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The Structural Causes of Workplace Conflict: Understanding the Implications for the Mediation of Workplace Disputes

Authors:
Bond Law Review
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Practice Note:
The Structural Causes of Workplace Conflict:
Understanding the Implications for the
Mediation of Workplace Disputes
MERIEL O’SULLIVAN
Abstract
Conflict resolution theory posits that understanding the sources of
conflict aids peace making by informing the selection of
interventions most likely to support the resolution of conflict. At the
workplace level, a common approach to addressing conflict
between staff is to treat the situation as a grievance and refer it to
mediation or investigation. Such interventions presume the source
of the conflict is between the staff who are parties to the grievance.
In doing so, the interventions may be limited in their effectiveness,
as a focus on individuals does not consider the role that
organisational factors can play in conflict. This case study of a
grievance is used to explore theories on the sources and resolution
of workplace conflict. The case study illustrates what a dispute
labelled as being between individuals can reveal about the role of
the organisation as a source of conflict. This understanding is used
to critique typical Human Resources (‘HR’) responses to conflict,
and explore alternative interventions. Fundamentally, the case study
highlights what happens when there is a mismatch between the
sources of conflict and the conflict resolution intervention, and how
this can be addressed by broadening the range of interventions
utilised in a workplace environment.
I The Case Study
A complaint was initiated by an employee (the ‘Complainant’) about the
behaviour of a colleague at a mid-size public sector organisation (the
‘workplace’). As part of the grievance the Complainant alleged his
colleague made a threatening comment towards him and that the comment
reflected a pattern of aggressive and bullying behaviour that management
was aware of and failed to address. The Complainant lodged a formal
complaint against his colleague regarding the alleged threat, and a second
complaint against his supervisor (the ‘Supervisor’), the next-level
supervisor (the ‘Coordinator’) and the line-manager for the department (the
‘Manager’), for failing to address his initial concern (the ‘second
complaint’). The Complainant agreed to address both complaints through
HR Consultant specialising in the resolution and management of workplace conflict. Meriel
has postgraduate qualifications in Labour Law and ADR, is a nationally accredited mediator
and tutors in ADR at La Trobe University Law School.
88
Bond Law Review
(2017)
mediation. However, his colleague did not consent to participate in a
mediation process. Ultimately, the Complainant decided his primary
concern was to address the second complaint, and he did not pursue the
formal complaint against his colleague.
A mediation process was undertaken in relation to the second
complaint. The Complainant, the Supervisor, the Coordinator and the
Manager (the ‘parties’) all participated in two mediation sessions that
resulted in a written agreement between the parties on communication and
protocols for managing future incidents involving aggressive behaviour.
II The Issues
The Complainant said there had been multiple examples of ‘bad behaviour’
by a group of staff, including failing to carry out work instructions, going
home during work hours, making intimidating comments and threatening
other staff. The Complainant said disputes between staff were caused by
management’s failure to effectively address incidents of poor behaviour for
fear of causing a dispute with the Union. In describing the work situation,
the Complainant said:
Bad behaviour is the status quo. Management don’t deal with behaviours. [The
Supervisor and Coordinator] have both said, ‘HR won’t do anything because
the Union will give them a hard time and then they will back off’. They say
they have ‘tried and tried’ to warn people for bad behaviour. Absenteeism is
out the window. So is non-performance. They have put it to the guys and tried
to discipline them, then the Union says, ‘We don’t agree’, and HR says, ‘That’s
fine. We will leave it alone.’ I have heard on the grapevine that the CEO is risk-
averse and doesn’t want to tackle the Union.
