Mediating Conflict

In a Nutshell
        Managers often have to intervene to resolve conflicts between two parties.  The intervention strategy employed, whether it's inquisition, arbitration, mediation or a hybrid, should be the one that best suits the manager's objectives.  Mediation is the strategy that's the most empowering for the parties in conflict.  However, it can be very time consuming, and some disputants never resolve their conflicts through mediation no matter how hard the mediator tries.  For this reason, alternative strategies need to be considered.  (I think arbitration-mediation is a particularly clever hybrid!)

In This Issue

A Framework for Comparing Intervention Strategies
        As the June 11 LeaderLetter points out, one definition of interpersonal conflict says that it's what occurs when the goal-directed behavior of one party interferes with the goal-directed behavior of another.  To make that definition fit every conflict situation, the term "goal" has to be interpreted very broadly to mean anything that people would like to have occur.  For instance, goals in this context must include things like having a pleasant working environment, receiving a certain perk, being treated with respect, getting a particular task completed, etc.  Notice that the definition of interpersonal conflict makes no reference to fighting or losing.  In fact, in order to build harmonious relationships and improve organizational functioning, it's useful for parties in conflict to view their dispute as a puzzle to be solved collaboratively and creatively rather than as a fight to be won.  For the purpose of this discussion, I'll use the term resolution to refer to the end of the dispute between two parties, even though such resolutions are often either (a) ineffective solutions to the underlying problem or (b) not correctly implemented by the disputants.
        There are many ways for managers to intervene and assist two parties in conflict in order to promote conflict resolution, and there's no one best intervention strategy for all situations.  When managers intervene to resolve conflicts, they should consider several objectives.  Naturally, the primary objective in many conflict situations is to find a good quality solution to the problem that's causing the conflict.  In order to achieve that objective, the disputing parties must collaborate toward finding the best possible solution.  In addition, in order for the parties to collaborate toward resolution they need to share information with each other, make concessions, be open to the third party's suggestions, and be realistic about what they consider a fair and effective resolution.  Managers also want the disputing parties to be committed to complying with the resolution, because a great idea is worthless if it isn't implemented, and disputants are usually the ones who have to implement or comply with the resolution.  Efficiency is another key consideration when trying to resolve disputes.  Conflicts must be resolved efficiently so that parties can resume their work.  Finally, to maintain morale and motivation, managers should consider fairness for and empowerment of their employees.  Appropriately or inappropriately, research shows that managers often select an intervention strategy that asserts their own power and control at the cost of their employees' sense of empowerment and fair treatment.
        To keep staff members motivated, it's important to make sure they feel like they're valued members of their work group and organization.  Staff members' sense of being valued is partly determined by how fairly they perceive conflicts to be managed.  For staff members to strongly believe that conflicts are handled fairly, they need to feel that both the process was fair and that the outcome (i.e., the resolution) is fair.  Outcome fairness perceptions and procedural fairness perceptions are actually distinct concerns.  Even when disputants don't agree with a resolution imposed by their managers, they still appreciate being listened to and having a chance to influence the decision.  Employees' fairness perceptions are least favorable when they have no control over the decision making process (i.e., they have no input) and when they are asked to comply with a ruling that they had no control over.  There is only so much unfair treatment employees are willing to accept before there are noticeable negative reactions such as lower motivation, counterproductive behaviors (e.g., undermining the efforts of rival coworkers, or insubordination) or even quitting.  With these issues in mind, here's a framework for comparing third-party dispute intervention strategies:

        The three most common intervention strategies are inquisition, arbitration and mediation.  Managers can also use hybrids of the mediation and arbitration strategies.  Disputants tend to react to each of these strategies differently.

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        Too often, managers use an inquisition strategy for dispute resolution.  Inquisitors dominate the conflict resolution process and they impose and enforce a resolution that they perceive to be the most appropriate.  They limit the collaborative problem solving process in a number of important ways.  First, they generally operate on their assumptions of what the problem is and what information is relevant in solving the problem.  Second, they limit the information that they gather to the information they specifically request from disputants.  Consequently, inquisitors make quick (but sometimes rash) decisions to resolve conflicts.
        Disputants are least likely to be satisfied with or feel empowered by managerial inquisitions.  Inquisitors don't share control over the decision-making process or outcome with the disputants--they leave no question as to who is in control!  An advantage of a manager retaining control of decision making is that he or she can ensure that the resolution is consistent with the organization's policies and objectives.
        Just about any time a manager intervenes to resolve a conflict, he or she needs to follow up to ensure that the disputants are complying with the resolutions.  This is particularly important for inquisitors, because the disputants are least likely to be satisfied with the resolutions produced by this intervention strategy.  Inquisitors may have to rely on more coercion ("do it or else") to gain compliance than arbitrators or mediators do.

