Institutionalizing Sustainable Conflict Management in Organizations: Leaders, Networks, and Sensemaking

Date01 December 2014
Published date01 December 2014
C R Q, vol. 32, no. 2, Winter 2014 155
© 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. and the Association for Confl ict Resolution
Published online in Wiley Online Library ( • DOI: 10.1002/crq.21106
Institutionalizing Sustainable Con ict
Managementin Organizations: Leaders,
Networks,and Sensemaking
Leigh Anne Liu
Lin Inlow
Jing Betty Feng
We investigated the process and outcomes of a systematic approach
to institutionalize confl ict management in a large public nonprofi t
organization. Using longitudinal and multilevel fi eld data, we were
able to identify the eff ects of the institutionalization process from mul-
tiple perspectives. We hypothesized and found the combination of three
critical social factors—leadership, construction and maintenance of
social networks, and the sensemaking processes—in the diff usion of both
codifi ed and tacit knowledge about confl ict management. Also, social
construction supplements structural factors in the institutionalization
process of confl ict management practices.
The costs of ill-managed confl icts in organizations are often very high.
Systematic and institutionalized confl ict management has become a
natural pursuit of top-level managers in organizations.  e questions that
challenge social scientists and practitioners alike are: “How can we insti-
tutionalize eff ective ways of dealing with confl ict throughout the entire
organization?” and “What will make eff ective confl ict management in
an organization sustainable?” Studies on the institutionalization of other
organizational practices have developed answers to these questions in
organizational structures and practices (Edelman 1990, 1992; Sutton,
Dobbin, Meyer, and Scott 1994), cultural framing (Hirsch 1986), and
change in meaning systems (Kelly and Dobbin 1998), as well as in an inter-
play of practices, actors, and meanings (Fligstein 1990; Zilber 2002).
C R Q • DOI: 10.1002/crq
This article extends the study of the institutionalization process to
the area of conflict management and presents a case demonstrating that
the institutionalization process is socially constructed by the combined
influence of multilevel actors, social networks, and metaphors. We use
a longitudinal and multilevel case study to support our arguments. Our
case encompasses two approaches to the design and implementation of
comprehensive conflict management programs in a large, complex public
nonprofit organization over twelve years: a mandated policy from senior
leadership (a top-down approach) and organizational freedom in design
and implementation of policy (a bottom-up approach). Based on data
from four waves of surveys and interviews of organization members, as
well as archival data from publicly available records and news media, we
consider the combined influence of leaders and conflict managers as lead-
ers, the conflict managers’ social networks, and the metaphors they use.
First, we review the literature on institutionalization of conflict manage-
ment and propose the social construction process. We then present the
case study. We conclude by discussing how organizations and individuals
can increase or decrease the degree of institutionalization of conflict man-
agement and thereby influence the efficiency and sustainability of dealing
with conflicts.
Institutionalization of Con ict Management
Confl ict is the state of discord caused by actual or perceptual opposition of
needs, values, beliefs, and interests (Pruitt and Rubin 1986). It is an omni-
present trait of human societies since it is almost impossible to fi nd two
parties with entirely overlapping interests (Schelling 1960), and confl ict
coexists with the order and coordination in organizational life (Katz and
Kahn 1978). Compared to other practices in organizational life, confl ict
management in organizations consists of four distinct characteristics: (1) a
low level of validity resulting from confl ict and multiplicity of individual
roles; (2) complexity due to deep involvement and long-term relationships
among organizational members; (3) high stakes due to consequential and
long-lasting eff ects of confl ict management on individuals, groups, and
organizations; and (4) knowledge that is more tacit than explicit and there-
fore more diffi cult for knowledge transfer.  ere are many ways of manag-
ing confl icts, ranging from adversarial approaches such as gossip, feuding,
bullying, terrorism, and warfare, to constructive approaches such as media-
tion, arbitration, and negotiation.

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