A theory of justice, conflict resolution and collaboration

Photo by wjarrettc

In this interesting post on the MIX (management innovation exchange), Leigh Weiss discusses the concept of collaboration and what an important part conflict plays in it. I found this example to be particularly fascinating:

Some groups use a visual symbol – a yellow card, for example – in meetings as a way for individuals to signal that they have an objection or that they feel their view (or someone else’s) is being overlooked. Bob Sutton and other management researchers have noted the tendency for senior people to dominate conversation within meetings. Raising the yellow card signals that the objector is acting within the group-defined agreement of behavior and serves as a cue to remind the others that the group has agreed on the necessity and value of conflicting opinions and debate

Similarly, Larry Prusak writes in HBR.org about the lessons NASA learned from its failures to embrace dissent in the past, which include, among other things:

  • Bringing many and varied experts and interested parties together in one room, where they could listen to one another and discuss their findings and opinions.
  • Conducting widespread, “democratic” polls (rather than, say, providing information to a few senior managers who would make the decision themselves).

At a fist glance the yellow card or the “democratic” polls seem like trivial ideas. Why do we need a sign? People can just raise their hands and talk! Why do we need a “democratic” (which probably means secret) poll? If people have objections they will just say them out loud.

However, in case of conflict, there is a lot of power to be found in pre-agreed upon resolution mechanisms. In the heat of an argument or a content-based conflict there it is difficult for the parties abandon their standpoints in order to agree on how to agree. When done in advance, it would be easier for the parties to think of it as fair, as it is not connected in their minds to the current debate. It is similar to the ideas proposed by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice:

Specifically, Rawls develops what he claims are principles of justice through the use of an entirely and deliberately artificial device he calls the Original position in which everyone decides principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance. This “veil” is one that essentially blinds people to all facts about themselves that might cloud what notion of justice is

If you are a team leader it might be wise to develop pre-agreed upon mechanisms to settle conflicts. These mechanisms should be decided by the team before hand, when people are ignorant to their side of the conflict and to their interests in it. When people perceive these mechanisms as fair in advance it would be hard for them to argue against them in real-time, which will enable better conflict management that will lead to the needed collaboration.

What are your mechanisms for conflict resolution? Are they determined before or during a conflict?


2 Responses to “A theory of justice, conflict resolution and collaboration”

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