Find Mediators Near You:

Organizational Conflict Management- What’s a System?

While conflict may be a constant, paradigms to explain conflict in organizations have changed. Systems thinking or chaos theory is the latest paradigm that has been used to understand organizational conflict. The demise of the mechanistic worldview allows us to contemplate how organizations deal with conflict through a fresh set of lenses.

The term “system” is widely used in the field of organizational conflict management. The Federal Interagency Alternative Dispute Resolution Working Group recently sponsored a brown bag Session-“Growing Your ADR Program – Are You Ready for a System?”-that focused on examples of two agencies ‘that are attempting to replace ADR programs with ADR systems.’

This usage is not surprising when one considers the seminal works in the field with titles such as “Designing Conflict Management Systems ” (Costantino and Merchant, Jossey Bass, 1996), and “How to Design a Conflict Management System for your Organization” (Slaikeu and Hasson, Jossey Bass, 1998). If there was any doubt about the importance of the concept system, then the influential work by the Society of Professionals In Dispute Resolution, put it beyond doubt: “Guidelines For The Design Of Integrated Conflict Management Systems Within Organizations” (Society of Professionals In Dispute Resolution, SPIDR, 2000)

But, what exactly does the word system connote in all these works? Is it the same system that Peter Senge refers to in his classic, The Fifth Discipline (DoubleDay, 1994)?

Costantino and Merchant define a system as “arrangements of parts dynamically interrelated with each other and with the influences of the environment.” (P21) In describing the various sub systems found in organizations (information, reward, financial management, etc.) they propose that conflict management “also be viewed as a subsystem within a larger system.” (P21) Slaikeu and Hasson do not provide a direct definition of a system and focus on the parts and their arrangement. Nor does the SPIDR committee who concentrate on the ‘integrated’ conflict management system and what practical steps can be taken to foster such a system.

In the Fifth Discipline Field Book (DoubleDay, 1994) a system is defined as “a perceived whole whose elements ‘hang together’ because they continually affect each other over time and operate toward a common purpose.” (P90) Systemic structure is “the pattern of interrelationships among key components of the system.” (p 90). This is similar to the definition used by Costantino and Merchant who also emphasize “the whole and the interaction of the parts, not the parts themselves.” (P22)

What about the idea that you start with a program then add a system? At a conference of the Organizational Conflict Management Section of the Society of Professionals In Dispute Resolution held in Ottawa, Canada in May 2000, Judy Mares-Dixon reminded practitioners that “we are redefining existing systems through an evolutionary process.” Her statement suggests that a conflict management system is not something that is added-as in “Is your program ready for a System?”-but rather something that already exists.

Slaikeu and Hasson point out that while conflict is inevitable, “weak systems are not.” Furthermore “you can strengthen the system.” (P16) Again, the system already exists. If this is so, then the ‘add on’ suggested in statements asking about your organizations preparedness for ‘a system’ may really be the fine-tuning of the system through a conscious focus on structure and the arrangement of the parts.

The fine-tuning process is described more fully by the SPIDR committee responsible for the preparation of the ” Guidelines For The Design Of Integrated Conflict Management Systems Within Organizations.” The goal of an integrated conflict management system is achieved through a typical developmental process that starts with assessment and inquiry, and addresses design, implementation and evaluation.

While there are systems all around us, (environmental, political, mechanical, human, etc.), and we ourselves are complex systems, a system does not have to be identified or specified to exist. The weather system or various eco-systems had been operating for millions of years without the label. There are many systems that have yet to be specified. It is only in recent times that we have perceived the conflict management system as a human sub system within organizations.

The elements of a conflict management system that ‘hang together’ include the processes, the people, the rules, the physical environment, the control mechanisms as well as the less visible attributes such as the attitudes, beliefs and values of the organizational members. The patterns between these parts-rather than the parts themselves are of particular interest to systems thinking. Are they integrated? And of equal importance, what emergent properties do they produce?

An emergent property is something that emerges from the system, not the parts themselves. It is not something that you can predict by examining the parts.

