Saturday, February 2, 2019

What Causes Conflict? A New Three-Dimensional Framework

Put yourself in the shoes of a  manager who believes that a dispute is preventing two co-workers from working together effectively. What do you do? Possibilities might include encouraging them to get along, locking them in a room until they work out their differences, threatening them with consequences if their work doesn’t improve, giving one of them authority over the other, reassigning one of them, or extending a deadline on a project to give them more time. But here is an important complication: each of these possible solutions will only work if it matches the actual source of the dispute. So before jumping to a preferred intervention, we need to explicit identify the sources of a particular dispute.

In the case of the ineffective co-workers, there are numerous causes. Perhaps the two workers believe that they are competing for scarce resources, such as administrative support or a single promotion opening. Maybe the workers come from different cultural backgrounds and perceive a lack of respect for each other. Perhaps one had an emotional outburst that created lingering bad feelings. It could be the case that they disagree over tasks because they foresee different uses for a product they are developing. Maybe one or both of them face difficulties communicating. Maybe all (or none) of these causes underlie this particular dispute. Not all dispute or conflict resolution methods will be equally effective in these different scenarios, and a failure to diagnose and resolve the source(s) of a conflict can cause it to persist if not escalate.

For a dispute resolution method to be successful, the parties must first understand the sources of the conflict to choose an appropriate solution. But what are the possible sources of conflict? Alex Colvin (Cornell), Dionne Pohler (Toronto), and I scoured the multidisciplinary scholarly and professional literature on conflict and have created a three-part typology of the roots of conflict. We label the three key categories as structural, cognitive, and psychogenic.

Structural conflicts are result from the relationship between the parties’ interests or goals, rights, and sources of power. The classic conflict over scarce resources is when these interests are focused on things to satisfy material needs and desires. But conflicts are also possible over clashing value orientations (e.g., differing emphases on fairness, inclusion, or respect) or identity needs for a sense of purpose and meaning in one’s life, including those connected to group affiliations such as racial, ethnic, or religious affinities. We label this category “structural conflict” because the nature of these conflicts is determined by the rules, institutions, and practices in which this relationship is situated—in other words, by the structural nature of the relationship.

Cognitive conflicts relate to mental functioning. This is a broad category that includes a variety of ways in which cognition may cause or contribute to a dispute: interpretation, perception, information processing, decision-making, and communication. The human brain is not unitary or always internally consistent. So conflicts can arise because individuals perceive the same problem differently, such as when one uses a heuristic and another approaches it analytically. Common types of cognitive bias that result in conflict include loss aversion, anchoring, framing, fixed-pie perception, exaggeration of conflict, illusions of transparency, decision fatigue, and overconfidence. Individuals can also be motivated to process information in ways that validate preexisting beliefs, rather than by a search for accuracy, and in ways that magnify in-group/out-group differences. Individuals may also have different preferences or differences of opinion over how to interact or solve a problem, perhaps influenced by cultural or other differences. Lastly, communication is a cognitive activity that can lead to conflict when it breaks down. Miscommunication can result in many ways, such as noisy communication channels, different meanings, incorrect filtering of intent, and misinterpretation of nonverbal cues and personal demeanor.

Lastly, psychogenic conflict arises from the psychology of feelings. This has two main subdimensions. First, emotions and moods can cause conflict through the behaviors they create or by influencing decision-making. For example, anger, frustration, contempt, jealousy, and other hot emotions can lead to aggressive communication behaviors (e.g., criticism, contempt, and shouting) while lessening constructive communication behaviors (e.g., active listening). The recipient of negative emotions often tries to counter this by lashing out or other responses that distracts them away from processing information and making sound decisions; conversely, happy individuals tend to make riskier decisions which can also be a source of conflict. Second, personality differences can also cause or contribute to disputes. Individuals with high values of neuroticism and extraversion and/or low values of agreeableness may be more likely to be contentious, antagonistic, irritable, and even want to dominate others, whereas those who score low on openness and conscientiousness tend to be inflexible and disorganized, which can clash with those who prefer a different approach. Personality can also affect conflict by affecting an individual’s attributions—for example, different personality types tend to see a conflict as either task- or relationship-based.

Returning to the opening scenario, did you stop and consider possible sources of conflict before moving ahead to an intervention? Effective dispute resolution must be rooted in a comprehensive and accurate understanding of a conflict’s roots. But disputes can be multi-faceted with numerous causes that interact in complicated ways. Just look at the complexity of the conflict over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. My co-authors and I submit that it is important to conceptually distinguish different aspects of the full range of sources of conflict to appreciate the nature of each particular dispute. So in analyzing any conflict, look for structural, cognitive, and psychogenic aspects. Not all will be present in every dispute, but it’s better to look for them and rule them out than to not look at all and miss a major factor.


