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A Practical Guide to Comprehensive Conflict Management Systems

Many organizations have embraced alternative dispute resolution. Yet, they continue to search for more comprehensive approaches that help them not only to resolve conflicts that have escalated into disputes but also to manage risk, manage relationships and manage their bottom line. Is the answer to this search integrated conflict management systems (ICMS)? Certainly much has been said, and written, about them. Even a cursory review of the some of the most frequently cited sources (see Endnote 1), however, reveals that the definition and scope of integrated conflict management systems is not yet fixed or uniform. Stepping into this conversation, we propose below a formulation of ICMS that in our view best serves the broader needs and objectives of today’s organizations. It is based on our experience implementing such systems and has the additional beneficial attribute of making sensible use of conflict management experts and expertise while at the same time strengthening the organization’s own resources to manage conflict.

In order to distinguish ICMS from its illustrious subset, dispute resolution, we first describe what, in this formulation, we mean by the terms ‘conflict’ and ‘conflict management.’ Thereafter we define ‘conflict management system’ and, finally, an ‘integrated conflict management system.’ We include in this discussion some of the lessons learned from our experience with ICMS implementation within organizations.

Conflict – Typically organizations allocate the majority of ‘conflict’ resources to hierarchical conflict – those disputes that arise between supervisor and employee or labor and management – and disputes arising between the organization and external stakeholders. While this tendency is reinforced by well-known legal and economic incentives, there are no obvious correlative incentives specifically for dealing with horizontal or organizational conflict – peer to peer conflict or conflict within and between internal groups (see Endnote 2). Yet some of the most destructive or distracting conflicts within organizations are not hierarchical. At the least, such conflicts can sap energy and morale, delay or undermine decisions, marginalize valuable individuals or ideas or affect working relationships. At worst, issues or concerns that fail to surface or continue to fester may go to the heart of the organization’s mission. The sources of conflict may be structural, relational or arise from differences concerning data, interests or values (see Endnote 3). Accordingly, our definition of conflict is broad. It includes all of the differences between or among individuals or groups within an organization that are appropriately cause for organizational concern.

Management – In some contexts, ‘conflict management’ is used synonymously with ‘dispute resolution’. When the definition is circumscribed by this equivalence, a mature conflict management system is defined as a dispute resolution system that is high functioning and comprehensive. It goes without saying that any approach to conflict management should include, as a subset of the whole, an updated spectrum of dispute resolution options ranging from informal interest-based processes to more formal rights-based processes and power-based decisions. However, dispute resolution processes alone do not adequately ‘manage’ the universe of conflicts that affect organizational performance. Organizations that take a more comprehensive approach in effect strive to become ‘conflict competent’ organizations. In conflict competent organizations there is an expectation that each individual will feel responsible for recognizing and responding to conflict and the organization will provide him or her with the skills and confidence to do so. Issues and concerns can be raised safely and with confidence that they will be respectfully heard and responsibly addressed whether these issues are between peers, within the hierarchy, within or between groups or even organizational in scope.

It is important to note that conflict management does not mean the prevention or elimination of conflict. Nor does it mean that all issues are resolved. Rather, the assumption is that conflict is a normal consequence of human interaction in organizations where inevitably people have differing perspectives, personalities, values and goals. At best, the differences that people bring to the table strengthen the organization by providing different perspectives and the genesis of new ideas and approaches. At worst, conflict saps resources and undermines morale or achievement of organizational objectives. Either way, conflict competency means that conflict is managed so that requisite discipline is maintained while issues and differences surface without fear of reprisal and in ways that do not undermine organizational effectiveness. Issues can then be heard respectfully and addressed if and as appropriate and as close to the origin as possible. Additionally, a conflict competent organization manages conflict so that it can fully benefit from different ideas and perspectives and has early knowledge of sensitive internal issues, ideas and concerns.

Organizations that have chosen a more comprehensive approach to conflict management have done so for a variety of reasons. Most often cited is the need to minimize the drain on resources, both tangible and intangible, of conflicts that fester or escalate. Others focus on organizational effectiveness, retention of good employees, more productive meetings and more sustainable decisions, increased employee engagement in organizational performance and problem solving, better relationships and team work. The environment that conflict competency fosters can also stimulate innovation and lay the foundation of trust and dialogue necessary to successfully manage change.

Additionally, a robust conflict management system may be viewed as a critical element of risk management. In many, if not most, organizational failures there is at least one person in the organization who was aware of the origin of the problem or the problem itself and either did not speak up or was not heard by someone who could act on critical information. A mature conflict management system creates an environment in which issues and concerns are respectfully and effectively raised and creates structures that ensure that they are appropriately tracked and elevated so that, in effect, the organization “knows what it knows.”

