Culture: The Missing Link in Dispute Systems Design
By Corinne Bendersky
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Culture: The Missing Link in Dispute Systems Design," Corinne Bendersky, Negotiation Journal, 14:4 (October 1998), pp. 307-311.
While dispute systems design textbooks generally acknowledge the importance of organizational culture, they rarely define organizational culture or explain how to accommodate it. Bendersky distinguishes between the explicit dispute resolution processes of an organization and their implicit dispute resolution practices. Dispute systems based on the explicit processes may founder if they clash with the implicit culture.
The author opens with a case of failed dispute system design. A company had a significant number of equal employment opportunity complaints, based on employee's perceptions of mangers' discrimination in promotion decisions. Employee surveys showed that he existing dispute process (filing claims with the human resources department) was not effective. Company officers were surprised, since their company had a reputation for using constructive conflict to generate creative ideas. Human resources established an internal office where employees could receive confidential advice on raising promotion concerns directly with their manger, or could request help from a mediator. Managers were very willing to engage in mediation with employees. However, use of the new system quickly dropped to zero, while promotion disputes continued to occur.
Bendersky argues that culture played a significant role in this failure. "Culturally, it was expected that successful employees should confront problems with their peers and supervisors on a one-on-one basis. Needing a third party to help resolve conflicts implied an inability to perform an essential job function."(p. 309) Seeking mediation or involving a third party in a promotion dispute simply confirmed that the employee was unfit. Employees were also suspicious of the confidentiality of the counseling offered. The human resources department was usually called in by a manager in cases were an employee might be fired, and so the department did not seem neutral or trustworthy to the employees.
Often there is a difference between what an organization says it does to handle conflicts (their explicit conflict system), and what members actually do in practice (their implicit system). Bendersky notes that "dispute system design practitioners generally examine, and then try to influence the explicit system in an organization."(p. 309) However, most conflicts with an organization are handled according to the implicit norms of the organizational culture. When the explicit and the implicit systems differ, the dispute system may ineffective or irrelevant. When the systems are similar, then changes in the explicit system can be translated into practical changes.
In conclusion, Bendersky says, "when designing a new conflict resolution program, consider how people actually act when they are in conflict. If dispute systems designers look only at the policies describing how people are supposed to act, the may find them selves designing a new program that is essentially irrelevant to the organization."(p. 310)