Consciousness is an example of an emergent property of our brain-itself the most complex system we think we know. In an organizational context conflict, stress, emotions, morale, productivity, absenteeism, complaints and litigation are all emergent properties of a conflict management system. These are the attributes that are typically measured to determine the health or vitality of a conflict management system. The current theory, strongly espoused by the SPIDR committee is that a healthy conflict management system is integrated. Integration is a higher level of organization than interconnection. All organizations have conflict management systems, but not all have integrated conflict management systems. Some are conscious of the interconnection others oblivious. Once consciousness of the system is attained, the goal is conscious integration.

In an integrated conflict management system the various parts of the system are not operating in isolation or indifference to one another. Most importantly they are integrated in such a way that the emergent properties are productive: good morale, low absenteeism, little stress, productive expression of emotion.

At one level, this means that interest based options-like mediation, and rights based options-like arbitration support one another. The reality is that even when the systemic structure is such that their interaction is not fluid or logical, they do influence one anther. A good example of this is an organization that has an investigation procedure for sexual harassment and other forms of behavioral misconduct, and then introduces a mediation program without looking at how this new part will change the existing system. The investigation may be administered by one department and the mediation program by another. At a formal level the connection between the two is not acknowledged. Yet, at a more subtle level they both influence one another.

Another level of integration references the ways in which organizational members access the system. Any conflict behavior constitutes an interaction with the conflict management system, and so it follows that whether or not the expected ‘access’ behavior is exhibited does not determine whether the system is actually being accessed. For example, when an employee complains about a supervisor to a colleague rather than filing a complaint or using the ‘open door’ policy, the conflict management system is being accessed. The colleague may listen; give advice and even coach the employee on how to respond. Just because it is not a formal channel does not mean that the conflict management system has not been accessed.

Informal access needs to be integrated with formal access channels. It is important not to mistake the wood for the trees: the formal access points are not the only relevant part of the system and the informal access points are also a part the system. Current theory suggests that providing easy access to the formal aspects of the system promotes satisfaction with a conflict management system.

Integration also references our attitudes toward organizational conflict. Our beliefs about conflict should be in alignment with our behavior: conflict is not viewed as a problem, but rather, as an emergent property that energizes, creates conditions for growth, insight and health. When an employee complains, we show appreciation not condemnation.

While skill based training that develops conflict management skills as a core competency, often offers significant leverage, like any part of the system, it needs to be integrated. The skills must be relevant to the behaviors that are expected, and the models congruent with the organizational culture. Furthermore, competencies must be linked to performance reviews. If a manager is trained in basic conflict management skills and then allows conflicts to fester in his or her department without consequence then that behavior will be reinforced.

Performance review is an important feedback loop. An integrated conflict management system needs more. It needs to build in feedback as a key process within the organization so that it occurs daily on an informal level. However, it also needs to undertake more formal evaluations of the various parts of the system and how they integrate. Are the parts reinforcing or undermining one another? Are the desired properties emerging?

Managing conflict within organizations is not easy. Systems’ thinking offers us new and exciting ways to leverage change to produce emergent properties such as productivity and high morale. Thinking of a system as a part that is added on returns us to the mechanistic worldview that systems thinking seeks to replace.


John Ford

 John Ford is the author of Peace at Work and founder of the HR Mediation Academy. He mediates; trains; and consults to organizations that have accepted the inevitability of conflict and are seeking to approach it with greater clarity and confidence. He was the managing editor of from 2000… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


The Life And Death Of Democracy

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach I'm trying to make my way through John Keane's massive book, The Life and Death of Democracy (Norton, 2009). He reviews...

By Larry Susskind

And the Award Goes To . . . Susan Yates

Executive Director Susan Yates has been chosen to receive the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution's D'Alemberte Raven Award. The American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution (ABA DRSection)...

By Susan Yates, Clare Fowler

Guidelines for Voluntary Mediation Programs Instituted by Agencies Charged with Enforcing Workplace Rights

April 21, 1998 Dear Colleague: The Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution (SPIDR) has embarked in a major initiative to examine and make recommendations on key principles and policies on...

By Managing Editor