Transforming employment relationships? Making sense of conflict management in the workplace
The way we manage workplace conflict matters because outcomes affect day-to-day relationships between individuals, families, team members, organisations and communities. The processes for managing employment relationship problems (ERP) are particularly important in education because adult citizens are expected to create a learning culture in school communities, in the best interests of children, on behalf of the state. This study investigates the management of employment relationship problems (ERP) in the education sector.
Located in New Zealand primary schools, the goal of this thesis has been to build empirical and theoretical insights about the nature of ERP and how best to manage workplace conflict. I aimed to find out: 1) what types of workplace conflict and ERP had been experienced; 2) what organisational conflict and dispute resolution policies, processes and practices were implemented in the workplace; 3) how participants understood ongoing employment relationship problems; 4) how conflict and ERP had been resolved; and 5) why problems had been avoided, managed, escalated, resolved or settled.
Fundamental to this study is the ontological assumption that social reality is subjective, co-constructed by human interaction. Ontologically, I view the nature of reality as a dynamic social process. Dervin’s (1983, 1992) claim that people are making sense of specific moments in time through message exchange, co-constructing social realities, is at the heart of this research about ERP resolution. Social constructivism attributes meaning to experiences as an ongoing interpretative process of construction and reconstruction, or sensemaking (Weick, 1995, 1976, 2009; Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld, 2005). A social constructionist approach is appropriate because people construct, reconstruct and co-construct their conflict stories while seeking to make sense of ERP. This interpretive study has been inductive and iterative with data collection, analysis, literature review and application of extant literature occurring simultaneously. There were 38 qualitative semi-structured, face-to-face, in-depth narrative interviews where participants were asked to recount recent stories of ERP. In excess of 260 ERP episodes surfaced. Drawing on grounded theory method (Charmaz, 2006, Corbin, and Strauss, 2008; Urquhart, 2013) ERP were coded, compared by participant, process, outcomes and categorised. The participants’ metaphors framed the themes reported in the four findings chapters. Building the emotional bank account focuses on relational trust (Chapter 5), Percolating problems: explores the nature of the ongoing day-to-day negotiation of power and influence (Chapter 6), Blurred boundaries, examines governing, leading and managing ERP (Chapter 7). The theme Learning and transforming employment relationship problems (Chapter 8), presents long narratives of ERP stories where transforming, collaborating, inaction, and resigning were significant characteristics of the management of ERP. The propositions that emerged from those four themes were clustered into three key theoretical insights and discussed in terms of extant literature. First, complex employment relationships identifies a fundamental shift in the way we think about parties to employment relationships and the problems that emerge from those relationships. The participants in this research reported a range of stakeholder involvement in ERP, beyond the employer/employee relationship. Secondly, barriers to workplace conflict management and problem resolution interrogates institutional barriers, misalignment of goals, and legalism embedded in processes that undermine trust in existing problem resolution processes. This study provides empirical evidence for a reconceptualisation of the employment relationship and governance structure in the New Zealand education sector, given the complex stakeholder involvement in the day-to-day management of conflict and ERP. The third and final theoretical insight proposes a model for embedding collaborative conflict management (CCM) in schools. The model emerged from comparing extant literature with findings that demonstrate early collaborative sensemaking can positively influence transformation and resolution of complex ERP. The study concludes by asserting that this model of CCM involving sensemaking, preceding joint problem-solving early in the emergence of ERP is a theoretical bridge between processes of negotiation, reflective practice and Weickian sensemaking (1995; 2010b). The study provides empirical evidence of complex contemporary employment relationships where trust is at the heart of negotiating dynamic stakeholder relationships and ERP are experienced as day-to-day ongoing phenomena. The emerging model reconceptualises workplace conflict management as a social learning process.