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INTEGRATED CONFLICT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS PAY
OFF WITH LOWER LEVELS OF FORMAL GRIEVANCES
AND LOWER TURNOVER RATES
BENJAMIN B. DUNFORD, KEVIN J. MUMFORD, R. WAYNE BOSS,
ALAN D. BOSS, AND DAVID S. BOSS*
The authors analyze an eight-year, multi-source, longitudinal data
set that followed a non-union health care system in the eastern
United States as it implemented a major preventative conflict management initiative placing responsibility for conflict resolution
directly in the hands of line managers and employees. The initiative
was a system-wide implementation of conflict management interviews (CMIs) between employees and supervisors, designed to
enable them to proactively resolve conflict and follow up on agreements for improving their working relationships. The authors investigate survey and personnel file data from 5,456 individuals from
2003 to 2010 and test key predictions of Integrated Conflict
Management Systems (ICMS) theory. They find that employees
whose managers provide high-quality CMIs have a lower likelihood
of formal grievances, significantly more perceptions of participative
department culture, and lower turnover rates. Collectively, these
findings suggest that simply holding CMIs may not be sufficient;
rather, the quality of CMIs may be the key to successful outcomes.
W
orkplace conflict is widespread and costly. Estimates suggest that US
employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with unnecessary conflict, corresponding to approximately $359 billion in paid hours and 385
million working days each year (CPP Global Human Capital Report 2008).
*BENJAMIN B. DUNFORD (
https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3289-4729) is an Associate Professor of
Management at the Krannert Graduate School of Management, Purdue University and is a Faculty
Scholar at the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering. KEVIN J. MUMFORD is an Associate Professor
at the Krannert Graduate School of Management, Purdue University and is the Kozuch Director of the
Purdue University Center of Economics (PURCE). R. WAYNE BOSS is a Professor of Organizational
Leadership and Information Analytics at the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado at
Boulder. ALAN D. BOSS is an Assistant Professor at the College of Business, University of Arkansas at Little
Rock. DAVID S. BOSS is an Associate Professor and the Nandola Professor of Business at the College of
Business, Ohio University.
For information regarding the data and/or computer programs used for this study, please address correspondence to bdunford@purdue.edu.
KEYWORDs: conflict management, retention, organizational behavior, interpersonal interactions,
grievances
ILR Review, 73(2), March 2020, pp. 528–551
DOI: 10.1177/0019793919882892. ! The Author(s) 2019
Journal website: journals.sagepub.com/home/ilr
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
INTEGRATED CONFLICT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
529
Conflict is costly for various reasons, including those associated with the
escalation of conflict into formal processes (e.g., arbitration and legal fees),
as well as wasted time, distractions for individuals and departments, absenteeism, and turnover. Perhaps the most damaging outcome of conflict is
dysfunctional organizational culture, which stifles change, innovation, and
organizational effectiveness. Not surprisingly, conflict management initiatives and procedures have become prevalent, even outside unionized firms
(Colvin 2003). Recent estimates suggest that at least 30% of Fortune 1000
corporations have implemented some type of conflict management program (Lipsky 2015).
Integrated Conflict Management Systems (ICMS) are defined as ‘‘a systematic approach to preventing, managing and resolving conflict within the
organization’’ (Gosline et al. 2001: 8) and represent an advanced form of
conflict management. We will not summarize every aspect of ICMS theory
here (see references for a comprehensive review), but rather draw attention
to three of its defining prescriptions about how to improve organizational
effectiveness. First, ICMS theory argues that the most effective conflict management tactics are preventive rather than reactive. ICMS theorists emphasize the prevention of conflicts, or escalation into serious grievances, that
require expensive and time-consuming formal processes (Lipsky, Seeber,
and Fincher 2003). Of course, not all conflicts are preventable. However,
ICMS place the responsibility for conflict resolution directly on managers
and employees, rather than ombudspersons, human resource (HR) departments, professional mediators, arbitrators, or outside counsel (Ewing 1989;
Gosline et al. 2001; Roche and Teague 2012). Second, ICMS theorists advocate for participants to be empowered and active problem solvers rather
than passive observers in conflict resolution. Ideally, conflicts are resolved at
the lowest organization level possible and avoid involvement of higher levels
of management or external parties (Costantino and Merchant 1996). Third,
ICMS emphasize long-term follow through and accountability (Conbere
2001; Lipsky et al. 2003). Employees and managers not only need to be
trained in conflict resolution techniques but also have ample opportunity,
time, and incentives for participating in discussions to improve accountability and ensure that conflicts stay resolved (Lipsky et al. 2003).
