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Are Your Organization’s Conflict Management Practices an Integrated Conflict Management System?

In this article we will provide a checklist that will help you assess the gaps between your organization’s conflict management practices and an Integrated Conflict Management System.

As the trend towards negotiating and mediating grows, wave after wave of lawyers is taking training in interest based negotiation and mediation. Many lawyers are now describing themselves as “collaborative lawyers” and committing themselves to taking an interest based, rather than adversarial approach to litigating and negotiating disputes.

Most of America’s corporations have tried ADR, 1 some regularly use it, and in some provincial jurisdictions, a mediation session is mandatory for all litigation cases.

Yet as practical and effective as ADR can be, it still serves only the “back end” of disputing, usually long after the dispute arose.

The field of ADR is now moving to the “front end” of disputing, through the introduction of methods for preventing unnecessary conflict; and where conflict does arise, responsibly managing it. The new terminology that encompasses the entire range of prevention, management, and all forms of resolution including ADR, is “Conflict Management” (CM).

When organizations go beyond ad hoc, case-by-case dispute resolution and turn their focus to systematically integrating all of these approaches into their day-to-day business, plus add processes that shift their conflict culture towards prevention, the new phenomenon is called an “Integrated Conflict Management System” (ICMS)2.

Integrated Conflict Management Systems are leading edge developments and are becoming a key part of organizational development strategies, because they are understood to be essential elements of initiatives designed to transform organizational culture.

What differentiates a system from case-by-case approaches is that in addition to dispute resolution techniques, a system has features that focus on the prevention of unnecessary conflict and (when conflict does arise) on managing conflict. Disputes are often simply the symptom of an underlying problem. An ICMS lays the foundation for addressing the causes of the conflict, rather than just the dispute.

“Conflict” is a word that encompasses all disputes and much more. Conflict denotes any difference, problem, tension or dispute experienced by one or more parties, whether or not the conflict has been brought to the attention of the others. Conflict can be generally said to have become a dispute after there has been some stressed interaction and position-taking by the parties. 3

What makes a system? Model + Fostering and Sustaining Environment

When an organization takes a systems approach to conflict management, it introduces two key components:

1. It develops or improves its dispute resolution model.
2. It creates a “Fostering and Sustaining Environment” (“FSE”)

1. It develops or improves its dispute resolution model It starts by developing or modernizing its basic dispute resolution procedures. It selects a variety of dispute resolution procedures that it intends to use, and organizes them in a low-to-high cost sequence. – a “dispute resolution model”.
Figure 1 shows a generic dispute resolution model.

Figure 1:

2. It creates a “Fostering and Sustaining Environment”

On its own, a dispute resolution model is not a system.

The dispute resolution model is, of course, a sine qua non of a system, but it is only one of two core components (Figure 2). To the model are added various supporting processes and structures that are introduced across the organization to facilitate success. The resulting environment is called “a Fostering and Sustaining Environment”.

The individual initiatives and options that nurture a Fostering and Sustaining Environment are called “Fostering and Sustaining Elements”. They are organization-wide practices and support structures that assist the organization in:

  • preventing and managing conflict and
  • creating a culture of conflict competence- the creation of an environment where all who experience conflict feel comfortable to raise it, knowing it will be dealt with respectfully and responsibly.

Figure 2:

For example, managers and employees in relevant positions are provided skills and resources in order to focus on prevention and early resolution – and they are also held accountable to do so. The system constantly reinforces the concept that conflict management means much more than dispute resolution and that interest-based language and behaviour must become everyday practice. It creates “an atmosphere and culture where all conflict may be safely raised and where persons will feel confident that their concerns will be heard, respected and acted upon, with support provided. The “default reaction” shifts from one of shrugging off or escalating conflict, to accepting it positively and encouraging early, low level solutions.” 4

A checklist to help you conduct a gap analysis between your organization’s practices and respected best practices:

Organizations can select and customize from a long list of Fostering and Sustaining Elements and create their own. However, in order to meet the full definition of an Integrated Conflict Management System, the system must incorporate most aspects from all of the following four categories of fostering and sustaining elements:

1. Corporate commitment, evidenced by such things as:

  • Sincere and visible championship by leaders by leadership from all stakeholder groups (e.g. management/labour or management/customer/ industry/ supplier);
  • Corporate mission, vision and values that are consistent with a conflict management philosophy
  • A corporate-wide policy of conflict management: Organization-wide encouragement, requirement and support of “conflict competent” behaviour that emphasizes prevention of unnecessary conflict, identification and management of conflict, and earliest possible resolution;
  • Conflict management as a separate core competency
  • Institutionalized incentives that reward good conflict management practices and discourage and penalize bad conflict management practices; e.g.
    – performance measurement
    – costs of litigation and settlement allocated to responsible unit
  • Resources, both human and financial.

2. Structures that support implementation and institutionalization, and trust in the system; for example:

  • A conflict management central co-ordinator with high level reporting. In larger organizations, this should be a dedicated person or office. The importance of high level reporting cannot be overstated.
  • Stakeholder participation in the development
  • Conflict management system governance by an oversight body of stakeholders
  • Access to a confidential, neutral person (organizational ombudsperson) and support from other knowledgeable persons to whom people can go for advice, coaching, referring, problem-solving – and listening, which is the most used “option” in a conflict management system;
  • Strategic communication of the initiative with consistent messages and consistent terminology
  • Documentation of conflict management policies and codes of practice;
  • The ability to adapt the system and to make continuous improvements;
  • Safeguards such as voluntariness, privacy, confidentiality, impartiality of neutrals, protection of rights, respect for diversity, protection against reprisal, access to disclosure and relevant information, availability and right to accompaniment and representation.
  • System monitoring and evaluation.

3. Internal capacity building:

  • Training, skills- building learning programs and coaching to create capacity to deliver services; to create awareness and understanding of the system; and to create capacity in all relevant stakeholders to understand, recognize, and acknowledge conflict, to manage relationships in a conflict competent manner, and to resolve disputes.

4. Daily practices that encourage a front-end approach to conflict management:

  • Open door practice
  • Interest based management style
  • Projects that are launched with conflict assessments and partnering workshops
  • Enhanced interface with customers/suppliers/industry/regulators
  • Constant alignment of all corporate initiatives, communications and policies with the goals of the integrated conflict management system.

End Notes

1 Lipsky, David B. and Seeber, Ronald L. The Appropriate Resolution of Corporate Disputes: A Report on the Growing Use of ADR by U.S. Corporations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell/PERC Institute on Conflict Resolution, 1998. p.23

2 We attribute this phrase to Dr. Mary Rowe, ombudsman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from whom we first heard it. See also, “Designing Integrated Conflict Management Systems within Organizations- Guidelines for Practitioners and Decision-Makers within Organizations,” Cornell Studies in Conflict Resolution, No 4 in the series, 2002.

3 Examples of conflicts that are not (yet) disputes would include: an employee who feels that the supervisor is showing bias toward another but who says nothing; an employee who shares a work station with another and is highly irritated by noise or messiness but says nothing; a supplier to a corporation who fees badly treated but chooses not to complain for fear of being cut off from further contracts.

4 This article is excerpted from, “The Emergence of Integrated Conflict Management Systems as an Organizational Development Strategy. Publication pending, U of Toronto Press, 2003, further develops concepts originally written by Jennifer Lynch, Q.C. See Lynch, J. “ADR and Beyond: A Systems Approach to Conflict Management” Negotiation Journal, 2001, Volume 17, Number 3, July 2001, p. 207.


Jennifer Lynch

Jennifer Lynch, is Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission MORE >

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