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Conflict Management Interviews Are Effective, but Only if the Quality Is High

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Employees arguing

An office assistant feels that he's being overworked and resents his boss for not giving him a raise. A restaurant manager fails to provide adequate training to her cooks, but berates them for inconsistent quality. A factory supervisor pressures his workers to accept overtime assignments, ignoring their personal needs.

A variety of circumstances, from perceived inequities to unreasonable expectations, can trigger workplace conflict. If left to smolder, this conflict can flare up into costly outcomes that may include absenteeism, turnover, arbitration and litigation. Perhaps worst of all, it may produce a dysfunctional culture that stifles innovation and hinders an organization's effectiveness.

Putting out the sparks of conflict before they ignite is one of the goals of Integrated Conflict Management Systems (ICMS), which place the responsibility of conflict resolution directly on managers and employees, rather than ombudspersons, human resource personnel, mediators, arbitrators and others.

"The rationale is that if you can create an environment in a team where people can come to you and you can have an open dialogue with a supervisor, you can resolve a lot of things very simply before they have to escalate and become formalized," says Benjamin B. Dunford, associate professor in Krannert School of Management.

But how effective are conflict management systems? Dunford and his co-researchers had a unique opportunity to test key predictions of ICMS theory by analyzing an eight-year longitudinal data set from a non-union healthcare system in the eastern United States. They found that employees whose managers provide high-quality conflict management interviews (CMIs) are less likely to file grievances or leave the organization, and have significantly greater perceptions of participative department culture.

Their findings suggest that it's not enough just to hold conflict management interviews — the quality of these CMIs is critical.

"If you're not doing them well, then they may not be very beneficial," Dunford says. "In fact, they may actually be detrimental. Supervisors who do this poorly can sometimes exacerbate mistrust."

Dunford collaborated with Kevin J. Mumford, associate professor in Krannert, as well as R. Wayne Boss of Leeds School of Business at University of Colorado at Boulder, Alan D. Boss of the College of Business at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and David S. Boss of the College of Business at Ohio University.

They published their findings in an article entitled "Integrated Conflict Management Systems Pay Off with Lower Levels of Formal Grievances and Lower Turnover Rates," which appeared in the March 2020 issue of ILR Review.

The researchers studied data collected over an eight-year period from a health care system that includes more than 200 small-scale physician clinics, four hospitals, a nursing home and a hospice center. The system, which employs about 5,000 people, hired a new CEO in 2001, hoping to rebound from a troubling period in the mid-1990s in which revenues and heath care quality dropped, employee morale slumped, and conflict and competition among various units and departments was fostered.

Under the new leadership, the health care system implemented system-wide CMIs as a strategy to regain a competitive edge in the regional market. The new CEO believed strongly in CMIs as a way to prevent and quickly resolve interpersonal problems and disputes.

In contrast to performance appraisals, CMIs are designed to promote communication and feedback in both directions between supervisor and subordinate. In essence, they enter into a contract about what they expect from each other, and check back once a month to see how they're doing and whether they need to revise anything.

While the CEO of the health care system had mandated CMIs, the researchers expected to find variations in implementation in three primary ways: occurrence, frequency and quality.

"Some managers are better than others at doing it," Dunford says. "Some of them turned their noses up and says, 'We don't have time for this.' And others says, 'We can't afford not to do this.'"

The researchers collected survey data on the occurrence, frequency and quality of CMIs over the eight-year-period. They analyzed the data to determine how these variables were associated with three key outcomes of conflict management systems: reducing formal grievance filings, improving participative culture, and reducing employee turnover.

They found evidence that the quality of CMIs was associated with fewer formal grievances, more participative culture perceptions, and increased retention. They also found that the occurrence and frequency of CMIs improved perceptions of participative culture, but did not reduce turnover or formal grievances.

To improve the quality of CMIs, organizations must be willing to invest in significant training, incentives, mentoring, and follow-up, the researchers say.

CMIs should be seen as an investment, not simply as a cost, Dunford says. "You talk to a chief financial officer and he or she will ask, 'Why are we spending money on all this training? Why don't we just pay one person to be the grievance person? That's cheaper than doing all this training.' Well, think of all the incredible loss of productivity, and the turnover and ill will that's caused when grievances don't get resolved.

“And think of how much more productivity we can have as an organization if we create the sort of culture where I can sit down at my interview regularly and have a very productive, open-ended conversation. This is something that doesn't happen as much as it should in the corporate world today."

By Melvin Durai