Why Organizations Need to Get Better at Detecting Conflicts

Imagine a town where the streets are constantly filled with police, but where there are no burglar alarms. There may be so many police that crime is low, since every street corner is always being monitored, but the resources and manpower required to field such a large force is overwhelming. Now, imagine if that same town was able to take the same resources it spent on that overwhelming police force and instead invest in technologies and systems that creatively assist town managers in monitoring and responding to crime. Burglar alarms are strategically placed in homes and offices, and Crime Watch groups are formed throughout the town. You get the picture.

There’s “fighting crime,” and then there’s “fighting crime intelligently.” Unfortunately, every day I hear about organizations trying to manage the conflict in their organizations using what they think is efficient resource management, when really their approach resembles much more the town with a zillion cops on the street… . And I’ve found this problem even when managers thought they had the best conflict resolution system possible. Read on, and I’ll outline a few simple tips to help you make sure you are actually detecting important conflicts that may be occurring every day.

Why Isn’t Conflict Management Evolving?

Two-to-three decades ago it was novel for an organization to even be thinking about implementing conflict management systems. As with any other new concept there has been a lot of trial-and-error along the way to effective implementation. But in today’s interconnected world, there’s little excuse for business leaders to be using the, “let’s train 3% of our workforce to be mediators and assume conflicts will get resolved” approach. Yet, I see it all the time. I’m not saying that these organizations only train mediators and send them into the wilds of their offices to preach the good news about conflict resolution, but if your conflict management system is primarily or almost only focusing on training mediators or other interveners, I can guarantee you that there are higher paths available.

Moreover, a plethora of organizations continue to suffer from losses in employee morale and productivity, turnover, and other lost productivities unnecessarily, and they don’t even realize it. Think about it: If you stand in front of a fire hose and try to siphon off as much water as possible, but you only have a small siphon to use, you have no idea how much water you’re missing. If a manager has no idea how much conflict they’re missing with their current conflict management system, they need a way to gauge what conflict they are not actively addressing. They need more “Crime Watch groups,” and “burglar alarms.” What they probably don’t need are more policemen. They need to foster the necessary culture and create the necessary conduits to ensure that employees can effectively report conflict, but they don’t need more mediators or review panels. Without the right culture and conduits, not only is there no way to gauge whether the conflict management system is working at all, there’s also no way to gauge any improvement or degradation in that conflict management system’s effectiveness over time.

So, if you are frustrated with results of your conflict management system given the resources you’ve invested, are thinking about implementing a new conflict management system, or are merely looking for ways to improve what you already have, consider the following points:

Conduits and Culture, the Ultimate “Detectors”

Unlike with smoke or burglar alarms - which are mechanisms that can automatically detect and report problems so that they can be immediately addressed - conflict can never be automatically “detected” in an organization. In fact, the only real “detectors” to conflict are people, namely (1) people involved in the actual conflict; (2) people affected directly by the conflict; and, (3) people indirectly affected by, or witness to, the conflict. From a process management perspective, this means that the only way conflicts can even get into conflict management systems in the first place is if participants are both (1) motivated to report them, and (2) comfortable doing so. These points may seem overly simplistic, but once one breaks them down into their constituent elements, it becomes clear that there are a lot of necessary organizational mechanisms that need to be in place for effective conflict “detection” to occur. In particular, the two “C“‘s to effective conflict management, are “culture,” and “conduits.” Culture comes first.

1. Culture, Culture, Culture!

“Culture” has been a big buzz word in business consulting lately. “Revolutionize your corporate culture!” and “remake your culture to maximize worker productivity!” are some of the phrases I’ve seen thrown around. But when it comes to conflict management, culture really is at the core of effective conflict detection. Why? It all comes down to human nature. People naturally tend to be more nervous about being “open” when they are in conflict. As a self-protection mechanism, humans are psychologically predisposed to “shut down,” or at least to be wary of sharing their true thoughts or knowledge, when there are real or perceived misunderstandings or malevolent intentions in others. This proclivity is especially strong when a conflict may have lasting, negative consequences for the person or people involved. All of this means that in order to report a conflict in the first place (especially at work where reputation, income, and advancement opportunities may be on the line) it often takes more than there just being a mediator or ombudsperson available for someone to come forward and actually seek organizational support for their conflict. Indeed, it often comes down to the culture of the organization, which determines whether or not an employee may feel comfortable reporting a conflict to peers or superiors. So, what to do?

Here are a couple of simple yet powerful questions managers in HR, ombuds, and general operations should consider when assessing their current conflict management culture:

When an employee reports a conflict to their immediate supervisor, are there any political ramifications?

By “ramifications” I’m not simply referring to whether or not a policy exists that says, “employees who report `x’ conflict will not suffer any negative consequences.” The real question is, what are the actual, typical ramifications for employees? As senior managers, it can be difficult to gauge how our lower- and middle-managers react to employees who report concerns. Managers are often motivated to sugarcoat or otherwise reframe reported conflicts, for a variety of reasons. Some managers knowingly or unwittingly discourage conflict reporting simply because of their personality or leadership style. In effect, these leaders create a culture of hiding conflict, which can pervade entire divisions of corporations. The bottom line is that there is often no direct way to gauge actual employees’ perceptions of ramifications of their conflict reporting short of having experienced conflict management consultants intervene and conduct thorough, confidential intake surveys or interviews with employee samples, on multiple levels of an organization. Short of that kind of investment, internally administered, confidential surveys are a good first step to assessing your true “conflict culture.”

If employees are uncomfortable reporting their conflicts, why are they uncomfortable?

