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New Research Explains Why Some Complaints Escalate to Conflicts

CMP Resolution Blog by John Crawley, Lesley Allport and Katherine Graham.

The Department for Business Innovation and Skills recently published a research[1] report of great value to organisations and conflict management practitioners. Because this is a useful, practical piece of research with many learning points, I have taken the unusual step of letting the words of the researchers speak for themselves in these key extracts.

‘UK evidence suggests that the first point of contact for advice and support is often that of the workplace rather than external sources, suggesting that employees do make efforts to resolve conflicts internally before resorting to outside help.’

‘There is a wide range of conflict management styles, and there are also different factors that determine whether or not a conflict is escalated. The way in which employees approach resolving conflicts is also likely to be affected by issues such as trust and the perceived likelihood of success of reaching agreement. Evidence on conflict management styles suggests that managers who adopt strategies for resolving conflict based on collaboration and problem-solving are likely to engender trust and are more likely to be successful at resolving conflicts. Employees, in turn, are more likely to adopt problem-solving strategies where there is a desire to reach an agreement, and the anticipation of achieving one.’

‘There appears to be consistent evidence, mainly from the US literature, pointing to the importance of perceptions of organisational justice in terms of responses to conflict, and the avenue taken to resolve conflict, including claiming behaviour. Three types of organisational justice are identified in the literature:

distributive justice, which refers to the perceived fairness of outcomes;
procedural justice, which refers to the perceived fairness of the procedures by which outcomes are determined; and
interactional justice, which refers to the perceived fairness of interpersonal treatment.
‘Whilst all three appear important, it also appears that procedural and interactional justice can compensate for low levels of distributive justice.’

‘Inaction in response to discontent voiced by an employee is likely to exacerbate feelings of injustice. In addition, clear explanations for unfavourable outcomes (the type and adequacy of explanation can mitigate against negative reactions) are seen as important.’

‘The review has also found that economic factors – ie economic rewards from winning a case – play a role in decisions to make a claim, even though economic rewards are often not accurately estimated. However, the influence of economic factors was not as strong as the influence of feelings of injustice and poor treatment.’

‘A range of policy implications flow from these conclusions. These centre around:

encouraging more realistic expectations of the outcome of a formal claim;
encouraging the development of trust within organisations: if the parties involved in a dispute have a basis of trust, any conflict that they enter into is more likely to be resolvable without escalation;
building empathy between individuals in the workforce, which may help to contain the escalation of conflicts;
avoiding escalation by reinforcing procedural and interactional justice within organisations. The role of line managers is particularly key in this regard;
helping individuals to value the offer from the other party, by building trust and, where feasible providing expert and impartial information, advice and guidance, either internally or externally;
valuing and encouraging the positive role that trade unions can play in helping to resolve workplace disputes (in workplaces where there are recognised trade unions);
considering how to encourage greater use of information, advice and guidance by ensuring it is actually followed. This could involve framing information, advice and guidance in such a way as to be influential in affecting behaviour. This could include accurate information about the financial outcomes of and length of time spent on an employment tribunal case, and the advantages of seeking alternative ways of resolving a dispute, possibly involving testimonials or case studies.’

[1] Understanding the behaviour and decision making of employees in conflicts and disputes at work Daniel Lucy and Andrea Broughton, May 2011 BIS Employment Relations Research Series 119.


John Crawley

John Crawley is the Founder and Chair of CMP Resolutions and has been working in organisations who are experiencing conflict for the last 20 years. He has acquired a unique range of conflict narratives illustrating what works and what does not. John developed and utilised the model of Constructive Conflict… MORE >

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