Source: John W. Budd, Alexander J.S. Colvin, and Dionne Pohler (forthcoming) "Advancing Dispute Resolution by Unpacking the Sources of Conflict: Toward an Integrated Framework," ILR Review. Click here to read the full paper.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The State of Organized Labor in the U.S.: An Abbreviated FAQ

This past week I had the pleasure of speaking about the current state of labor relations to a local community group. It was great to see their interest in the topic, and the audience asked many good questions and had numerous important observations. I wasn’t sure how to structure my presentation, but they had provided me with a list of possible questions so I decided to approach it like a “State of Organized Labor FAQ.” Here are some highlights:

1. How many union members are there in the United States? What is the trend is union density (the fraction of workers who are union members?

We can answer these questions by this graph I’ve constructed:
















The total area shows the number of union members. While less than its peak membership 45 years ago, there are still a lot of union members in the United States (over 14 million, roughly even split between private and public sector workers). Trends in union density (the fraction of workers who are unionized) are indicated by the blue (private sector) and green (public sector) lines. There is a clear divergence in these two trends over the past 50 years. Specifically, public sector density has been relatively stable at around 35 percent for a couple of decades, while private sector union density has been falling since the 1950s, and now stands around 6.5 percent. Comparing the red area with the blue line, we can that the decline in union density is less about losing members and more about failing to keep pace with employment growth.

[Update: On January 18, 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual statistical report on union membership. For 2018, total union membership is 14.7 million, with density rates of 6.4 and 33.9 percent in the private and public sectors, respectively.]

2. Why has union membership declined, or not?

Again, looking back at the graph, union density decline is a private sector issue. By why? For starters, note that the decline in private sector density started way back in the 1950s. So this is a long-term issue which likely reflects a combination of factors, and we can’t blame recent things (even as far back as President Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers) for the entire decline. Commonly-cited factors include structural change (e.g., 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 most controversially, employer opposition (legal and illegal). In the final analysis, it’s likely to be a combination of these factors.

But why the stability in public sector? That sector has also experienced demographic shifts (making it a less satisfactory explanation for the private sector decline), but the economic shifts have been less pronounced in this sector (e.g., the decline of manufacturing is purely a private sector issue). Moreover, robust union density in the public sector also seems to undermine demand-based explanations for the private sector decline. But due to differential norms and an inability to shift much of public sector work (e.g., schools need to remain in their district), there might be less scope for union opposition by public sector managers. This might be a key reason for the difference in the private and public sector trends.

3. Is it imaginable that the software engineers in Silicon Valley could be unionized?

Sure. There are many independent-minded skilled workers who are unionized, such as airline pilots, university faculty, and lawyers. Actors and professional athletes are also unionized. And the recent walkout among Google employees to protest Google’s handling of sexual harassment indicate that collective action is one strategy these workers are already using.

4. Has immigration (documented and undocumented) been a plus or minus or a zero for unions?

Yes. Wait a minute, which is it? This isn't a yes or no question. Well...like many other things in labor relations, it’s complicated. There are cases in which immigration can be bad for organized labor, whether because of desperate workers willing to work for less, immigrant workers who are fearful of being deported and therefore don’t want to make waves, prejudice against immigrant workers by union leaders or members, or other reasons. But there is another side to this story. Many immigrants to the United States come from cultures that are more collectivist and less individualistic than in the United States, and shared experiences of living and working together in specific neighborhoods and jobs can provide a strong sense of solidarity. Indeed, in Minneapolis, CTUL has been very successful in building collective power among janitors and other low-wage workers, many of whom are Latinx, Somali, or members of other non-majority groups, and Somali workers recently forced Amazon to negotiate with them. We should not dismiss immigration as entirely a negative for the labor movement--indeed, quite the contrary. 

5. Do unions make their firms or industries less productive and hence less competitive? Do unions put firms out of business?

A common stereotype about unions pertains to extensive, restrictive work rules, which might reduce productivity. But once again, there is another side to the story and there are ways in which unions might increase productivity (e.g., workers protected by a grievance procedure might feel empowered to speak out about work practices more honestly than nonunion workers). What happens in practice? Everything. In some cases, unionized workplaces are less productive; in other cases, it’s the reverse, or in some cases there aren’t meaningful differences. So it’s really about the nature of any particular situation. Moreover, from a pluralist perspective in which unions are necessary to better balance an otherwise unequal employment relationship, unions are not intended as productivity-enhancing devices so this should not be a major element on which they are judged.

In terms of whether unions put companies out of business, that too is always a complicated story. Sometimes a strike might prove to be the final straw, but there could have been business-related problems for a longer period of time. In the 1990s in the Twin Cities, Country Club Markets closed after a strike, but there were many factors at play, including a lack of investment back into the business. Indeed, it’s not in a union’s self-interest to systematically put companies out of business, and research does not find that unions destroy firms.  

