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Hiding in Plain Sight

Why Do Informal Conflict Management Processes Arise?
— an excerpt from the article “Hiding in Plain Sight.”

            In order to better understand informal conflict management processes, we should ask why they arise.  The examples below suggest several reasons that employees or members initiate processes on their own. One reason for the emergence of a conflict management system is that formal methods of resolving conflict prove inadequate.  For instance, Lipsky, Seeber and Fincher (2003) report that U.S. corporations use ADR processes “on a contingency basis” as opposed to general policy (p. 86).  The authors find that while many of the large U.S. corporations have experimented with ADR processes, less than 20% claim to use them frequently or very frequently (p. 83).  Formal methods may be nonexistent, unknown to members, or known to be unsatisfactory.

            Speaking at the 2006 meeting of the Association of Conflict Resolution (10.27.06), Dr. Lipsky noted the awesome barriers to the institutionalization of formal systems: top management turns over so often that a formal system doesn’t have time to become a permanent part of organizational procedures; the costs of a formal system are clear, the benefits harder to determine; there is an absence of benchmarks to designate success; people hesitate to use the system for fear of reprisal.  Replying to a question about why formal systems experience strong resistance in corporate settings, Lipsky noted that the tradition of litigation is strong and that some organizational stakeholders are wary of conflict management systems.  For instance, Human Resource personnel sometimes see a formal system as an evidence of their failure.  Given the lack of success instituting formal systems in corporate settings, observers anticipate that informal methods will prevail.

            A second reason for initiating an informal conflict management procedure may be that members find their needs are not being met by the formal organization.  In a senior residence community in a large city, the security of residents was supposedly insured by a caretaker on duty 24/7.   However, faced with rising costs, building management began to cut back on the caretaker’s hours until he was actually part-time; management assigned him tasks that often took him away from the door.  As a result, visitors who sought access to the building found themselves standing outside the locked doors for long periods. Both residents and visitors began to complain but facility managers said that they had no intension of hiring a door monitor.

            Conflict escalated as residents complained and discussed how they might unite as a group. Initially, there was no response. The seniors changed their tactic to one of self help. Since most of the seniors were retired, they decided to take turns monitoring the door during the day.  They kept a list of residents and only opened the door to those with identification and “valid” reasons for visiting residents.  Unfortunately, the self-help tactic failed when one of the door monitors let in someone who did not belong. The manager shut down the processes devised by residents.

            However, the story doesn’t end here. The conflict once again escalated with complaints about the building manager. One of the residents wrote an anonymous letter to one of the city officials complaining about how residents were being treated (private action tactic). Now, what was hidden became public. The mayor requested that the facilities manager create formal processes to address resident complaints.

            Another reason for the occurrence of informal procedures relates to organizational culture.  The authors have spent considerable time working in and consulting with church organizations; church conflict is not likely to be expressed openly. It appears that members of congregations are typically reluctant to directly oppose their leader’s approach.  In a number of religious organizations where the authors have consulted, complaints and disputes are aired “offline,” most typically in the parking lots after the meeting when the minister has gone home.  This happens so often that, among ADR (Alternate Dispute Resolution) professionals who serve religious organizations, it’s known as ‘the parking lot meeting.’ Informal processes give voice, power, and status to people who lack influence in the organizational structure. Informal processes balance the effects created by structural hierarchy.

            Church conflict involves avoidance in other countries as well.  A social worker in the Caribbean reports, “If there are complaints to the pastor/priest about a church member who is leading a committee, the pastor typically avoids dealing with the complaint because to do so might require confrontation that might distance or alienate the member.  Often the pastor is so busy that he is grateful for anyone who willingly takes over pastoral responsibilities.  He might reason that he cannot afford to lose that person or find a replacement for his leadership and is likely to explain away either the event or its importance” (Nathaniel, 2006).  So many activities of churches depend on volunteers; it appears that both members and leaders find informal ways to complain and dismiss conflicts.

            Informal approaches also seem to flourish in authoritarian organizations.  In one West Indies republic, there are both formal and informal methods of conflict resolution within the Police Department.  The formal methods include making an official complaint to an immediate supervisor, approaching the Police Welfare Association for intervention, and disciplinary action.  With only such heavy-handed methods available, it is common for officers to manage conflicts through avoidance.  Rather than use the public, formal system, officers are more likely to abuse their sick leave, refuse to carry out official duties, such attending court.  Arriving late to relieve a disliked officer is not an uncommon way of expressing conflict.  There are many requests for transfers and vacation leave.  As might be imagined, such passive aggressive behavior does not lead to conflict resolution or healthy working relationships.  The police force is known for its internal tensions and negative performance (Rodney, 2007).

In addition, organizational change is happening at an accelerating pace.  As members are required to accomplish more, faster, with fewer staff and resources, they search for and identify ways of resolving time-consuming conflict.  For instance, one of the authors was conducting training with a federal agency that was tasked with a number of quarterly reports to management.  One of the participants complained about the number of hours he had to spend each quarter writing the most burdensome of these reports.  Another member of the agency raised his hand, saying, “I haven’t filed that report in years—forget it!”  In this case, employees had an informal agreement (forget the report) that reduced both intrapersonal conflict for the harassed employee and interpersonal conflict between him and management.  As might be expected, none of those present continued to file the report.

            Finally, organizational members may engage in informal methods to relieve the tedium of work.  It is reported that many instances of computer hacking and the deliberate insertion of computer viruses were instigated by bored employees.  Sprouse (1992) reports that the actions of such employees, such as putting bubble bath in the water fountain, and cutting wires to the Muzak system when unwanted songs were repeated.  A Toys R Us floor manager manufactured and sold his own version of Ken dolls: in a clown outfit, whipping a tied up Barbie.  Such actions suggest bored employees are capable of quite unorthodox approaches to the problem of boredom.

            Informal processes occur in organizations where members believe that their voices are not heard or respected by leaders. Informal processes occur when change exceeds ability to effectively respond, resources are limited, or where leaders are ineffective. In some cases, the goal of hidden processes may be to reduce tension, relieve boredom, or to improve organizational effectiveness. In extreme cases, they may serve as the vehicle to undermine people or processes that are believed to impede accomplishment of organizational goals.

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Michael Spangle

Michael Spangle, Ph.D. has taught in the School for Professional Studies at Regis for 6 years. Prior to coming to Regis, he taught 12 years at the University of Denver. At D.U. served as Director of Graduate Studies in Applied Communication and Conflict Management and served on the faculty for… MORE >


Myra Isenhart

Myra Warren Isenhart, Ph.D. teaches, writes and consults about ADR. Currently an adjunct faculty member at the Regis University Graduate Program in Conflict Resolution, she designs and teaches courses such asThe Psychology of Conflict and Organizational Conflict Management. Previously, she served on faculties at the University of Denver, the University… MORE >

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