These same attributes foster employee engagement and appeal to the typical preference of members of the millennial generation for dialogue and feedback as well as their reported inclination towards collaboration. To the extent that there is a generational shift in attitudes toward speaking up and social connection, a conflict management system that builds capacity for active listening, constructive dialogue and cooperative problem solving and provides appropriate options for raising and tracking issues enables an organization to use the characteristics of this generation to its advantage and avoid being blindsided when issues are raised outside the organization or are reflected in essentially pocket vetoes or attrition.

System – Achieving organizational conflict competency requires a multifaceted approach. This is where the concept of ‘systems’ comes in. In simplest terms, a system is a set of separate parts that work together in an interrelated and interdependent manner to achieve an objective or a number of objectives. Constituent parts may be called subsystems. Building an optimally effective system requires clearly defined objectives, a plan including inputs and desired outputs, the execution of the plan and feedback or evaluative mechanisms. Systems are dynamic, initially requiring maturation and, over time, continuous feedback and improvement. Execution should be viewed as an ongoing process rather than an event (see Endnote 4).

A conflict management system designed to achieve conflict competency is understandably complex. It includes three main subsystems: structure, skills and organizational support. It should also be noted that an ICMS serves all classifications and levels of the organization. While their prerogatives, issues and concerns are different in significant aspects from frontline employees, the needs of executives and middle level management are often overlooked when conflict management systems are designed.

ICMS structure consists primarily of processes and tools that are provided by the organization to enable issues to be raised and addressed. This subsystem begins, naturally, with the supervisory/management apparatus and may include options ranging from the most informal to formal adversarial processes. The type, range and number of options would naturally depend on the scale and needs of the particular organization. Multiple options are created to serve different purposes (ranging from referral to resolution), different kinds of issues, and individuals with different preferences and vulnerabilities. Optimally, those options which support and enable individuals to raise and address issues early and informally will be or become the preferred options and their users numerically the most prevalent. Where some of the workforce is represented by labor unions, the labor management relationship and collective bargaining contracts become part of the ‘structure’ of the system. Likewise, other existing assets such as an ombudsman office or employee hotline are parts of an ICMS structure. Importantly, the ICMS structure should enable the organization to recognize issues early, to identify and address significant concerns or system-wide trends and to track the efficacy and efficiency of the system.

Skill building is an equally critical subsystem of a comprehensive conflict management system. Conflict management skills would fall generally under the umbrellas of communication, dispute resolution and cooperative problem solving. In a conflict competent organization everyone has certain basic conflict management skills and should share a common language around conflict and awareness of rights and principles. Additional skills training should be provided that is job specific, depending on rank in the organization and other attributes or requirements of the particular job. Optimally, those tasked with supervisory/management or ‘helping’ responsibilities should acquire the awareness, skills and tools that would enable them to be helpful bystanders who might informally facilitate better communication or problem solving whether in meetings or when conflicts among peers or subordinates are observed. These skills complement and support rather than replace other leadership principles (see Endnote 5).

While in a mature system most conflict is managed informally by the participants, internal capacity for managing conflict might also be enhanced by training a limited number of internal practitioners such as mediators, facilitators, ombuds and conflict management coaches. Developing some internal practitioners enables the organization itself to provide third-party assistance when needed, although it is important to recognize when additional external expertise may be necessary and when internal neutrals are not perceived as such. Additionally, the heightened expertise of practitioners adds to the knowledge base of the organization.

Integration – The third subsystem of an ICMS, after structure and skills, is organizational support which, in turn, consists of several subsystems – communication, leadership, coordination, safeguards and evaluation. These subsystems, when combined, foster “integration and alignment” of the overall system. In a conflict competent organization, conflict management is not considered a separate initiative or program. Rather, its principles and practices become part of the fabric of the organization and its values, culture and daily life, rather than the latest management fad or dependent on who sits where in the organization. In order for this to happen, conflict management is integrated over time into all of the drivers of culture and practice in the organization, while messages that undermine ICMS objectives are aligned or eliminated.

Integration means that all the constituent parts of the system work together to achieve the objectives of the system in the most effective and efficient way possible. Ultimately the workings, inputs and outputs of the system should be both transparent and seamless to end-users and organizational leadership. Illustratively, conflict management principles and practices should be integrated into job specific competencies and performance expectations and these, in turn, should be integrated into awards and recognition, promotion potential and performance management on the ground. Integration of the ICMS into policies and directives and, in general, into how the business of the organization is actually done will drive organizational conflict competency and maturation of the conflict management system.

An aspect of integration is alignment. Alignment builds consistency. For example, when training modules that deal with the various conflict management skills emanate from different departments and yet use similar language or models or cross reference, their impact on culture and behaviors is amplified.