        Like inquisitors, arbitrators decide what the outcome of a dispute between two parties will be.  A major difference between the two intervention strategies is that arbitrators do a more thorough job of considering the disputants' concerns.  Arbitrators conduct "hearings" where the disputants explain their concerns and their preferences.  When the arbitrators decide that they have heard enough from both sides, they make a "ruling" that they perceive to be fair and appropriate.  Even though conducting thorough hearings takes more time than inquisitions, arbitrators can still regulate how much time is spent resolving the conflict when they arbitrate.
        Disputants are likely to be more satisfied with the arbitration process than they are with inquisitions.  To the extent that they get a fair hearing of their concerns, they'll be inclined to believe that the process was fair.  Arbitration isn't much more empowering for disputants than inquisition interventions though.  Managerial arbitration of staff members' disputes demonstrates who's in control.  As mentioned above, that control can help ensure that the resolution chosen is compatible with the organization's policies and objectives.  However, retaining so much control is not empowering to the disputants, and they will tend to blame the arbitrator for decision they don't like.  Consequently, their commitment to and willingness to comply with the resolution may be low.

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        Compared to inquisition and arbitration, mediation is the third-party dispute intervention strategy that is most empowering for disputants.  Mediators bring disputants together and facilitate collaborative problem-solving processes.  Disputants have more latitude for raising their concerns and, when successful, mediation results in a resolution that both parties have consented to.
        Not all mediation efforts are successful.  There are several things mediators need to do to increase the likelihood of successful mediation:

        Because disputants have so much control over mediation, they are more likely to find the process and outcome satisfying and empowering.  Effective mediation promotes supportive communication and creative, collaborative problem solving skills.  Staff members can actually develop their own conflict management skills through their experiences with an effective mediator.
        It should be noted, however, that managers might not always like the solutions that the disputants come up with.  Inquisitors and arbitrators get to choose the alternative solution that they like best.  Mediators who strictly adhere to their role have to let the disputants select their own solution, even if they think it isn't the best.
        The major drawbacks to mediation are that it's hard work and time consuming.  In fact, there are some conflicts between some disputants that even the best mediators can't get resolved no matter how hard they try.  Consequently, managers have often intervened with hybrid strategies, such as allowing mediation to proceed until a deadline at which the mediator will become an arbitrator and impose a resolution.

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Hybrids of Mediation and Arbitration
        To capitalize on the advantages of both arbitration and mediation, hybrid approaches have been used.  The best-known hybrid procedure is mediation-arbitration.  While far less common, the arbitration-mediation approach is also an option.
        Mediation-arbitration.  This intervention has two phases.  In the first phase, the third party facilitates mediation.  If resolution is not achieved by a predetermined deadline, the second phase occurs where the third party imposes a resolution of the conflict.  This hybrid generally benefits from the advantages of both mediation and arbitration.  The mediation phase empowers disputants by giving them an opportunity to find their own solution, even if that opportunity is of limited duration.  The arbitration phase allows managers to control how much time they invest in resolving the conflict.
        However, anticipation of arbitration can affect the nature of the mediation.  When disputants expect the third party to make a ruling, they're inclined to exaggerate their positions in order to sway the arbitrator.  If the disputants focus their attention on influencing the third party during the mediation phase, there may be little cooperation between the disputants during mediation.  Disputants may try to get what they want from the third party rather than from the party that they are in conflict with.  Nevertheless, at least there's the chance for mediation before the arbitrator takes control.
Arbitration-mediation.  Although not as common as mediation-arbitration, managers can use arbitration followed by meditation to resolve conflicts.  As with mediation-arbitration, this approach also allows managers to utilize the advantages of mediation and arbitration, but disputant's reactions are likely to be a little different.
        Arbitration-mediation has three phases.  In the first phase, the third party serves as an arbitrator by conducting hearings and making a ruling.  That ruling is then placed in a sealed envelope and displayed prominently.  In the second phase, the third party attempts to mediate the conflict.  If the disputants reach a resolution in the second phase, the envelope can be destroyed.  If the disputants do not arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution before a predetermined deadline, the third and final phase is entered where the envelope is opened and a binding resolution is revealed to the disputants.
        Like mediation-arbitration, arbitration-mediation provides disputants an opportunity to mediate their conflict with bounds on the amount of time that will be permitted for mediation.  To a degree, disputants are encouraged to collaborate and empowered to find their own resolution.
        The major advantages of arbitration-mediation over mediation-arbitration are likely to be in the area of disputant collaboration.  After the arbitrator's decision has been made, there's less incentive for disputants to exaggerate their positions.  Mediating conflict with a sealed resolution to the conflict literally on the table makes the uncertainty of the arbitrator's ruling salient.  As mentioned above, disputants like to have a sense of control over outcomes, and the only way to control the outcomes after the envelope is presented is by effectively participating in mediation.  People are generally risk-averse.  For instance, most of us would rather have $1000 than a 50% chance at $2000.  Having the envelope on the table may remind the disputants that relying on the arbitrator's ruling is risky.  To a degree, disputants would rather negotiate a known resolution than take their chances with the envelope.  Consequently, disputants are more likely to cooperate, share information, make concessions, consider the mediator's suggestions and arrive at a high quality resolution through mediation.
        On the other hand, arbitration-mediation is less likely to be perceived as fair and, in turn, less likely to promote high commitment to the resolution.  First, none of the information that emerges during the mediation phase can affect the arbitrator's decision, so if mediation is fruitless the disputants may not like the arbitrators' ruling because it's based strictly on ideas generated during the first phase of the process.  Second, employees may also think the tactic of putting the ruling on the table is coercive or manipulative.  The pressure to engage in mediation may promote mediation, but it may also engender resentment.  For these reasons, arbitration-mediation may put a higher burden on management to enforce compliance with the resolution.