The conflict situation in the work area was exacerbated by the dynamics
of the workplace. The parties work in a male dominated, highly unionised
area where there is a division between management and non-management
positions, with non-management staff viewing management positions and
processes with suspicion. It is common for the culture to be described as
‘blokey’, for communications to be direct and blunt, and for there to be
internal pressure amongst non-management staff to resolve issues between
themselves rather than referring issues up reporting lines (derogatively
referred to as ‘dobbing’). These dynamics add complexity to the assumed
understanding of power in the workplace. Weber argues that power occurs
where one person in a social relationship carries out their will ‘despite
resistance’.1 This allows for the possibility that individuals can exercise
power informally, irrespective of the formal authority afforded to a
position. This idea can be extended through Arendt’s view that power can
1 Max Weber,
The Theory of Social and Economic Organization
(Talcott Parsons and A M
Henderson, trans, Free Press, 1965).
Vol 29(1)
The Structural Causes of Workplace Conflict
89
occur through people acting ‘in concert’.2 Accordingly, a group of staff
acting cohesively, whether through collaboration or intimidation, can
exercise power in the workplace to shape decision making and exercise
authority. The risk for a workplace that has a social system that reinforces
conflict is that, in the long-term, the values of an aggressive group can
become dominant and break down the intended culture.3
III The Impact
Each party experienced stress as a result of the ‘bad behaviour’ and, more
significantly, from not being supported to address the behaviour when their
roles gave them varying degrees of responsibility for managing behaviour
and conflict in the workplace. Recognising that conflict is a consequence
of unmet human need,4 the perceived lack of support served to undermine
the core needs of the parties relating to identity, recognition and security.5
For the Complainant, the result of the alleged ineffective management is
workplace bullying and the loss of job satisfaction.
The Supervisor agreed
that bad behaviour and poor performance were not addressed and cited
examples of where reported misconduct resulted in no action by the
Manager or the HR Manager, to the point where he felt undermined,
unsupported and powerless. During the mediation, the Supervisor
disclosed that he experienced depression from the negative work
environment and consequential sense of helplessness. The Manager argued
that the situation was complicated by legal restrictions on employers and
that he had not been made aware of all examples of misconduct raised
through the mediation process. Nevertheless, the Coordinator and Manager
agreed that there were issues with behaviour, and expressed their own
frustration with a lack of support from senior management, including the
Director, HR Manager and CEO, in addressing concerns.
While there were differing views amongst the parties on the degree of
responsibility they should share for the situation it was common ground
that senior management did not support lower-level managers in
addressing performance when there was a risk of a situation becoming the
subject of a dispute. Prior to the mediation at least five investigations had
occurred at the workplace dealing with separate complaints about
inappropriate behaviour across multiple departments. In each case the
evidence highlighted that the behaviour had occurred over an extended
period and that the behaviour had been reported to management but not
effectively addressed. Comments from the investigations included: ‘We’ve
2 Seyla Benhabib, ‘Hannah Arendt and the Redemptive Power of Narrative’ in Lewis Hinchman
and Sandra Hinchman (eds),
Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays
(State University of New York
Press, 1994) 111, 130.
3 Lewis A Coser, ‘Social Conflict and the Theory of Social Change’ (1957) 8(3)
The British
Journal of Sociology
197, 204.
4 Robert Burrowes,
The Strategy of Nonviolent Defence: A Gandhian Approach
(State
University of New York Press, 1996) 65.
5 See generally Anne Ardagh, ‘Conflict, Globalisation, Needs and Security’
(2004) 15(4)
Australian Journal of Dispute Resolution
235.
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Bond Law Review
(2017)
had made many, many complaints over the years’; ‘I can’t believe it has
been allowed to get where it’s got to with [the] behaviour’; and ‘I’ve never
seen a situation go on like this at this level for so long’.
