Disputes are thieves. They rob us of time, energy and money. Disputes can even lead to death. Preventing disputes and resolving them quickly is imperative.
Many disputes are of the kind we tell stories about over coffee in the workplace. A misunderstanding with one’s spouse, an argument with teenage children, and a difficult conversation at parent-teacher night are all mainstays. The workplace itself provides fodder for similar stories. The bombastic boss, the controlling colleague, co-workers not pulling their weight and so on are subject matter for conversation during coffee breaks at work and dinner at home.
Many of these disputes seem inconsequential, with their main value being entertainment or object lessons in human pettiness. But disputes also have serious consequences. In the US, 135,000 children “take handguns to school each day, …every fourteen hours a child under the age of five is murdered, and homicide has replaced automobile accidents as the leading cause of death in children under the age of one….”1 Similarly, the statistics on divorce rates and domestic violence may be examples of poor dispute resolution.
In the workplace, disputes cause personal and organizational turmoil. Productivity is known to decline during all periods of disruption and uncertainty in corporate life. An organization may lose staff and productivity may fall “to less than an hour” per day. At least seventy per cent of all mergers and acquisitions fail to produce a net increase in value.4 At least one distinguished observer questions whether any American corporations have been profitable since World War II.
Large organizations have formal, written policies and procedures designed to manage disputes. In organizations of all sizes, cultural norms augment the formal process.6 Culture is an important part of this discussion because more formal processes and written procedures may be ignored, gathering dust on the shelf. So, workers may turn away from the dusty shelf and to informal policies to alleviate disputes. Some of the stories that follow capture both formal and informal dispute-resolution mechanisms. The overriding theme is that better dispute-resolution mechanisms yield fewer debilitating disputes.