Reactive or Proactive? Dispute Resolution or Conflict Management?
Effective Conflict Management system
There are several key areas that probing them helps better understanding of and designing an effective conflict management system:
- What does success look like in a conflict situation?
- How can this success be measured? and
- How should a conflict management system be designed to achieve success?
In search of answers for these questions, one will most probably come across William Ury’s book: Getting Disputes Resolved: Designing Systems to Cut the Costs of Conflict. In this book, Ury identifies 4 areas of success :
- Minimizing transaction costs
- Satisfaction with the outcomes
- Effect on relationships
Although the ‘effect on relationships’ can very well be included within the ‘transaction costs’ category, the identification of these four categories enables conflict management practitioners to define success for their specific situations and design dispute resolution systems to achieve the identified success for all the parties.
A dispute system can be designed with specific steps, dynamics, and information flow to enable parties manage their conflicts either personally or through a third party (e.g. mediator, arbitrator, judge).
Noting the evolution in the practice of dispute resolution, Lynch  points out that one can set about designing the system not only on a case-by-case basis, but as a system representing “a comprehensive, systems approach to the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict.”
Coming this far, I wonder whether we could expand the horizons even further. Should organizations wait for a dispute to arise, and then react accordingly? Or is there a way to be more proactive?
Conflict tends to grow and develop at a rapid pace. As the conflict grows, it stirs emotions exponentially, until the time that it expresses itself as a dispute between parties. The longer it takes for an organization to detect, react, and manage the risen dispute, the more the opportunity for the expansion of a toxic workplace of dysfunctional decisions and destructive behaviours.
A Conflict-Wise Organization
An organization is a complex system of machines, processes, and people. Noting that “Conflict is a Discomforting Difference” , as long as there are differences (in approaches, objectives, responsibilities, etc.), there are very good chances of conflicts happening within an organization, since some of these differences will be discomforting for some. As an example, a warehouse manager’s push to minimize the inventory levels as much as possible will not be looked at favourably by the sales manager who wants the inventory to be always full, so they can respond to customers as soon as possible.
There are many conflicts across an organization, and some might have grown to the size of a dispute, and many may be deemed resolved by one of the parties giving up or even leaving the organization. Therefore, a conflict-wise organization is not focused on disputes, it is rather equipped with an internalized knowledge and skills to proactively and enthusiastically monitor and identify conflicts, and effectively manage them.
Such an organization recognizes and benefits from many opportunities to manage employee morale, productivity levels, and various costs related to employee turnover, new hiring processes, new training, absenteeism, increased wastes, litigation costs, damages to the corporate image, etc.
Proactively managing conflicts enables organizations to build synergistic and more harmonious working environments to nurture creativity, increase productivity, and facilitate mutual growth.
When we talk about a conflict-wise organization, it doesn’t mean that the task of conflict management should be added to the list of responsibilities of a single department such as the legal department or HR. A conflict-wise organization has a culture that is conflict-wise across the organization. This wisdom should be internalized within every employee on every level of the organization.
How to Design a Conflict-Wise Organization?
To learn about conflicts between people, one needs to start from within, through self-awareness and Contemplating. We tend to see the world outside, but seldom we take a look inside. Increasing the understanding of one’s self needs, beliefs, values, and thoughts is a foundation for effective 2-way Communications, through which, self-aware people can clearly communicate their thoughts, ideas, and needs. They can freely ask questions and receive clear answers.
The effective exchange of information enables people to have a better comprehension of each other needs and requirements. Through this process, they will learn from one another and make sense of others’ choices and beliefs. Developing this mutual understanding of values and beliefs makes it possible for people to collaborate, to engage, and to build synergy.
Barriers to Create a Conflict-Wise Organization
Organizations, by default, depend on people collaborating effectively; however, few have been truly successful in this endeavour. True collaboration requires effective and proactive conflict management; and yet, many organizations chose to ignore this and march forward.
The brutal competitive environment might have been one major factor in this. Leadership teams find it challenging to spend time on contemplating-communicating-comprehending-collaborating processes, which are indeed time-consuming and laborious. They continually require time and energy: two rare resources in today’s economy.
For years, organizational design theories and practices have been focused on developing the most efficient structures that can work like a ‘machine’ and minimize waste; and in many, discussions, dialogues, and conversations have been deemed to be redundant.
Therefore, it is safe to assume that for an organization to develop its conflict wisdom, it requires a conflict-wise leadership first: it cascades down from the top.
How Does a Conflict-Wise Organization Deal with Conflicts?
People in a conflict-wise organization are adept in identifying (and not hiding or avoiding) conflicts, and the organization provides various supports to help them learn more and be able to manage their conflicts proactively and in a constructive way.
The organization provides a safe environment so people can voice their concerns and express their feedback freely. Managers and employees have constant and frequent conversations (previously known as “meetings”) to share ideas, ask questions, and learn from one another.
For each situation, all team members collaborate in designing the solution and work together to execute the plan. They are observant to identify and eliminate barriers to participation and engagement, and they welcome diversity and different ideas.
In this environment, conflicts will be identified early on, and they will be managed through contemplating, communicating, comprehending, and collaborating processes. Very few will grow to create a dispute, hence lowering the collective stress level of the organization, and by result, the overall cost.
Conflict management is not centralized in one department, it is being practised by all members of the organization. It has become their new norm, their new status quo. Having constructive conversations about a conflicting issue will not be a burden for people to avoid; on the contrary, people will enthusiastically search for conflicts as a way to find more opportunities to create even more synergy and productivity.