The consequences
of inaction by the senior management extended beyond a detrimental
impact on the parties and the environment in the work area, and was having
significant ramifications for the culture of the workplace as a whole. The
situation supports Burton’s argument that a failure of institutions to satisfy
human need will result in social conflict and the destabilisation of
institutions.6
IV Relevance of Conflict Resolution Theory to the Workplace
Conflict resolution theory is an interdisciplinary field that draws on a range
of theoretical backgrounds to inform our understanding of the nature,
causes, management and resolution of conflict. Psychologist B F Skinner
theorised that human behaviour is learnt as the result of positive or negative
reinforcement: where an action results in a positive consequence the
behaviour will be reinforced, and where an action results in a negative
consequence the behaviour is less likely to be repeated. Thus, argued
Skinner, human behaviour can be conditioned by ‘what follows as a
consequence of behaviour’.7 This well accepted theory underpins many
HR practices, such as bonuses for high performance and disciplinary action
for misconduct. From a behaviourist perspective, the logical consequence
of inaction by HR and senior management in the face of disruptive and
aggressive behaviour will be an increase in the poor behaviour and,
consequently, an increase in conflict.
Azar extends Burton’s understanding of the consequences of unmet
needs in his examination of the role of the nation state in meeting human
needs, and the relationship between met or unmet needs and the prevention
or generation of conflict. Azar theorized that the sources of protracted
social conflict relate to the failure of the state to meet the basic needs of
communal groups.8 In the context of a workplace, the ‘state’ can be
understood as including the systems (policies, procedures and work
practices) and structures (roles, responsibilities and reporting lines) that
guide the production of goods or services. It is evident from the case study
that the needs of the staff for security, identity and recognition were
undermined by the structural failure to implement systems designed to
regulate behaviour. The failure resulted in employees losing confidence in
management and, consequently, ceasing to report ongoing aggressive and
inappropriate behaviour. This had the effect of positively reinforcing the
6 Burrowes, above n 4, 65.
7 Nigel C Benson et al,
The Psychology Book
(Darling Kindersley, 2012) 81.
8 Oliver Ramsbotham, Tom Woodhouse and Hugh Miall,
Contemporary Conflict Resolution
(Polity Press, 3rd ed, 2011) 94.
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The Structural Causes of Workplace Conflict
bad behaviour, leading to the behaviour escalating, which triggered more
conflict and a cycle that leads to the creation of intractable disputes.9
Azar’s theory is reinforced by the work of the Parliamentary Inquiry
into Workplace Bullying, which outlined that ‘[a]n abusive working
environment or a toxic workplace is more likely to spring from the failure
to address bullying and other negative behaviours systemically, quickly and
consistently’.10 It is for this reason that repeated, ongoing incidents of
inappropriate behaviour, misconduct or bullying should not just be seen as
being about the treatment of an individual by another and that ‘behaviour
must also be analysed in the context of broader organisational dynamics’.11
For the workplace, the failure of senior management and HR to
consistently enforce the formal systems for addressing behaviour, such as
the code of conduct, anti-bullying policy and disciplinary procedure, led to
a break down in social cohesion and an increase in conflict. The response
of HR to incidents of bullying was to rely on staff to lodge formal
complaints and then treat those complaints as disputes between individuals
by referring them to mediation or investigation. This approach proved
inadequate for managing the situation, as evidenced by the fact that
different departments within the workplace have experienced multiple
grievances with the common theme of management inaction in the face of
repeated poor behaviour.
V Alternative Dispute Resolution Approaches
Mediation and investigation, both of which are common workplace
interventions, can be valuable for addressing staff grievances, but it is
important to understand their benefits and limitations. Mediation is an
interest-focused approach that seeks to empower the parties to a dispute to
reach a mutually agreeable resolution.12 It is a flexible, informal and useful
intervention because it ‘strives to improve relationships between parties
and achieve reconciliation’.13 However, it is limited in its ability to address
entrenched, systemic conflict, as there is often a disconnect between the
parties to the initial dispute and the underlying source of the conflict. In
relation to the case study, the absence of senior management or HR from
the mediation process meant genuine resolution of the underlying causes
of the conflict was not possible.
There are variations to the mediation model that seek to reduce the
disconnect between the individual-focused approach that is characteristic
9 Ibid 99.
10 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, Parliament of
Australia,
Workplace Bullying: We Just Want it to Stop
(2012) 105 [4.2].
