The further the snowball is allowed to roll downhill, the larger it grows as it gains momentum. Likewise, individuals and organization failing to deal with conflict before it escalates out of control leave themselves susceptible to an avalanche of cost consequences. These costs are in terms of stress, anxiety, psychic pain and suffering of those individuals having to endure unresolved conflict. These are costs organizations reap from reduced productivity, higher attrition and workman compensation claims, increased theft, sabotage, and violence, as well as the a larger potential for discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits. Ouch!!
The Second- Half of the Conflict Cycle
Why start this conversation with a conversation of the second-half of the conflict cycle? Because this is where the greatest percentage of conflict resolution resides.
The second-half always begins with a formal grievance. This is when an individual initiates a complaint to their Human Resources Department, when an employee opens a protest through his/her Union Representative, or when a lawsuit is initiated through the courts.
Once a grievance is initiated, the costs begin to mount by all parties – the individual, the employee, and the company. For example, human resources uses a multiplicity of managers and individual contributors to deal with an employees’ complaint. This is complicated when a union is involved. An individual may incur the expense of hiring an attorney to prosecute a lawsuit through the court system. Once a lawsuit enters the legal system, the tax payers are now footing part of the bill for judges, administrative staff as well as the possibility of using professional settlement officers, arbitrators, or mediators. Consequently, organization must solicit the resources of their legal department to see the complaint through to completion. At any rate, costs are swelling as the number of resources allocated to resolve a given formalized dispute increases.
As a side note, it should be mentioned that it is much harder to “atone for one’s sins” or to “right a wrong” once a formal grievance is lodged. An unfortunate by-product of a this is that the positions of the disputing parties have a tendency to become hardened and polarized. The parties find themselves in defensive postures often becoming intransient. It is regrettable that this condition inhibits dispute resolution and naturally extends the timeline of the dispute. Accordingly, this amplifies the costs.
Why do disputes turn into formal grievances? Simply because the issues are not adequately attended to in the first-half of the conflict cycle. So focused are individuals and organizations on guidelines, laws, rules that and regulations to control behavior that punitive processes and litigation become the default for dealing with conflict. We often forget or are unaware that addressing conflict in the first-half of the conflict cycle, when the disputes are still people problems, affords us the greatest opportunity to effectively deal with the ever escalating cost of conflict.
The First-Half of the Conflict Cycle
The first-half of the conflict cycle is simply identified as being prior to a formal grievance while disputes are still people problems.
Addressing conflict early-on is most advantageous for individuals and organizations to address their disputes. This is because the heartache, anxiety, psychic pain and suffering as well as the monetary costs associated with the dispute are still minimal. It is still early in the genesis of the dispute so there is a greater potential for the parties to atone for their sins, right-a-wrong, create feasible solutions, and work towards the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Hence, individuals and organization can appreciate the overwhelming advantages of keeping disputes from graduating to the second-half of the conflict cycle. This is especially true seeing as issues are not nearly as complicated or as expensive addressed in the first-half of the conflict cycle.
The First-Half Intervention Strategies
Hopefully it is becoming clear that there is exceptional value in managing conflict in the first-half of the conflict cycle. Thus, the question arises: do we address first-half issues the same as the second-half?
The truth of the matter is that the skills required to address conflict in the first-half of the cycle include a broader range of capabilities. It is no longer just a grievance processes and/or litigation with a possible side trip by way of mediation and/or arbitration, but a comprehensive set of interpersonal and organizational services.
First-Half Intervention Services
Training: this is a preventative approach to dealing with conflict. Simply, by raising the individuals’ awareness relative to how one deals with conflict reducing the negative impact of conflict in their lives. Types of training that can be provided are Communications Skill Training, Principled Negotiations Training, Conflict Awareness Training, and Giving Effective Feedback.
Note: the U.S. Department of Labor reported in 1996 that by simply providing conflict awareness training to managers reduces costly attrition (employee turnover) by one-third in their respective organizations. This indicates a potential for significant savings when conflict training is utilized in organizations.
Conflict Coaching: a conflict coaches work with an individual on a one-to-one basis. The objective is to work with the individual to explore options to effectively cope with the conflict before it has an opportunity to escalate out of control.
Conciliation: conciliation is a process used between parties (a party being an individual or a group) who are currently unable to meet face-to-face. Acting as a go-between, the conciliator helps the parties negotiate an interest-based resolution. An added goal in conciliation is to reach a solution which may includes restoring trust, friendship, and/or goodwill.
Collaborative Sessions: collaborative sessions involve the disputants working together in the same room. The parties enter the process voluntarily and in good faith with the intention of producing results. In a collaborative sessions the participants must be agreeable to confront their issues head-on for the process to be successful. When these conditions are present, the disputing parties are poised to work-out a workable solutions for all concerned. These sessions are facilitated by a professionally trained Conflict Manager specifically skilled in the art of dispute resolution. In the second-half of the conflict cycle this service is widely known as mediation.
Facilitation: professional facilitators utilize a specialized set of skills designed to promote group dialogue within a safe environment. All stakeholders (participating groups or factions) are encouraged to speak openly and freely. Dialogue sessions have the net effect of raising awareness of all who participate. In doing so, a greater propensity for understanding between stakeholders enhances the probability of resolving current and future issues.
Systemic Issues: Unlike the second-half of the conflict cycle, in the first-half an organization can begin to capture data and evidence that points to systemic issues causing conflict. This is a great advantage to organizations in order to stop the bleeding due to systemic disorders. Organizations may consider implementing a custom designed Conflict Management Systems. A Conflict Management System has mechanisms built-in to it which address conflict in the first-half of the conflict cycle with capabilities to address organizational systemic issues. For more information on this topic, please refer to my article, “Conflict Management Services: A Methodology for Addressing the Cost of Conflict in the Workplace”.
Will every dispute be successfully resolved if addressed early? Not likely, though a vast majority of second-half conflicts could have been resolved quickly and early in the process given access to first-half services described above. Therefore, common sense tells us that when managed early-on in the conflict cycle, most disputes can be averted from escalating into a dreaded formal grievance process. And given the excess costs associated with second-half of the conflict cycle, it has become exceeding unwise to rely on a formal grievance processes to resolve our issues for us.
So, it is evident that melting that snowball before we incur an avalanche of cost has great benefits to individuals and organization alike. It is comforting to know that we really have many more choices to determine our destiny other than relying on second-half processes to settle our disputes. Choosing early intervention in the first-half of the conflict cycle is where we can reap the greatest benefits of resolving conflict.
I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to conflict manager Barry Simon for the many hours of conversation we have had relative to this topic. Our talks have assisted me in clarifying and crystallizing much of my thinking as well as inspired me to write on this topic.