Every organization has a variety of ways it transmits values and expectations to its employees. One of these is through organizational communications tools and strategies. Existing and newly targeted communication vehicles can be powerful drivers of conflict management principles, in particular those critical to creating a safe environment in which issues can be raised and addressed, are embedded in relevant messaging. Likewise, inconsistent messaging, whether formal or informal, can easily and entirely undermine ICMS objectives.

Nothing is more critical to ICMS implementation than leadership. As important as visible leadership support for conflict management principles and practices is the model that leadership sets and the behavior it fosters among subordinates through positive and negative reinforcement. A leader who engages in active listening or confidently encourages dialogue can set a powerful example of respectful and effective problem solving. At the same time, such a leader creates an environment in which issues and perspectives critical to organizational success are not submerged until they escalate with negative impact on a wider scale. Conversely, a leader who sets a negative example can undermine conflict management principles and safeguards in ways that no amount of organizational communication or training can surmount.

Coordination is the component that drives ICMS maturation and gradually builds organizational competency through alignment and integration. Coordination ensures that all relevant elements support conflict management principles and practices and that resources expended are, in essence, getting the ‘biggest bang for the buck.’

The locus of ICMS coordination differs from organization to organization. In some a separate office is established to drive the design and development process. In others, primary responsibility resides with existing positions or offices either on the administrative or operational side of the organization. Either way, in the long run it is essential that there be visible and knowing leadership support for ICMS implementation at the highest level and on both the operational and administrative sides of the house.

To some degree, the locus may dictate the mode of implementation, or vice versa. For example, in some organizations where the ICMS is driven out of a designated conflict management office, laying the foundation for conflict competency may be initiated through strategic interventions. In these interventions, skilled mediators, facilitators, coaches or ombuds work with key leaders to address longstanding or pressing issues while, transparently, transferring conflict management skills and tools and building credibility for alternative approaches. Such interventions might include or be followed by training, team building or strategic planning and are reinforced by the organization’s overall strategy for culture change and support. Other organizations, for example where the ICMS is driven out of an office with more generalized responsibility for organizational development or policy, may initiate ICMS implementation through a more top down approach, e.g., changing policies, training leadership, using communication and performance management tools to build and reinforce expectations. It should be noted, however, that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive and, indeed, successful implementation will ultimately include elements of both.

While it is also critical, particularly in its formative years, that the ICMS have a person with vision and leadership qualities to drive implementation, every effort should be made to align the ICMS design and development process itself with conflict management principles, thereby, in effect, practicing what the ICMS preaches. Ideally, the design process should be collaborative with representatives of ICMS structural components, stakeholders and end users engaged in the design process as early as possible, helping to set goals and standards, developing plans and strategies, offering and reviewing data and feedback and providing oversight and direction (see Endnote 6). This is critical not only to achieve buy-in and broad understanding but also to ensure that decisions are continually subject to the ‘reality check’ offered by those who will be implementing and using the system. Some organizations establish steering committees or equivalent groups that are supported by the office with primary responsibility for the ICMS. A steering committee might be chartered as a decision making body while a designated office or offices or a ‘coordination’ committee are charged with implementation of the steering committee’s decisions.

The impact of decisions made around ICMS coordination is not insignificant. Fundamental changes in organizational behavior and belief require vision and drive. Accordingly, implementation of initiatives such as conflict management systems often are driven at the outset by strong leaders with vision and small ‘p’ political skills and credibility. Care should be given to building both organization-wide integration and the infrastructure necessary for coordination that will sustain the ICMS over time and after the founding “champions” have moved on.

Safeguards form another subsystem within organizational support that is both crosscutting and essential for ICMS functioning. This subsystem consists of all the mechanisms that the organization puts in place to warrant that it is safe to use the skills and tools that are available, including the supervisory/management structure, for raising and addressing issues and concerns. Typically such safeguards are articulated in internal policies. However, if such policies do not have teeth or, stated differently, if negative consequences for abusing these safeguards are delivered infrequently or indifferently, then the system will falter no matter how much in the way of resources has been devoted to its design and implementation.

The final component of organizational support and a prerequisite for any high functioning system is ongoing evaluation or assessment – for validation, for ensuring that system-wide or critical issues are identified and addressed, and to enable continuous improvement. Once the organization has established its goals for the ICMS, it is important to consider how it will measure progress toward achieving them. The measures of success may not be immediately obvious and may even be counterintuitive, particularly inasmuch as conflict is inevitable and as employees feel more comfortable raising issues, there may be more issues raised initially rather than fewer. Each organization’s goals should be realistic and uniquely tailored to its needs. Ideally, assessment of progress in ICMS implementation would be designed to piggyback on existing measures of organizational climate and performance. Most importantly, any assessment strategy should recognize that implementation is an ongoing and evolutionary process. In this regard, an assessment design should be incremental with successive phases and measures changing gradually from activities (e.g., numbers and types of training) to outcomes (e.g., changes in employee survey results, the stage at which issues are raised or resolved). Each phase should be characterized by progressively higher standards reflecting greater organizational conflict competency.