In Summary, ...
        There are advantages and disadvantages to all strategies for third-party dispute intervention.  On a case-by-case basis, managers would do well to select the strategy that best fits their primary objectives (i.e., decision quality, disputant collaboration, commitment and compliance with the resolution, efficiency, perceptions of fairness, or disputant empowerment).

        McShane, S. L. & Von Glinow, M. A.  (2000).  Organizational behavior, (9th ed.)  New York: Irwin McGraw-Hill.
        Ross, W. H. & Conlon, D. E.  (2000).  Hybrid forms of third-party dispute resolution: Theoretical implications of combining mediation and arbitration. Academy of Management Review, 25(2): 416-427.
        Sheppard, B. H.  (1983).  Managers as inquisitors: Lessons from the law.  In Negotiating in organizations, M. H. Bazerman & R. J. Lewicki (eds.), pp. 193-213.  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
        Whetten, D. A., & Cameron, K. S.  (2002).  Developing management skills, (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

About the Photo
        Referee Mohamed Saeed intervenes to stop a confrontation between Germany's Christian Ziege (left) and Cameroon's Lauren during a World Cup soccer match between Cameroon and Germany on Tuesday June 11, 2002.  (AP Photo/Christof Stache:  e-mailed to me from Yahoo! News;

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About the Newsletter and Subscriptions
        LeaderLetter is written by Dr. Scott Williams, Department of Management, Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.  It is a supplement to my MBA 751 - Managing People in Organizations class.  It is intended to reinforce the course concepts and maintain communication among my former MBA 751 students, but anyone is welcome to subscribe.  In addition, subscribers are welcome to forward this newsletter to anyone who they believe would have an interest in it.  To subscribe, simply send an e-mail message to me requesting subscription.  Of course, subscriptions to the newsletter are free.  To unsubscribe, e-mail a reply indicating that you would like to unsubscribe.

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E-mail Your Comments
        Whether you are one of my former students or not, I invite you to share any insights or concerns you have regarding the topic of this newsletter or any other topic relating to management skills.  Please e-mail them to me.  Our interactions have been invaluable.  Let's keep the conversation going.

A Good, Clean Joke (or, at least a clean one)

Advice from a San Diego father who has identified 35 truths he learned from his children:
1. There is no such thing as childproofing your house.
2. If you spray hair spray on dust bunnies and run over them with roller blades, they can ignite.
3. A 4-year-old's voice is louder than 200 adults in a crowded restaurant.
4. If you hook a dog leash over a ceiling fan, the motor is not strong enough to rotate a 42-pound boy wearing pound puppy underwear and a Superman cape.
5. It is strong enough, however, to spread paint on all four walls of a 20' x 20' room.
6. Baseballs make marks on ceilings.
7. When using the ceiling fan as a bat, you have to throw the ball up several times before you get a hit.
8. You should not throw baseballs up when the ceiling fan is on.
9. A ceiling fan can hit a baseball a long ways.
10. The glass in windows (even double pane) doesn't stop a baseball hit by a ceiling fan.
11. When you hear the toilet flush and the words "uh-oh," it is already too late.
12. Brake fluid mixed with Clorox makes smoke--lots of it.
13. A 6 year-old boy can start a fire with a flint rock even though a 60-year old man says it can only be done in the movies.
14. A magnifying glass can start a fire even on an overcast day.
15. If you use a waterbed as a home plate while wearing baseball shoes, it does not leak. It explodes.
16. A king-size waterbed holds enough water to fill a 2,000 sq. ft. house almost 4 inches deep.
17. Legos will pass through the digestive tract of a 4-year-old.
18. Duplos will not.
19. Play-Doh and microwave ovens should never be used in the same sentence.
20. Super Glue is forever.
21. MacGyver can teach us many things we don't want to know.
22. So can Tarzan.
23. No matter how much Jell-O you put in the pool, you still can't walk on water.
24. Pool filters do not like Jell-O.
25. VCRs do not eject PB&J sandwiches, even though TV commercials show they do.
26. Garbage bags do not make good parachutes.
27. Marbles in gas tanks make lots of noise when driving.
28. You probably don't want to know what that odor is.
29. Always look in the oven before you turn it on.
30. Plastic toys do not like ovens.
31. The fire department in San Diego has at least a 5-minute response.
32. The spin cycle on the washing machine does not make earthworms dizzy.
33. It will, however, make cats dizzy.
34. Cats throw up twice their body weight when dizzy.
35. A good sense of humor will get you through most problems in life. (....unfortunately, mostly in retrospect)

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