11 Dennis Pearce,
Workplace Conduct in CSIRO: A Report of the Independent Investigator for
Allegations of Workplace Bullying and Other Unreasonable Behaviour
(Report,
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, 31 July 2013) 39.
12 Jay Folberg and Alison Taylor,
Mediation: A Comprehensive Guide to Resolving Conflicts
Without Litigation
(Wiley, 1984) 15.
13 Ibid 16.
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Bond Law Review
(2017)
of a typical mediation and the need to acknowledge the role of the
organisation in creating, escalating and/or impacting a dispute. For
example, the Occupational Health and Safety model of mediation (the
‘OH&S model’) includes the provision of a post-mediation report to the
organisation with recommendations on identified organisational or
systemic issues that may assist with the resolution of the dispute.14 While
the OH&S model can be useful for raising broader issues, it does
necessarily involve all the parties to the conflict in the resolution process.
In the case study the parties found the mediation helpful but ultimately
unsatisfactory, as the settlement could not provide a sense of justice. This
sense of justice is necessary to support enduring resolution.15
Investigations are more determinative processes, and tend to focus on
the specific incidents that make up a grievance. This typically results in a
win/lose outcome, as is often associated with rights based processes,16 and
can damage ongoing relationships. 17 Nevertheless, ‘rights or power
procedures’ can be useful for bringing ‘a recalcitrant party into the
process’. 18 The evidence from the workplace, however, is that
investigations are used by human resource departments to ultimately deny
or ‘attempt to reduce conflicts’,19 rather than to understand and resolve the
underlying causes of the conflict.
What was needed for the case study was a problem-solving approach
that took into consideration the total environment, and not just the issues
within the parties’ control, in order to effectively deal with the source of
the conflict. 20 There are several emerging dispute resolution (‘DR’)
processes that provide this, including group conferencing, which ‘is
designed to bring together those affected by harmful and destructive
behaviour in the workplace’21, providing an opportunity to consider the
impact of workplace culture on the situation22. Group conferencing may
have been more effective than mediation for addressing the second
complaint as representatives of senior management could have been
included. This would have fulfilled Galtung’s requirement that all parties
need to participate for a peace building intervention to be effective.23
14 See generally Moira Jenkins, ‘Practice Note: Is Mediation Suitable for Complaints of
Workplace Bullying?’ (2011) 29(1)
Conflict Resolution Quarterly
32.
15 See generally Nancy Welsh, ‘Remembering the Role of Justice in Resolution: Insights from
Procedural and Social Justice Theories’ (2004) 54(1)
Journal of Legal Education
51.
16 Tania Sourdin,
Alternative Dispute Resolution
(Lawbook Co, 4th ed, 2012) 5.
17 Judge Joe Harman, ‘From Alternative to Primary Dispute Resolution: The Pivotal Role of
Mediation in (and in Avoiding) Litigation’ (Speech delivered at National Mediation
Conference, Melbourne, 10 September 2014).
18 William Ury, Jeanne Brett and Stephen Goldberg,
Getting Disputes Resolved
(Jossey-Bass,
1988) 4–5, cited in Burrowes, above n 4, 71.
19 Coser, above n 3, 198.
20 Burrowes, above n 4, 76.
21 Margaret Thorsborne, ‘Beyond punishment – Workplace Conferencing: An effective response
to incidents of workplace bullying’. Transformative Justive Australia (Queensland), 2.
