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Getting Disputes Resolved: Designing Systems to Cut the Costs of Conflict
Authors: William L. Ury, Jeanne M. Brett, and Stephen B. Goldberg
Publisher: Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, 1993 ISBN: 1-880711-03-6

People Talk Magazine: BC's Information Source for the Human Resource Specialist. V5 / NI / Fall, 2001

Reviewed by Donna Soules

Getting Disputes Resolved is a forward thinking book that gives a systematic procedure for implementing a dispute resolution process in the workplace. Using the case study of a US mining company experiencing "wild cat" strikes, the authors outline how to design a conflict resolution system. As a mediator I found the example to be a useful depiction for understanding how a dispute resolution model is constructed. The process they outline is transferable and applicable to virtually any work site.

The authors' argue for a dispute resolution process designed by all stakeholders including employees, union members, and management. The dispute resolution designer's knowledge needs to be blended with what the participants report as being needed, what will or will not work in their environment. "Working with the parties-involving them in the process of diagnosis, design, and implementation" enriches the outcome and creates stakeholder satisfaction (p. xvi).

Establishing an effective dispute resolution system involves three elements:

  1. garnering support
  2. dealing with resistance
  3. motivating people to use the new dispute resolution system.

Human resource practitioners are increasingly aware of the growing costs associated with conflict in organizations: legal and grievance costs, lost wages, lost production and performance, physical and emotional injury, and reemerging unresolved disputes. Changing procedures is not enough. Before a dispute resolution system can be designed and implemented, the authors argue that disputants must have motivation, conflict resolution skills, and resources to implement the new procedures.

The book outlines an approach to persuade those in conflict to "talk more and fight less," to reconcile interests instead of positions, to resolve disputes effectively and co-operatively. The intent of this approach is not to eliminate conflict, but to resolve it at the lowest cost. As a mediator, I appreciate the importance of keeping disputants talking and negotiating-something which can transform the conflict into a low-cost process with lasting results. This text is an excellent resource for HR professionals since it provides a practical framework for designing a low cost dispute resolution system to reduce the expensive costs of conflict in organizations.

The authors outline three options--from low cost to high cost--for resolving disputes in a workplace. The first option, which they favor, is to reconcile underlying interests by negotiating or mediating using an interest-based process. Interests are defined by what people want or need. Interest-based resolution may take more time in the initial stages, but usually pays dividends in the long run. The second and less desirable option is to determine who is right or wrong by using a rights-based process in which a person in authority determines a winner. This person could be a supervisor or adjudicator. The third option is to determine who has more power. Acts of power include aggressive actions--strikes, sabotage, physical attack, or threats--or passive approaches including withholding or avoiding.

The text outlines six "principles" for developing a dispute resolution process. The first principle is to diagnose existing systems. Useful exploration will determine what types of disputes arise, how are they handled, and why some procedures are used and others are not. The second principle is to negotiate or mediate the disputants' interests. The third principle is to design low cost rights procedures--such as advising arbitration--and power-based procedures such as voting. The fourth principle constructs feedback procedures to be used before and after the dispute to prevent future conflicts. This mechanism will provide loop-backs to less costly procedures. The fifth principle is to arrange procedures from least to most costly. The final principle is to provide staff with motivation, skills and resources. Implementing these six principles provides a low cost dispute resolution system.

In the final analysis, the goal of the authors is to reduce the costs of conflicts to build stronger and healthier organizations. "A good dispute resolution system consists of a series of successive safety nets-negotiation followed by mediation, advisory arbitration, arbitration, third-party intervention, and so on-that can ensnare a dangerous conflict before it can do irreparable harm" (p. 172). The authors quote an old Ethiopian proverb to encapsulate their point: "When spider webs unite, they can halt a lion" (p. 172).

(c)2002 Soules Consulting LTD.