Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Lessons for Resolving Conflict from the NFL Players Anthem Dispute and Papal Conclaves

With Thanksgiving comes football, and with football comes…well, this year, maybe politics. While perhaps not as heated as in September and October, the NFL player anthem protest controversy has not been completely resolved. Before reading further, I’d like you to think about what underlies this dispute. Have you thought about it? Once you have thought about it, be honest—how many factors did you identify? My hypothesis is that most people would identify one main cause, or maybe two at most. People might differ in what cause they identify, but my point here is that it’s common to not think very deeply about the diverse factors that contribute to any particular conflict. Rather, the emphasis is typically on dispute resolution mechanisms.

There is a long history of this. New popes are elected through a papal conclave. “Conclave” comes from the Latin cum clave which means “with key.” Following the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268, cardinals met in Viterbo in central Italy to choose a successor. But political infighting prevented an agreement for many months. As the dispute dragged on, frustration with the lack of progress led city officials to lock the cardinals in the Palazzo dei Papi di Viterbo (hence “with key”), reduce their food rations, and even to remove the palazzo’s roof to expose them to the weather. After 33 months, Gregory X was elected pope, and he implemented rules for papal conclaves that included seclusion, food rations reduced to a single meal after three days, further food reductions after eight days, and the stoppage of any payments to them from the papal treasury during the conclave.

Using their bully pulpits, U.S. political leaders have occasionally tried similar strategies to force labor negotiators to reach agreements. President Lyndon Johnson called labor and company negotiators from the steel industry (1965) and copper industry (1968) to Washington, DC, and pressured them to negotiate in the Executive Office Building until they reached agreements. In 2016, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton called negotiators from Allina Health and the nurses union to the governor’s residence and asked them to keep negotiating in that location until they settled their strike, which they did. While these political leaders don’t have the legal authority to sequester the negotiators cum clave, and they were not deprived of food or a roof, the spirit of these tactics are similar to the conclave pressures—increase the pressure on negotiators to settle a dispute.

By itself, these pressures do nothing to address, or even consider, the underlying factors leading or contributing to a particular dispute. Rather, these tactics assume that the dispute is structural in nature—a power struggle between groups with competing interests—and the solution is increased pressure to compromise. Of course, there are many other options for resolving disputes, including mediation, arbitration, rules, and legal proceedings. Mediation is perhaps the only one that has a chance to address the root causes of a dispute, and even in this case I assert that we need a greater explicit attention on the root causes of a dispute.

Returning to the NFL players anthem protest, when the focus is on rights (“is this legal?”) and consequences (“they should be fired or suspended”), this implicitly reduces the dispute to its structural aspects—who has the power to do what? But there many other layers. For example, miscommunication has contributed to the dispute, as when one of the team owners said “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” and then issued a statement saying that this was not what he meant. There are also diverse cognitive aspects, including cultural differences that shape people’s judgements, interpretations, and priorities, often magnified by emotional reactions. It’s not just one thing, and how to best or fully resolve a dispute requires tailoring dispute resolution processes to these underlying causes.

So if you find yourself in a conflict on Thanksgiving as relatives with clashing political views gather, or on any other day in myriad other situations, pay more attention to the multiple contributing causes to a dispute before either escalating or jumping to a dispute resolution intervention. And watch this space for more about these issues because I'm working with Alex Colvin (Cornell) and Dionne Pohler (Toronto) to address the frequent oversimplification of, if not lack of attention to, the roots of conflict. Happy Thanksgiving. 

[Updates: a February 2019 posting on the sources of conflict, and a February 2020 posting on managing conflict at its sources]

Further reading: For an early view of our research on the causes of conflict, see our conference paper "Advancing Dispute Resolution by Unpacking the Sources of Conflict: Toward an Integrated Framework," which we were honored to present earlier this month at the ILR School conference honoring David Lipsky.

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