An ICMS that serves the broader needs and objectives of today’s organizations goes far beyond dispute resolution systems to include preventative elements that provide skills and tools for better informed and implemented decisions, good lateral and horizontal communication, and strong relationships characterized by trust. A solid ICMS structure ensures that issues and concerns can be raised and addressed before they escalate, and as appropriate, are tracked so that serious or systemic issues are identified. By providing skills, tools and organizational support, the ICMS promotes and facilitates conflict competency within an organization. It also enables the organization and individuals to recognize when expert assistance from conflict management professionals is necessary and make such assistance available. The best ICMS design, in our opinion, should be multifaceted, integrated, tailored to the organization and its culture, and built incrementally over time. Only then will it achieve its goals of reducing the costs of conflict, improving productivity, strengthening relationships and supporting a healthy organizational culture.


[1] These include: Gosline, A., et al (2001). Guidelines for the Design of Integrated Conflict Management Systems within Organizations. Washington, DC: A Report Prepared by the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution ADR in the Workplace Initiative, Cornell Studies in Conflict and Dispute Resolution, No. 4; Costantino, C.A. & Merchant C.S. (1996). Designing Conflict Management Systems: A guide to creating productive and healthy organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass; Hasson, R. H., & Slaikeu, K. A. (1998). Controlling the Costs of Conflict: How to Design a System for Your Organization. New Jersey: Jossey-Bass; Lipsky, D. B., Fincher, R., & Seeber, R. L. (2003). Emerging Systems for Managing Workplace Conflict: Lessons from American Corporations for Managers and Dispute Resolution Professionals. New Jersey: Jossey-Bass; Rowe, M. P. (1997). Dispute Resolution in the non-union environment: An evolution toward integrated systems for conflict management? in S. E. Gleason (ed.) Workplace Dispute Resolution: Directions for the Twenty-First Century (pp. 79-100). East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

The authors want to acknowledge our gratitude to the late Jennifer Lynch, Q.C. for her contribution to this dialogue and her pioneering articulation and implementation of conflict management systems in organizations. See, e.g., Lynch, J. (2003). Integrated Conflict Management Programs Emerge as an Organization Development Strategy, CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation, vol. 21, no. 5; Lynch, J. (2001). Beyond ADR: A Systems Approach to Conflict Management, Negotiation Journal, vol. 17, issue 3.

[2] The absence of statutory recourse or other conflict management options for dealing with non-hierarchical disputes may be one of the factors leading to the proliferation of so-called ‘hostile work environment’ disputes making their way into equal employment opportunity processes.  In these cases, an individual may allege that the employer’s failure to act when there is conflict among peers is a violation of the discrimination statutes as a way of drawing attention to the situation, whether or not what actually transpired is ultimately found to be a violation cognizable under equal employment laws and regulations.

[3] Moore, C. The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict, 3rd Ed. (2003). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

[4] An example of a system would be a public bus system. Its objectives may be to reduce auto traffic in a metropolitan area and provide service for those without ready access to other means of transportation while being both safe and financially self-sustaining. The purchase of buses and hiring of drivers alone are prerequisites but these would not by themselves constitute a bus system. A bus system would additionally include various ‘subsystems’ such as a scheduling and routing system, a maintenance system, a procurement system, a payment and finance system, a personnel system including job requirements, promotion processes, training, performance management and rewards and recognition.  Optimally, all of these subsystems should be aligned in purpose and content and mutually reinforcing. This ensures seamless performance and, for example, that each subsystem is contributing to safety in a consistent, coordinated and, therefore, efficient way.  Even if the bus system is built precisely according to plan, however, mechanisms would have to be in place to coordinate and evaluate so that it is achieving its objectives initially and as changes occur over time and, if not, to ensure that appropriate changes are made.


[5] See, e.g., Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, Flanagan, T and Runde, C (John Wiley & Sons, 2007).

[6] Gosline, supra note 1.


Carole Houk

Carole Houk is a conflict management consultant and attorney specializing in the design of integrated conflict management systems for businesses and government, with a particular focus on the healthcare industry.  Ms. Houk works with organizations to develop their capacity to become conflict competent. Her client-focused firm provides consulting and strategies… MORE >


Deborah Katz

Deborah Katz is a conflict management specialist, who also guides organizations toward achieving a proactive, strategic systems approach to conflict by building skills, processes, internal support, and strategies for ongoing assessment.  Deborah is a lawyer who has led labor and employee relations initiatives and developed conflict management programs at the… MORE >

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