ICMS are designed to improve organizational effectiveness in a variety of
ways (Costantino and Merchant 1996). Among many outcomes discussed in
the literature, we focus on three in this study: reducing formal grievance filings, improving participative culture, and reducing employee turnover
(Gosline et al. 2001; Lipsky et al. 2003).
Purpose
Despite theoretical consensus that ICMS lead to multiple positive outcomes,
empirical research evaluating their organizational effectiveness remains
scarce. Most evaluation research to date is limited to understanding
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ILR REVIEW
procedure-related perceptions such as accessibility, likelihood of future use,
and fairness and impartiality of facilitators. ‘‘Many claims have been made
for the overall organizational impact of the proper introduction of conflict
management systems in a variety of publications. Yet it is in this area that
there is the most speculation and the least evidence’’ (Lipsky et al. 2003: 237,
emphasis added). Moreover, much of what we know about the efficacy of
ICMS interventions comes from qualitative research, observational methods,
and case studies (Gosline et al. 2001). Although process and decision perception outcomes are important in their own right, they do not give a complete picture about the extent to which ICMS accomplish many of the longterm organizational effectiveness objectives that are central to their purpose
(Costantino and Merchant 1996; Roche and Teague 2012; Lipsky 2015). To
fill this gap, this study evaluates a major preventative conflict management initiative in a US health care system in the eastern United States over an eightyear period. This initiative consisted of training and enabling employees and
supervisors to conduct Conflict Management Interviews1 (CMIs; Boss 1983;
Whetten and Cameron 2016) with one another throughout the health system.
Using a combination of survey and administrative data, we utilize ordinary
least squares (OLS) and fixed effects panel regression models to test how line
managers’ participation in CMIs with their employees affect formal grievances,
their employees’ perceptions of department culture, and actual retention.
Conflict Management Interviews and Literature Review
CMIs are private in-person meetings between two individuals to confront
and resolve prior or emerging conflicts (Cummings and Worley 2015);
develop and revise action plans for collaboration; and discuss task, process,
or interpersonal concerns. CMIs are widely implemented as part of leadership development initiatives to increase the quality of relationships between
managers and employees (Whetten and Cameron 2016). The defining
objectives of CMIs are to prevent or reduce the escalation of interpersonal
problems by 1) reducing the likelihood of misunderstanding through
increased communication, and 2) providing a mechanism for holding both
parties accountable to their commitment to the working relationship over a
sustained period of time (Boss 1983). CMIs contrast sharply with performance appraisals or performance interviews because they serve purely
developmental purposes rather than act as a legal defense or an administrative basis for making pay raise or promotion decisions. In CMIs, communication and feedback are exchanged in both directions (upward and
downward) between the supervisor and subordinate as opposed to the topdown method found in traditional performance appraisal-related meetings.
Indeed, mutual problem solving is the underlying philosophy of CMIs, in
contrast to a ‘‘tell and sell’’ philosophy in which supervisors unilaterally
1
These were also known as Personal Management Interviews or Personal Interviews in this health
system.
INTEGRATED CONFLICT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
531
attempt to persuade subordinates to conform to their own view of the problem and the appropriate solution (Maier 1958).
Research indicates that managers vary substantially in their buy-in and
execution of CMIs in their day-to-day interactions with employees (Boss and
McConkie 2008). Drawing on the management literature, we reason that
managers manifest this variation in implementation in three primary ways:
occurrence, frequency, and quality.
