Symposium 2008

2008 Symposium: Dispute Systems Design

Organizational Systems for Dealing with Conflict & Learning from Conflict

Ideas about conflict are compelling topics for those of us who in work in organizations. We think about workplace justice, alternative vs. appropriate dispute resolution, and how to help leaders and teams deal effectively with the concerns and conflicts that preoccupy them. We think about organizational systems for dealing with conflict and learning from conflict. The present authors prefer this concept to the conventional term “conflict management systems” (CMS) although, for simplicity, we also use the conventional term.

It is not clear to us that all conflict can or should be “managed” — managed by whom? One of the major questions in this series of articles is: who should decide how to deal with a conflict? In particular, the Bloch, Miller and Rowe articles explore appropriate dispute resolution within an organization: who determines what is “appropriate” in this complex world, and on what basis?

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Systems for Dealing with Conflict and Learning from Conflict—Options for Complaint-Handling: an Illustrative Case

The phone rings in the Ombuds Office. A Ms. Lee is telephoning the ombudsman from far away. Lee is a department head in our organization who is temporarily assigned overseas. She says that a colleague, Ms. Dula, insisted that Ms. Lee call the Ombudsman immediately. Ms. Lee says that Ms. Dula noticed her crying in the bathroom, listened for a while, and then Ms. Dula insisted that Ms. Lee must consult with someone. The Ombudsman seemed to be the least threatening option.

In the Ombuds Office we do not know what we will hear. A case introduced in such a way might be about any very delicate issue. The central concern could be cruel, closed-door humiliation by a supervisor or mentor. It could be racial or religious hatred or sexual abuse or someone with an obsession. It might be suspicion or knowledge that a powerful person has misused resources, embezzled money or committed fraud. It could be fear of violence or gross safety violations. Most delicate cases include several different issues; perceived humiliation, intimidation and conflicts of interest are often part of a complaint, and so are allegations of multiple infractions of policies and rules.

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An Organizational Ombuds Office In a System for Dealing with Conflict and Learning from Conflict, or “Conflict Management System”
Mary Rowe, PhD, Ombusdperson, MIT

An Organizational Ombuds Office can address conflicts and concerns, informally and confidentially, and in many ways. In addition an Ombuds Office may effectively complement the roles of all the other components in a conflict management system (CMS). In particular an Ombuds Office may help to address major dilemmas faced by a CMS:

Major Dilemmas

A. How to help everyone in an organization to feel they can act effectively if they wish to—or come forward on a timely basis—when they have serious concerns;

B. How to help coordinate the system (CMS), and provide back up;

C. How to help keep the system and its people accountable, and foster effectiveness;

D. How to help the CMS to improve, by learning from the ways in which conflict and concerns have been addressed, and how to encourage management to respond to CMS recommendations;

These goals and their challenges are discussed in some detail below.

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Managing Cultural Differences In An International Organization Conflict Management System
David Miller, Staff Ombudsman, World Health Organization

Conflict management requires recognition that conflict is occurring. However, often there is no such recognition. Boundaries are often violated, behaviourally or verbally, by apparent abusers, harassers or aggressors unaware of the effects of their actions. And some people perceive no constraint on their actions. Sometimes also, those who are injured are not able to understand — or find it hard to name – what has happened. They may not be able to imagine any option for response (see the accompanying Case). Conflict management therefore requires common recognition of principles, standards or codes in which conflict is characterized, and from which solutions, resolutions or remedies may be found.

In organizations founded on the engagement of all cultures and peoples — in the United Nations organizations these are “member states”— and in private or public corporations with international constituencies and offices, conflict management necessitates an architecture of principles upon which, by common assent, behavioural boundaries can be asserted and, from which, behavioural violations of those boundaries can be inferred and characterised.These principles should embody elements that persons of all cultures can recognise, understand and to which they may legitimately aspire. These principles should be reasonably achievable on an individual level. These principles should also inform and guide the various elements of a conflict management system (CMS) — see the attached Chart for examples. The principles are also necessary to enable coordination of such functions into a coherent and functional system.

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Creating a Faith-Based Conflict Management System
Brian Bloch

Every organization has to deal with conflicts. Many deal with them on an ad hoc basis without articulating a standard way to process conflicts.  Few have gone to the extent of designing a conflict management system (CMS).  Faith-based organizations (FBOs) are no exception.  While many FBOs have well-developed programs for conciliation, mediation, and scripture-based peacemaking, very few religious communities have taken advantage of the CMS approach to their internal conflicts.  I’ve had the privilege of attempting to create a CMS in conjunction with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

The first part of this paper describes the previous method of dispute handling in ISKCON, the shortcomings of which served as an impetus to create a CMS.  It also covers the various steps taken to create the CMS, the components of the CMS, the special role of the ombudsman, and the challenges encountered.  Part Two focuses on the nature of disputes and their causes.  A subsection of Part Two samples one particular case, that of the role of women in ISKCON.  While this paper concentrates on ISKCON, both because of my familiarity with the organization and my inability to find other FBOs taking a CMS approach, I try whenever possible to apply the principles highlighted here to FBOs in general.
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Analyzing Your Conflict Management System

Click here to view supplemental chart “Analyzing Your Conflict Management System”