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.

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