Organizational Conflict Management as Disputing Process The Problem of Social Escalation


  • Portions of this article are drawn from a master's thesis completed by the second author in the Department of Communication at the University of Arizona. An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association in San Francisco, 1989. We thank Mark E. Adkins, Thomas S. Birk, Michael Burgoon, Edwin J. Dawson, Sally Jackson, Beth A. Le Poire, Deborah A. Newton, and Michael J. Payne for valuable assistance in preparing the study and the manuscript We also thank two anonymous HCR reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts.


In this article, organizational conflict management is conceived as a “disputing process” involving the social escalation from grievance stage to conflict and dispute stages. The Disputing Process Instrument (DPI) was designed as a way to study these phenomena quantitatively. Seven behaviors are represented in the instrument: conciliatory negotiation, third-party mobilization, overt retaliation, covert retaliation, toleration, avoidance, and discipline. The DPI demonstrated high reliability, content, discriminant, and construct validity relative to earlier conflict instruments. An empirical study of social escalation was conducted among peers with different strengths of informal relations in an electronics firm. The study results revealed that interpersonal problems among weakly tied peers are likely to be contained at the grievance stage using covert behaviors or to be socially escalated to disputes involving third parties. More strongly tied peers are likely to escalate their problems from grievances to dyadic confrontations only. These results have implications for understanding disparate results from earlier studies of peer conflict in organizations and for arguments regarding the introduction of external third-party conflict consulting in organizations.