22 Ibid.
23 Burrowes, above n 4, 78
Vol 29(1)
The Structural Causes of Workplace Conflict
93
An additional alternative process is to appoint a skilled, independent
third party to conduct a facilitated discussion. This is a less defined, more
flexible option that provides management and HR with the opportunity to
influence the purpose and agenda of the DR process and to be part of the
discussion. This approach, like group conferencing, recognises that
organisations can be parties to a workplace conflict and have an interest in
the terms of any resolution. Critical to the implementation of an appropriate
DR process is an intake process that seeks to clarify the issues, determine
the relevant parties and select the most effective process for the resolution
of the dispute. An effective HR intake will support individuals to address
issues directly, enable the root causes of a dispute to be identified, and
encourage the relevant people to be involved in the discussion and
resolution of the conflict. 24
Ultimately meeting staff needs and attaining peace at the workplace will
require more than DR processes, and will involve structural and cultural
change.25 Actions senior management can take to turn around the culture
include ensuring there is a timely, consistent and appropriate response to
incidents of poor behaviour. Culture is influenced by the actions of the
senior leaders and it is critical that the CEO and senior leadership team
demonstrate a preparedness to act. This means enforcing the code of
conduct, following policies and procedures regarding performance and
behaviour and supporting managers to act fairly, consistently and
expeditiously. The role of middle managers will be significant, as this
group have the most contact with staff, and their behaviour contributes to
the establishment of behavioural standards. Strong, practical and consistent
HR support will also be necessary to address poor performance.
VI Conclusion
Conflict, even where it appears to be between individuals, occurs in a
context. Workplaces, like societies, have formal and informal sanctions
that encourage and discourage particular behaviours. The behaviours
highlighted through the case study demonstrate what can occur when there
is a disconnect between formal and informal positions regarding workplace
behaviour. The formal position, as expressed by the policies, procedures
and systems, was that poor behaviour was not acceptable and would be
addressed. The informal position, as expressed by the actions of HR
officers and management, was that poor behaviour would not be addressed,
and people who reported the behaviour would remain unsupported and be
left to continue to work alongside the alleged perpetrators. Ultimately,
those with the power to implement policies and sanctions did not exercise
formal authority, leaving others to exercise power informally. The case
study highlights that identifying the sources of workplace conflict can be
24 State Services Authority, ‘Developing Conflict Resilient Workplaces: A Report for Victorian
Public Sector Leaders’ (Report, Victorian Government, 2010) 3, 12, 27.
25 Ibid 68.
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Bond Law Review
(2017)
complex and that ADR interventions must be sophisticated enough to
manage and respond to complex situations.26 Popular ADR interventions
such as mediation and investigation focus chiefly on the individuals
directly involved in the dispute, and may be ineffective where the sources
and resolution of conflict are beyond the capacity of parties to a conflict to
address.
26 Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, above n 8, 122.
... Often, the interpersonal conflict literature (Behfar et al., 2011;O'Sullivan, 2017;Wall and Callister, 1995) has utilized a tripartite model described by Jehn (1997) to categorize disagreements between two or more co-workers into process, relationship, and task subfactors. First, process conflicts can be described as those where employees disagree about who should be assigned to work duties and who should be allocated resources such as equipment and rewards. ...
... Organizational policies and procedures govern how interpersonal conflicts are resolved (e.g., Gilin-Oore et al., 2015;O'Sullivan, 2017). In a hierarchical organization, managerial action in the event of employee conflict can include simple discussion, disciplinary actions, and/or termination based on the severity of the employee actions (e.g., personality conflicts between parties, tardiness, safety violations; Gilin-Oore et al., 2015;Jones and Saundry, 2012). ...
... Type of conflict. Reports of conflict were identified within each transcript and were deductively categorized as either process, relationship, or task-based as guided by conflict management literature (e.g., Behfar et al., 2011;Jehn, 1997;O'Sullivan, 2017;Wall and Callister, 1995). Conflicts were categorized as process if they exemplified issues related to work scheduling (e.g., breaks during work, shift designation, overtime, compensation, equipment allocation), relationship if the conflict surrounded employees not 'liking' each other, and task if the conflict was about a job being completed incorrectly or inefficiently. ...
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From Alternative to Primary Dispute Resolution: The Pivotal Role of Mediation in (and in Avoiding) Litigation' (Speech delivered at National Mediation Conference
  • Judge Joe Harman
Judge Joe Harman, 'From Alternative to Primary Dispute Resolution: The Pivotal Role of Mediation in (and in Avoiding) Litigation' (Speech delivered at National Mediation Conference, Melbourne, 10 September 2014).