6. Can unions engage with younger workers?

Yes. In fact my own research suggests that we overstate the labor movement’s lack of connections with younger workers. For details, see my blog post on unions having more younger workers than they think.

7. Where is Jimmy Hoffa buried?

Envision here a picture of the end zone at Giant’s Stadium in New Jersey. But of course I don’t have an answer to this, but given that some people in audience grew up in Detroit, I thought this would be funny to throw in. Moreover, it gave me the opportunity to point out the following. In response to some union corruption (which it’s important to not overstate), the Landrum-Griffin Act was passed in 1959 and essentially has the philosophy that requiring greater disclosures and transparency among unions will prevent union fraud (it’s harder to commit fraud when others can see what’s going on). Sounds sensible, but it took lawmakers until 2002 to treat companies in the same way (that is, Sarbanes–Oxley has essentially this same underlying logic). Seems like a big double-standard. In contrast, what I often emphasize is that unions are like other private, public, and nonprofit sector organizations: most are effective, most are good, but a small number are not. The same can be said for leaders of unions, businesses, public sector agencies, and non-profits. Unions should not be singled out, especially when it comes to corruption or other negative behaviors.

8. Why the controversies over right-to-work laws, free riders, and agency fees (fair share fees)?

Misleading named, right-to-work laws prevent unions from negotiating contract clauses that require workers from paying any union dues, even though the union has a legal obligation to represent them. Most right-to-work laws were passed in the 1940s and 1950s. But the issue sparked back to life around 2012 when a number of Republican governors and state lawmakers began championing laws in states with traditionally strong labor movements, such as Wisconsin and Michigan. Debates over right-to-work laws are very divisive, with proponents arguing that they are necessary to protect individual liberty and opponents countering that the true goal is to weaken unions. The controversies have become amplified because it now really more of a political issue than an economic one, with some conservative strategists being bold in revealing their desire to destroy the Democratic Party. In addition to state-level legislative initiatives, there has also been a paired movement to achieve right-to-work through the courts--a movement that achieved success when the Supreme Court made the entire public sector a right-to-work jurisdiction with its 2018 ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. Though in the longer-run, this Janus decision could actually make unions stronger

9. Is labor relations still relevant.

YES! See my blog entry on why students should study labor relations. Or my posting on why HR-OB still needs IR

And finally, in my presentation I emphasized what I have long emphasized: to really understand labor unions (and many other employment-related things), we need to appreciate different frames of reference. These provide competing lenses through which one can evaluate labor unions in very different ways. That’s essential for understanding, and for evaluation.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Unsolicited Advice for Amazon: Keep Talking with Your Workers

Last month, the New York Times and the Star Tribune reported on conflicts between Somalian workers and management at Amazon’s Shakopee (Minnesota) warehouse. The workers’ concerns include increases in their workload, lack of advancement opportunities, and prayer breaks.

There are many interesting angles to this story, including the community built among Somalian workers (at least partly facilitated by the Amazon-provided bus that brings them from and back to downtown Minneapolis each day) and the role of the Awood Center  (a worker center for East African workers in the Twin Cities). But then there’s this from the New York Times article by Karen Weise:
“Now, tied together by a close cultural connection and empowered by a tight labor market, they appear to be the first known group in the United States to get Amazon management to negotiate. After modest protests over the summer, the workers have had two private meetings with management in recent months.”
Kudos to the workers for this achievement. I’m a fan of worker voice in many forms (and here, too). And these issues are probably particularly ripe for constructive conversations. It’s important to put a human face on workload demands, frustration with advancement could be a win-win issue to work through, and requests for prayer breaks involve obvious cultural differences that are hard to overcome without an understanding that comes from personal interaction. And this dialogue has resulted in what seems like some constructive changes, again quoting from the New York Times article:
“Last week, Amazon offered some compromises at its facilities in the Minneapolis area. The company said it would require a general manager and a Somali-speaking manager to agree on any firings related to productivity rates, designate a manager to respond to individual complaints within five days and meet with workers quarterly.”
But focusing solely on the process of employee voice, there is room for tremendous improvement. According to these reports, there have only been TWO meetings, and Amazon has only committed to a quarterly meeting with workers. As in four times a year? Employee voice should be ongoing rather than letting problems fester. And committing to respond to individual complaints within five days hardly seems responsive—that can be a long time for a worker to suffer. Employee voice should be embraced as something worthy of immediate attention whenever feasible.

In fact, the workers have scheduled a protest because they do not believe their concerns have been fully addressed. Employee voice is not a magical solution that will make these issues disappear, but dialogue is certainly worth trying more than once a quarter. For Amazon, further discussions could hopefully resolve these issues and avoid work disruptions. For the workers, voice allows them to participate in shaping their work life in ways consistent with human needs and dignity. So keep talking with your workers. No to your workers. With your workers.