. It found that the Conservatives would have won 288 instead of 365 seats, Labour 216 instead of 202, and the Social Democrats 70 instead of 11 (though the Church of Militant Elvis party still would not won any seats). Under these proportional representation election rules, the composition of seats in Parliament would be strongly representative of the nature of the votes cast (e.g., Conservatives with 44.3 percent of the seats based on 43.6 percent of the votes).

This is not a matter purely for the political sphere. Ryan Lamare and I have been working on a research project that analyzes the connection between election rules (representativeness) and industrial relations—specifically, linkages to the extent of workplace employee representation such as labor unions and union membership. Theoretically, we identify multiple ways in which political representativeness might shape employee representation, including enacting public policies, involving unions in peak-level corporatist initiatives, enabling direct relationships between trade unions and legislators, shaping attitudes around political inclusion that affect workplace agency, and giving social legitimacy to collective voice. Through all of these channels, a political system with greater representativeness is expected to have stronger workplace employee representation and higher rates of union membership.

But what happens in practice? Political scientists have developed measures of legislative representativeness, and we focus on a measure called “disproportionality.” In short, this measures the magnitude of the deviations between seat and vote shares. With a baseline of perfect proportionality (seat share = vote share) of zero, then greater deviations yield a higher disproportionality score. The disproportionality score for last week’s UK election is 11.9—this is actually lower than in recent UK elections but is much higher than in many European countries (for example, the disproportionality score is typically less than five in Belgium, and less than two in Denmark). France is another European country with high disproportionality scores—for example, President Macron’s party has more than 50 percent of the seats in the French National Assembly even though it only received 28 percent of the votes (maybe this is connected to all of the worker protests in France?). [Curious about other country's values? Choose any election here and look for “Disp” in the lower right corner.]

We can then statistically analyze the predictive power of disproportionality scores across European countries between 2002 and 2016. We generally find that disproportionality is negatively related to the presence of trade unions and other representative bodies in the workplace, the existence of a collective wage agreement, and the likelihood of individual union membership. In other words, consistent with the predictions of our theory above, greater representativeness in a country’s legislative body is linked to greater workplace representativeness. We can’t observe exactly why, but we think that it’s because a culture of compromise and inclusion at a legislative level spills into other spheres, including the workplace.

In fact, our results suggest that what happens at the electoral level is quite important for industrial relations. Returning to the recent UK election, using the distribution of hypothetical seats that the Electoral Reform Society calculated would have resulted using proportional representation electoral rules, we calculate that the disproportionality score would have been only 1.4 instead of the actual 11.9. This is a very low score indicative of a highly representative outcome. Using a back of the envelope calculation, then, our statistical results imply that this reduction in disproportionality (using the proportional representation election rules) would increase the chances of individual union membership in the range of 2 to 9 percentage points. Note that the union membership rate (“union density”) in the UK is less than 25 percent, so this hypothetical change is not trivial. Those interested in the world of work and employee representation should pay more attention to election rules.


For more, see John W. Budd and J. Ryan Lamare (2019) “The Importance of Political Systems for Trade Union Membership, Coverage, and Influence: Theory and Evidence” (unpublished working paper, full-text available at SSRN).