A New Conflict-Resolution Model to Advance DEI

Organizations that manage tensions constructively can create and sustain change.

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Dan Bejar/theispot.com

Racism, misogyny, classism, xenophobia — when these chronic problems afflict organizations, they stem from a constellation of forces, not a single attitude, act, or outdated norm. As a result of that complexity, solutions can be elusive, and we often see intransigence even in places explicitly committed to change.

Take, for example, our home institution of Columbia University, which invested more than $200 million over two decades to enhance diversity and inclusion among its faculty. Given that level of commitment and the school’s progressive values, the administration was quite stunned when a self-study revealed a stubbornly slow pace of change and an environment where “women and minority professors … navigate numerous inequities … in a workplace that isn’t conducive to their success.”1 Persistent grievances included harassment of women faculty members, fear of retaliation for reporting incidents of harassment and discrimination, cronyism, and a cryptic and biased tenure and promotion system. In addition, women and members of underrepresented groups said that they were tasked with an unfair share of committee work and other “invisible labor” and that their contributions were undervalued. Though well intended, the school’s efforts clearly hadn’t addressed the root issues.

This problem certainly isn’t unique to academic settings. Organizations large and small with mostly homogenous leadership teams, across sectors and industries, struggle to make headway with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Research shows that dozens of factors interact to create change-resistant institutional cultures, which further complicate matters.2 At the individual level, for instance, factors such as implicit biases, stereotyping, ethnocentrism, and homophily (our attraction to people who are similar to us) can work together to shape our perceptions and behaviors. Between groups, selective perception of bias-confirming information about outgroups can elicit hostile responses (from both “us” and “them”), resulting in self-fulfilling prophecies.3 And those experiences, in turn, can lead to more competitive and destructive intergroup interactions — one of the many vicious cycles at play.

Within organizations where leadership is essentially monocultural, conflicts over individual and group differences are often suppressed, and leaders may be blind to the dominant power structures and stereotyping that exacerbate those differences.



1. A. June, “What Factors Hold Back the Careers of Women and Faculty of Color? Columbia U. Went Looking for Answers,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 18, 2018, www.chronicle.com.

2. See summary of research findings at P.T. Coleman, D. Coon, R. Kim, et al., “Promoting Constructive Multicultural Attractors: Fostering Unity and Fairness From Diversity and Conflict,” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 53, no. 2 (June 2017): 180-211.

3. R.L. Canosa, “Real-World Vision: Selective Perception and Task,” ACM Transactions on Applied Perception 6, no. 2 (February 2009): 1-34.

4. D.W. Sue, “Multicultural Organizational Consultation: A Social Justice Perspective,” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 60, no. 2 (June 2008): 157-169; B.W. Jackson and E. Holvino, “Developing Multicultural Organizations,” Journal of Religion and the Applied Behavioral Sciences 9, no. 2 (fall 1988): 14-19; and A.G. Canen and A. Canen, “Multicultural Leadership: The Costs of Its Absence in Organizational Conflict Management,” International Journal of Conflict Management 19, no. 1 (February 2008): 4-19.

5. R.J. Fisher, “Intergroup Conflict,” chap. 8 in “The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice,” 2nd ed., eds. M. Deutsch, P.T. Coleman, and E.C. Marcus (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).

6. The defining empirical studies on the effects of power on what we do and do not attend to are found in S.T. Fiske, “Controlling Other People: The Impact of Power on Stereotyping,” American Psychologist 48, no. 6 (July 1993): 621-628.

7. K.R. O’Brien, M. Scheffer, E.H. van Nes, et al., “How to Break the Cycle of Low Workforce Diversity: A Model for Change,” PLoS ONE 10, no. 7 (July 2015): 1-11.

8. A. Kalev, F. Dobbin, and E. Kelly, “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies,” American Sociological Review 71, no. 4 (August 2006): 589-617.

9. D.J. Svyantek and L.L. Brown, “A Complex-Systems Approach to Organizations,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 9, no. 2 (April 2000): 69-74; and R.R. Vallacher, P.T. Coleman, A. Nowak, et al., “Attracted to Conflict: Dynamic Foundations of Malignant Social Relations” (New York: Springer, 2013).

10. R.R. Vallacher, P.T. Coleman, A. Nowak, et al., “Rethinking Intractable Conflict: The Perspective of Dynamical Systems,” American Psychologist 65, no. 4 (May 2010): 262-278.

11. Coleman et al., “Promoting Constructive Multicultural Attractors,” 180-211.

12. M. Castro and P.T. Coleman, “Multiculturalism and Conflict,” chap. 27 in “The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice,” 3rd ed., eds. P.T. Coleman, M. Deutsch, and E.C. Marcus (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).

13. Gersick quoted other scholars to make this point in her article “Revolutionary Change Theories: A Multilevel Exploration of the Punctuated Equilibrium Paradigm,” Academy of Management Review 16, no. 1 (January 1991): 10-36. Originally discussed in M.L. Tushman, W.H. Newman, and E. Romanelli, “Convergence and Upheaval: Managing the Unsteady Pace of Organizational Evolution,” California Management Review 29, no. 1 (October 1986): 29-44.

14. T.L. Pittinsky, S. Rosenthal, and R.M. Montoya, “Liking Is Not the Opposite of Disliking: The Functional Separability of Positive and Negative Attitudes Toward Minority Groups,” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 17, no. 2 (April 2011): 134-143; and P.T. Coleman, J. Fisher, D.P. Fry, et al., “How to Live in Peace? Mapping the Science of Sustaining Peace: A Progress Report,” American Psychologist 76, no. 7 (November 2020): 1113-1127.

15. Ideally, we would have worked with each champion team onsite to observe how people interacted and together mapped out how the various destructive and constructive drivers identified in the survey created dynamic patterns that affected the climate of the units. We typically use a causal loop diagramming process to facilitate these visualizations, which often leads to innovative insights about how and where to intervene. At the Earth Institute in 2020-2021, because of COVID-19 outbreaks, we had to rely mostly on remote team discussions of the survey findings.

16. F. Dobbin and A. Kalev, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 7-8 (July-August 2016): 52-60.

17. W. Mertens, J. Recker, T. Kohlborn, et al., “A Framework for the Study of Positive Deviance in Organizations,” Deviant Behavior 37, no. 11 (May 2016): 1288-1307.

18. R.F. Baumeister, E. Bratslavsky, C. Finkenauer, et al., “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” Review of General Psychology 5, no. 4 (December 2001): 323-370.

19. For example, see the “Planning Toolkits and Resources” page on the website of the University of California, Berkeley’s Division of Equity & Inclusion.

20. Kalev, Dobbin, and Kelly, “Best Practices or Best Guesses?” 589-617.

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Comment (1)
Adesiji Rabiu
Beautiful article! I would have started this article with the conclusion (most powerful content herein!): "Without continuous attention (and tension) and adaptation, there’s a high risk of reverting to old patterns and undoing progress. Therefore, monitoring and providing feedback on the effects of the action plans...

...distributing responsibility between those working in the trenches — who have a nuanced understanding of the pain, problems, and more promising remedies — and those with the organizational power to fund and execute programs."

Thanks for this beautiful piece.