This article first appeared in Fall
2002 newsletter of The Canadian International Institute of Applied
The design and implementation of integrated conflict management systems within organizations is an innovative and challenging area of conflict management practice. It requires a new and broader conceptualization of conflict and how it is addressed within a workplace. This article explores three lessons that we, in our role as system design practitioners, have found essential to fostering sustainable changes in the way organizations approach conflict: diligence, consistency, and balance.
What are integrated conflict management systems? In brief, they are systems designed to provide an organization with an all-encompassing set of practices that help to prevent, manage, and resolve destructive conflict, and to foster healthier workplaces and work relations. By focusing on organizational effectiveness, integrated systems are broader in scope than programs geared towards legal risk management or the resolution of conflicts alone. An integrated systems approach seeks to institutionalize interest-based approaches in workplaces and business practices. These systems seek to provide individuals and groups with the knowledge and skills to work proactively and constructively in identifying possible conflict situations and preventing their escalation. When this does not occur, they provide parties with access to confidential third parties who can listen and guide them towards resolution.
Lesson 1: Diligence
Entering an organization’s dialogue on conflict, whether you are an internal or external consultant, requires diligence in acquiring a thorough understanding of your “client system” and the needs and interests of each of its constituent parts.
This concern goes beyond focusing on the needs of the ‘client’ who provides your pay cheque. We have learned that the ability to foster sustainable change comes from recognizing each organization and its stakeholders as together being the ‘client system.’ Systems are complex and their characteristics can be difficult to grasp. They are always made up of different parts – but the parts are interrelated in such a way that the whole is greater than the parts taken separately. As such, similar to an intervenor who focuses on the relationship between individuals or groups (as opposed to advocating for an individual or group itself), the systems designer focuses on the relationships within an organization; those between the organization and its stakeholders; and those between stakeholder groups. One of the main challenges for the system design practitioner, which lies beyond the scope of this article, is to bring the professed and the real ‘cultures’ of organizational conflict into alignment. This means that through his or her efforts, the system designer is called upon to help an organization to integrate the values and practices it espouses on paper (policy, guidelines and other strategic documents) into its daily business interactions.
Having developed a deep understanding of the ‘client system,’ the systems designer seeks to foster meaningful and sustainable change by designing a conflict management system appropriate to the needs of all stakeholders. In order to achieve this, it is critical from the outset to undertake the design process in an interest-based manner. This is a challenging and ongoing process that requires consistency and balance in each effort made.
Lesson 2: Consistency
Those involved in the design process must be consistent in their inclusiveness, in listening, and in welcoming dissent. In other words, we as design practitioners and the design process itself must model the behavior we are encouraging the system to adopt.
In practice, this principle means that we must engage members of various organizational constituencies in a participative process of conflict management system design, and not arrive as “experts” who will diagnose organizational problems and prescribe a “fix.” There are several reasons for following this practice. First, if we believe that collaborative, interest-based processes are the most effective options for addressing unhealthy conflict and creating healthy workplaces the majority of the time, we should also consider the extent to which these processes can be used to foster a new organization system for managing conflict – and act accordingly. The strengths of interest-based processes – the ability to uncover the interests of different groups within the organization, the control of the decision by the interested parties, and their involvement in seeking solutions – are real strengths in attempting to create a new system that will be adopted and sustainable within a particular organizational context. Facilitating a broad scale effort that helps the client system to decide what information to collect and diagnose, understand patterns of conflict within the organization, and make decisions together about how they want to handle it will help foster a broad commitment to a plan of action.
Second, despite our familiarity as professionals with interest-based mechanisms for addressing conflict, we should realize that organization members might have relatively little experience with them – especially in the work context. They might not believe in their effectiveness nor trust them to be fair and non-threatening. If we wish to persuade or convince those in the organization of the value of adopting these processes as an integral and important part of their conflict management system, we need to model how effectively they work. What better opportunity could there be for demonstrating effectiveness than to successfully use an interest-based process to reconcile the differing interests of different groups in the creation of a conflict management system? What better start to changing the organizational culture for addressing conflict than involving them in a new culture yourself? These efforts will best ensure that the system created will be appropriate for the organization, will be sustained by the organization, and will be used by its members.
Lesson 3: Balance
Remaining objective and unbiased – and appearing objective and unbiased — is essential to your success in helping to facilitate change. Organization members will always have concerns about bias, particularly when you are working in a highly polarized organization. To counter these concerns, a designer must balance each effort to meet with or hear from one group of stakeholders with parallel efforts addressed to others. The designer must treat each group with respect and include each as a valued participant in reaching a joint solution.
In many ways, achieving and maintaining this balance is a logical extension of consistency in including organizational stakeholders in the design process and valuing their contributions. But ensuring a balance in your efforts and a balance in their contributions goes beyond mere inclusion in ways that can be crucial to success. In a unionized organization for instance, there must be balance in your relationship with management and with unions, whether at local, regional or national levels. If your efforts are not balanced, they may be seen as biased in favour of one side and you will be seen as a tool to support that side in achieving its agenda. Such perceptions and the lack of trust that can follow them will be fatal to the creation of a program that, to be effective, must result from the involvement and obtain the support of a broad group stakeholders within the organizational system.
At all times this balance is fragile. Particularly in situations of low trust within the organization, it is easy for those representing a particular stakeholder group to believe that the group is being overlooked or taken for granted. For this reason, a designer must consistently and continually check that an appropriate balance is maintained. In addition, anticipating that the ‘players’ at the decision-making levels will change throughout the design or implementation stages will help ensure that you broaden your base of support with as many individuals and groups as possible in order to help counter-balance any ripple effects of such a change.
It is a challenge for both the designer and the organization to design and implement a sustainable conflict management system. The challenge can be met by developing a careful and participatory design and implementation process, guided by diligence, consistency and balance. And if the challenge is met, the organization can benefit from an unusual opportunity to improve its work environment and build collaborative strength and effectiveness.
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