This may seem a simple question, but it really cuts to the core of why so many conflict management systems have been left ineffectual after their initial implementation. As I explained above, it’s important to find a way to get a sense for what employees really feel about their ability to report disputes. Unfortunately, that task becomes even more difficult in organizations where employees are already scared. But once you’ve found a method, the response of “why” employees do not feel comfortable reporting conflict should become the focus of your efforts moving forward. Common, candid responses are, “because my manager would punish me in `x’ way,” “because no one else reports them,” and, “because I don’t want to be seen as a `complainer’.” Whatever the reason, it’s important to address these underlying concerns while you train key employees in conflict resolution techniques. Remember that water hose analogy above? If you can effectively diagnose and begin to ameliorate the common causes of employee hesitancy to report conflicts, you are automatically going to more effectively assess just how much “water,” or, conflict, you have so far been unable to intake through the present management systems… . Which leads me to the second “C” in effective conflict management, “conduits.”

2. Conduits Should Enable Metrics

Once you have begun taking steps to assess your corporate conflict reporting culture, then it is time to begin establishing appropriate conduits for conflict reporting, all while being cognizant of how those conduits may effect employees’ desire to honestly assess their experiences. Implemented thoughtfully, there are many ways by which organizations can create effective ways for employees to not only report and resolve conflicts, but also to give candid feedback essential to improving the conflict management systems in place. While I will not attempt to survey the myriad different conduits that organizations of all sizes and shapes may consider, I do want to point out a few basic principles that most organizations have found effective:

Self-Help and Manager Training

Bar none, the most effective (and cheapest!) means of dispute resolution is when employees can resolve conflicts themselves - without the interventions of HR, ombuds, or other mediators. Yes, it’s important to have entities and trained employees ready to help address conflicts if they cannot be resolved independently, but if parties can be helped to learn communication and negotiation techniques and to apply those techniques on their own, everyone wins. As a second step on the “self-help” ladder, if employees’ managers can be trained in encouraging employees to bring their conflicts to light (perhaps as an informal facilitator of team conflict resolution sessions) it may take no more than a meeting or two to resolve disputes that could have escalated into full mediations or even more advanced conflict resolution processes. Best of all, it’s relatively easy to motivate managers and team members to report on their experience during these conflict resolution processes, since by definition they initiated the processes themselves.

External Chain-of-Command Authorities

This one is fairly straightforward, and speaks directly to my first few points on the “conflict reporting culture” of an organization: If an employee needs outside assistance to resolve a conflict, it’s always better if there are individuals available who are completely removed from both (1) their everyday team structures and (2) the chain of command of supervisors currently or potentially, in the future, above them in the organizational hierarchy. In some organizations, HR serves this role - but I’ve found that having HR take on front line conflict management intervention tasks can be tricky, because often HR has other functions that can incentivize employees to not bring their grievances forward (including employee evaluations, hiring, and firing). In other organizations, there are ombudsmen who serve as independent conflict resolution specialists. Regardless of what the entity is called, and even if your organization is small, it is almost always well worth the investment to hire specialized conflict resolution employees who report directly through to the CEO in their own, independent chain of command. Moreover, this setup allows employees to feel more comfortable reporting on their experiences ofconflict management systems in place, since it minimizes their natural fear to “shut down” when reputation other ramifications may be on the line.

“Circlebacks” on Conduits of Escalation

While many companies I’ve worked with often have robust (and detailed) “road maps” of how conflict progresses through their management systems, one critical element I have often found lacking is what I like to call a “circleback,” or feedback loop. Circlebacks are opportunities for participants in a conflict to circle back to less formal or otherwise previously used methods of conflict resolution. For example, if a conflict has escalated along an organization’s system to the point where it is one step from heading to an internal arbitral board, or from heading to outside trial, one or both parties should have the opportunity to convince the other party to “circleback” to mediation if they feel it might resolve all or part of the conflict. This opportunity is especially important for the claimant, who oftentimes as they push their case forward to increasingly formal, exhaustive methods of resolution reconsider their path and wish to try relatively informal approaches such as mediation or facilitated dialogue. Whatever the case may be, feedback loops give parties the essential “safety valve” they often need to solve conflicts efficaciously when the opportunity arises to do so. Circlebacks also ensure that once in a conduit of dispute resolution the conflict still has the possibility of being resolved short of continued (and increasingly expensive) escalation. Finally, circlebacks are a means of helping employees feel more comfortable entering into a conflict resolution process (i.e., reporting conflict) in the first place, since they know there are “safety valves” they can hit if they want to do so.

The primary takeaways here are these: You’re on the right track to effectively managing the costs of your conflicts if you: (1) actively seek out what conflicts you’re missing; (2) have a culture that encourages open presentation of conflicts as they arise; and, (3) have at least the essential conduit elements of self-help support, independent conflict reporting and management, and “circlebacks.” Of course, this article is far from a catch-all for conflict management essentials, but it is a broad outline for some of the most oft-missed elements of conflict management systems I see in companies today. It’s amazing to me the number of managers whose eyes pop wide open when I give some simple examples of how much time, money, and energy conflict wastes in many and variegated organizations: If you want to do a good job managing your costs of conflict, these tips are a solid starting point.

Zachary P. Ulrich is currently a researcher for Pepperdine School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. He holds a JD, Masters in Dispute Resolution, and Masters in Psychology (Clinical). Zach is an alumnus of General Electric’s highly-esteemed Financial Management Program, where he held several financial analysis positions of increasing responsibility and completed a graduate-level education in business management and operations. He has published over twenty-five articles and commentaries on organizational conflict resolution and mediation psychology.