Occurrence. Simply stated, some managers hold CMIs and some do not
(Boss 1983; Whetten and Cameron 2016). Even if top management dictates
or mandates that CMIs be conducted, some managers will choose not to do
so because of time pressure, resentment, resistance to change, a lack of
knowledge, or the belief that the task is not worth the time investment.
Employees and managers may feel as though they are being coerced to
comply with an initiative that they do not like, do not believe in, or had no
input in developing (Costantino and Merchant 1996). All of these factors
suggest variance in the occurrence of CMIs between managers.
Frequency. ICMS theory (Costantino and Merchant 1996; Gosline et al.
2001; Lipsky et al. 2003) advocates for consistent communication and
ongoing feedback in relation to conflict. Numerous authors have identified
the relative infrequency of communications about performance-related
issues as a long-standing concern. In most organizations, performance
appraisals occur only once per year. Murphy and Cleveland noted that
‘‘annual performance appraisals have attained near ritual status in
American corporations’’ (1995: 372), yet research has suggested that infrequent feedback and performance-related communication can be problematic. Fairhurst (1993) found that communication frequency is positively
associated with subordinates’ perceived relationship quality with their supervisors. Similarly, Kacmar, Witt, Zivnuska, and Gully (2003) found a positive
relationship between communication frequency and performance ratings.
Thus, managers vary in the frequency with which they engage in CMIs over
time (Costantino and Merchant 1996).
Quality. Ewing (1989) observed that some managers are inherently more
receptive than others to listening to the concerns of their employees, taking
their input into account, and working collaboratively to resolve disagreements.
Others are prone to top-down communication and decision making (Boss
and McConkie 2008). Substantial empirical evidence indicates that quality of
supervisor-subordinate interactions varies significantly between managers
(Cogliser and Schriesheim 2000). Thus, we reason that line managers vary significantly regarding the quality of their interactions with employees in CMIs.
Beginning in the summer of 2001, the health care system that hosted our
study launched a large-scale program in which all supervisor-subordinate
dyads began holding CMIs and provided training and resources so this
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could occur during regular business hours. The CEO and top management
team championed this training and signaled the expectation that it would
become the standard operating procedure by conducting CMIs themselves
with their direct reports. The health system allowed us to collect survey data
on the occurrence, frequency, and quality of CMIs over time and to examine how they were associated with three important outcomes: formal grievance filings, perceptions of participative culture, and turnover. Thus, the
CMI initiative provided a unique opportunity to test the foundational predictions of ICMS theory, which asserts that the more line managers and
employees are directly involved in day-to-day conflict management, the better the result (Roche and Teague 2012).
Formal Grievance Filings
Many organizations today have formal processes that employees can use to
address grievances against their immediate supervisor, coworkers, top managers, policies, or the organization. Typically, a continuum of steps occur
within the grievance process. These steps increase in severity, complexity,
and cost as conflicts become disputes and require more formalization, written codification, involvement of multiple parties beyond the disputants,
legal counsel, costs, and time commitment (Costantino and Merchant 1996;
Lipsky et al. 2003). As such, employee grievance filings represent a common
metric used to operationalize the level of conflict between employees and
managers in organizations (Cappelli and Chauvin 1991).
A fundamental purpose of ICMS is to prevent conflicts from occurring
and to reduce the extent to which they escalate to avoid more severe, timeconsuming, and costly organizational responses (Gosline et al. 2001). We
assert that CMI occurrence, frequency, and quality are all associated with
the likelihood that individuals will file grievances within the organization’s
formal dispute resolution system. The literature is clear in showing that
unresolved grievances are linked to a host of negative employee behaviors
including shirking, sabotage, absenteeism, reduced cooperation, employee
turnover, and conflict escalation (Cappelli and Chauvin 1991). When parties avoid communicating with each other, sidestep confrontation, and fail
to voice their concerns, the possibility that their concerns will fester, blow
out of proportion, and decrease the quality of the interpersonal relationship
becomes much greater (Baumeister, Stillwell, and Wotman 1990). CMIs
provide a structure and method for direct communication, problem solving,
and mutual understanding between the parties in conflict (Boss 1983). By
design, CMIs should reduce or eliminate the escalation of grievances by preventing them from occurring or by neutralizing them before they require
involvement with other parties such as higher-level managers, HR professionals, or mediators (Ewing 1989; Lipsky et al. 2003). If implemented well,
CMIs should negate the need for anyone but the actual parties in conflict
to be involved in the discussion (Boss 1983; Whetten and Cameron 2016).
