by Michael Dues, PhD
I’ve been working on better ways to deal with conflict in organizations for more than 40 years. And my understanding of conflict, its effects in organizations and of how best to reduce its harms and capitalize on its benefits has certainly evolved. I learned from hard experience that grievances and lawsuits can leave personal scars and do permanent damage to work relationships. Mediation produces better results with less damage. A stint as an organizational ombudsman taught me that discussing disputes confidentially, off the record could yield good solutions and help keep work relationships intact.
There will always be some need for these third-party services. But it’s also clear that most of the disputes I have dealt with over the years could, and should, have been avoided or resolved informally. It would be much better for people’s careers and quality of work life, as well as for an organization’s bottom line, if they got better at confronting and resolving contentious issues directly, among themselves.
I’ve been a teacher, consultant and a passionate evangelist for better management of organizational conflict for more than 30 years. But education and guidance alone don’t solve the problem either. Published research and my own experience show that employees’ responses to conflict are strongly influenced by their work unit’s, structure, culture, and climate. So, if we really want to achieve and sustain better conflict management in an organization, we need to address not only individual behavior, but also the team’s structure, culture, and climate. If we want to be most helpful to organizations, we need to offer comprehensive conflict management services, employing a systems approach. That means assessment, problem solving, policy development and training, along with alternative dispute resolution.