Hidden Conflict in Organizations: Uncovering the Behind-the-Scenes Disputes
By Deborah M. Kolb and Jean M. Bartunek
Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Hidden Conflict in Organizations: Uncovering the Behind-the-Scenes Disputes. Deborah M. Kolb and Jean M. Bartunek, eds. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992, 241 pp.
Hidden Conflict in Organizations: Uncovering the Behind-the-Scenes Disputing takes conflict resolution and organizational theory into a new realm by examining the informal processes of conflict resolution that take place within the structure of organizations, but outside the normative models of conflict resolution adhered to by the field. Through field research, the editors of the volume discovered that organizational conflict was often "embedded in the routine and mundane activities of the work settings" and not managed in the formal ways that existing conflict models suggested. This edited volume was spawned out of a symposium organized by the editors, which concentrated on the behind-the-scenes perspective of organizational conflict.
In the introduction, "The Dialectics of Disputing", Deborah Kolb and Linda Putnam begin with a review of various approaches to the study of organizational conflict. They explain that a "dialectical approach" is the one taken in this book, meaning that rather than focusing solely on particular aspects of conflicts, the polar opposite of those features are also considered. The essays in this volume investigate the "understudied poles" of typical foci of conflict research. For example, the dialectical approach takes researchers to the private, informal realm of dispute resolution rather than the traditional public arenas of conflict intervention, or looks at emotion and intuition rather than logic and rationale in approaches to resolution. Therefore, the chapters in Hidden Conflict in Organizations: Uncovering the Behind-the-Scenes Disputing "describe processes that are more likely to be private, informal, and non-rational but that exist in tenuous relationship to their opposites. They enlighten us about conflict as it is enacted in the crevices and crannies of organizations" (22).
Chapter Two, "Drinking Our Troubles Away: Managing Conflicts in a British Police Agency" by John Van Maanen, presents an ethnographic account of a London police office in which "time outs" for drinks at a local pub, actually served an informal conflict management function. Considered extracurricular activity by the workers, these occasions for social drinking actually turn out to be times when everyday, work-related frustrations and differences are aired. Moreover, Van Maanen observed an informal process of dispute resolution performed with a recurring set of understood rules.
"Women's Work: Peacemaking in Organizations", by Deborah Kolb addresses informal peacemaking processes that occur within organizations, which she states is one of the most common forms of conflict management within organizations, as mediation is rarely opted for. This chapter focuses specifically on women's role as informal peacemakers by looking at the stories of three particular women who perform "invisible" informal peacemaking activities in their organizations. Moreover, Kolb attempts to flesh out "some of the ways in which gender may influence dispute processing and how these modes of conflict management contribute to gendered definitions of organization activity" (65).
Chapter Four, "The Private Ordering of Professional Relations" by Calvin Morrell, discusses the tension between the maintenance of organizational order and the necessity of organizational change. However, Morrell concentrates on low-visibility, everyday, "private grievances" rather than major, organization-wide changes. Private grievances are defined by the author as "interpersonal complaints that have low visibility to nonparticipants and are managed informally" (92). Such minor conflicts are important because they can threaten and/or preserve the organizational order, or can lead to incremental changes to the order through the adoption of new routines.
Jean Bartunek and Robin Reid discuss second-order organizational change in Chapter Five. Second order changes are said to involve qualitative shifts in the way that members of an organization understand significant dimensions of the organization and its work (116). The primary theoretical point in the chapter is that as second-order change begins to take shape, conflicts will arise between sides espousing old and new frameworks. Such conflict is seen as essential for organizational change, as it allows for dialectical interaction between them, which brings different perspectives into contact that would otherwise not be recognized or dealt with. The second-order change may then flow out of this interaction. The chapter employs a specific case study of a school to demonstrate these principles.
In "The Culture of Mediation: Private Understandings in the Context of Public Conflict", Raymond Friedman discusses what he deems the "culture of mediation" that exists among subgroups who are acting as intermediaries between other publicly disputing groups. Such interstitial groups create their own identity in the space between disputing parties, acting as both a link and a buffer between them. Friedman uses this chapter to describe the culture of mediation concept and use it to "analyze labor-management conflict, contract negotiations, and the 1979 strike of International Harvester by the UAW" (144).
Chapter Seven presents Joanne Martin's paper, "The Suppression of Gender Conflict in Organizations." Martin offers an approach to researching the ways in which disempowered groups within organizations, such as women, covertly express their dissatisfaction with an organization's functioning. Focusing on gender-based issues, Martin looks at how organizational policies "designed to 'help' women employees, can suppress gender conflict and reify, rather than alleviate, gender inequality" (167). She employs postmodern discursive analysis to deconstruct the story of a high-ranking female executive and get at what exactly the story tells us about gender bias in this case study.
With "Culture and Conflict: The Cultural Roots of Discord", Frank Dubinskas delves into an investigation of a conflict between research scientists and executives in a small biotechnology firm. He chooses ethnography as his tool to attempt to uncover the "taken-for-granted" attitudes that constitute the "cultural chasm" between the scientists and executives in this case. The author believes that different cultural patterns exist among functional specialties within organizations (in this case, a biotechnology firm.)
Jean Bartunek, Deborah Kolb, and Roy Lewicki present the concluding chapter of Hidden Conflict in Organizations, entitled "Bringing Conflict Out from Behind the Scenes: Private, Informal, and Nonrational Dimensions of Conflict in Organizations." This chapter serves to tie the main points and issues of the work together and explore some of their implications. The authors include a summary of what the previous chapters illuminate regarding private, informal, and nonrational aspects of organizational conflict resolution. They discuss why such dimensions of conflict are integral to understanding the functioning of organizations, using a case example to illustrate their points. Lastly, the authors offer some suggestions for the future of conflict research in organizations. This book is useful for anyone involved in organizational conflicts. It also has interesting implications for conflicts in other settings, as private, informal and nonrational processes play key roles in family, public policy and even international disputes as well. This book focuses on an aspect of disputing and dispute processing that is very important, but often ignored.