INTEGRATED CONFLICT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
533
Theorists have long considered the impact of the interaction frequency
on interpersonal conflict. In what has been called the ‘‘contact hypothesis,’’
they have argued that the more frequently people see each other at work,
the more they will communicate and the less likely they will be to have unresolved conflicts (Coleman 1957). More recent research, however, suggests
that the frequency of supportive confrontation strongly influences the escalation of conflict (Labianca, Brass, and Gray 1998). Holding CMIs more frequently provides greater opportunities for misunderstandings to be
communicated and problems to be resolved before they fester. Thus, we
assert that the frequency of CMIs held between managers and their subordinates will be negatively associated with the likelihood of formal grievance
filings.
Moreover, beyond CMI occurrence and frequency, we propose that the
quality of those meetings is associated with the escalation of grievances.
Managers vary significantly in their listening, communication, problemsolving, and anger management skills (Lipsky et al. 2003). Those who lack
such soft skills may become controlling, defensive, dismissive, or accusatory
in CMIs and exacerbate, rather than resolve, conflicts (Costantino and
Merchant 1996). Drawing on these perspectives, we reason that the occurrence, frequency, and quality of CMIs will be negatively related to the likelihood of formal grievances.
H1a: Employees who report that their direct line manager conducts CMIs with
them personally will be less likely to have a formal grievance documented in the
organization’s conflict resolution procedure than employees who report having
no CMIs with their manager.
H1b: Employee perceptions of CMI frequency will be negatively related to the
likelihood that employees will have a formal grievance documented in the organization’s conflict resolution procedure.
H1c: Employee perceptions of CMI quality will be negatively related to the likelihood that employees will have a formal grievance documented in the organization’s conflict resolution procedure.
Participative Culture
Participative organizational cultures are defined by two main characteristics.
First, information flows freely to and from employees, such that their managers provide adequate information about their work and give legitimate consideration to their upward input on work-related matters (Likert 1967).
Second, employees perceive that they control decisions about their work.
When employees feel empowered, they will perform better, be more committed to the organization, and be less likely to leave, thus collectively influencing the effectiveness of the organization (Kanter 2008). As noted, a
central objective of ICMS is to create a participative culture in which a critical mass of individuals feels informed and encouraged to take responsibility
for resolving problems on their own. When employees own the process and
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ILR REVIEW
the resolution in conflicts, they are much more likely to be satisfied and
committed to the solution in the long term (Costantino and Merchant
1996).
We propose that managerial implementation of CMIs will be strongly
associated with employees’ perceptions of participative culture because
these interviews are designed with multilateral information sharing and control in mind (Boss and McConkie 2008). Indeed, CMIs place responsibility
for problem solving in the hands of employees themselves (Boss 1983).
Thus, we expect employees who hold CMIs to feel that organizational culture is more participative than authoritarian. Managers who hold CMIs
more frequently reinforce information sharing and control with greater
consistency and engagement. Moreover, managers who provide betterquality CMIs characterized by high levels of information sharing, problem
solving, and empowerment are likely to foster a greater sense of participative culture in the minds of the employees they lead. Thus, drawing on
insights from ICMS theory, we hypothesize that CMI occurrence, frequency,
and quality will be positively related to employee perceptions of participative culture.
H2a: Employees who report that their direct line manager conducts CMIs with
them personally will have more positive culture perceptions over time.
H2b: Employee perceptions of CMI frequency will be positively related to participative culture perceptions over time.
H2c: Employee perceptions of CMI quality will be positively related to participative culture perceptions over time.
Employee Turnover
Integrated conflict management theory provides an insightful conceptual
framework, which explains why CMIs would promote employee retention
(Lipsky et al. 2003). This theory holds that individuals engage in either voice
or exit behavior in response to dissatisfaction in relationships …
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