Integrated Dispute Settlement Systems: Addressing Conflicts Constructively

Question: How do we, as leaders, help our organizations address conflicts constructively? 

Answer: Map out and understand our ways of handling conflicts, also known as our “dispute settlement systems.” Fill in gaps. Build capacity. Reinforce what works in order to focus upon What Matters at Work. 

Conflicts and complaints naturally arise within most organizations. We tend to respond, however, by either channeling such issues to formal grievance processes or by ignoring them as much as possible until they are too big to manage effectively. Our organizations require an infrastructure for addressing conflict that contains, channels and synthesizes resources effectively. As a result, true integration of dispute settlement processes and systems will develop holistic, adaptive responses and longer-term solutions to such disputes. These structures are essential (both formal and non-formal) vehicles for bringing forth new ideas, managing conflicts that naturally arise and to serve as incubators of experimentation and reform. In turn, they become accessible tools for questioning the new status quo and continuing to hold all members of the community accountable to its Core Values. Three types of practices are suggested to facilitate the development and sustainability of these systems:

Informal Systems: All organizations have those “go to” people that everybody relies upon to listen well, offer solid advice, and otherwise be a presence in solving problems and settling disputes. This practice builds upon this naturally occurring phenomenon: Survey staff to identify overall perspectives on conflicts in the workplace and how empowered they feel they are to address them. Such a survey can be connected to a broader climate survey or employee engagement effort, for it helps us understand training needs that we can act upon to address priority concerns. But let’s add one more question: “Please identify up to 5 people in the organization you believe are especially skilled as listeners and as people who help solve conflicts as they arise.” Once collected, use these results to invite members of this nominated group to a meeting in which they can be recognized and thanked for their natural contributions, and from which they can be asked to offer suggested ways we can improve the company’s ability to foster communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution efforts. Then be prepared to follow through on those suggestions that have resonance with organizational Core Values.

Non-formal Systems: This is a term that may be new to many readers… “Non-formal” systems refer to intentionally organized approaches that largely depend upon peer leadership and agenda-setting. They can be contrasted to the informal systems that simply arise and end naturally, or the formal systems that tend to be integrated with policy, governance, and top-down leadership. Non-formal practices include communities of practice and similar learning communities. In dispute resolution, they include peer facilitation and peer mediation projects. In these systems, a cross-section of staff across the organization is trained to mediate staff disputes, and is promoted as being available for such efforts. While the project can be connected to HR or other management processes, their reputation and success depends upon their abilities to be perceived as impartial sources of service, and that any negotiation among disputing parties is voluntary and self-determined. Peer facilitators can be available to mediate conflicts, facilitate complex problem solving sessions around difficult issues, or simply as peer listeners available to individuals who want to sort out concerns before engaging in other efforts to address them. These efforts can complement services offered through Employee Assistance or an Ombuds Office, as well.

Formal Systems: Grievance and appeals policies, as well as other channels for formally addressing concerns, are an essential element of organizational governance. Boards of Directors should establish standing committees in cooperation with leadership from both management and staff perspectives, so rights are understood and protected and needs are addressed in effective and relatively cost-efficient ways. All involved in hearing such concerns should be trained to do so, and there should be external resources that add another level of professional skill and review to such processes. This level of investment and review is basic and fundamental to the democratically managed organization. From such a vantage point, systematic understandings of the corporate culture can be acted upon; for example, if we find a particular division or service area more commonly has issues that escalate to formal grievance resolution, we can investigate the underlying contributing factors and see if there can be systemic solutions that can prevent such conflicts from developing into formal grievances.

At a more detailed level, some organizations have created numerous “governance circles” that follow the rules of Holacracy or Sociocracy. The largest company taking this approach is Zappos, where it is now embedded in the corporate culture. Other examples are described by Frederic Laloux in his important book, Reinventing Organizations (2014).

Exercise: Create a map of your company’s various places and spaces where disputes are addressed. How do they relate to one another? Is it clear to staff and customers what these various approaches to conflict are, and how they are accessed? You may want to create an informal meeting with colleagues in order to construct this picture. Have fun and be creative in your map-making abilities. Then, create a “key” that helps tell the story of your various informal, formal, and non-formal dispute settlement systems.

Recall the initial question and answer at the start of this article:

Question: How do we, as leaders, help our organizations address conflicts constructively?

Answer: Map out and understand our ways of handling conflicts, also known as our “dispute settlement systems.” Fill in gaps. Build capacity. Reinforce what works in order to focus upon What Matters at Work.

How are you doing with this leadership challenge?

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

I am a facilitator, mediator, educator, and consultant specializing in addressing complex challenges and disputes within organizations. I bring over 40 years experience to this work and offer two recent books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021) to these efforts.

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