FEATURES • Winter 2000

By C.B. Adams

Judi McLean Parks, professor of organizational behavior at Washington University's John M. Olin School of Business, has a story to tell. In fact, in a McLean Parks' course, students get to hear many stories—creative metaphors used to exemplify key issues of her research in employer-employee relationships, conflict negotiation, and gender differences in the workplace. One particular parable-like story of revenge, for example, initially drew McLean Parks into the study of conflict.

She recounts the story, set in the 1960s, of a woman rumored to be at least 100 years old, whom everyone called "Grandma." In McLean Parks' paper titled "The Fourth Arm of Justice: The Art and Science of Revenge," Grandma had the most beautiful roses in town. Across the street lived Earl, a man in his 60s. Earl took care of Grandma by driving her when she had errands, shoveling her walks, mowing her lawn, and even fixing her roof. No matter how often Grandma tried to pay Earl, he refused. Instead, he asked for her rosebushes after her death.

"Well, one day, Grandma felt her time coming. So she went out and poured rock salt on all 32 rosebushes. And then, very carefully, she picked the petals off each and every rose and just as carefully put them in a neat and tidy heap on Earl's front porch, in retaliation for a long-forgotten score with Earl's family that only she remembered. ... Grandma lived several more years, and each summer she would sit in her rocking chair in her garden, looking at where her bushes once stood with a satisfied smile crossing her wizened face," according to the paper.

This story sparked McLean Parks' fascination with defining "what makes a conflict a conflict." Looking at the story of Grandma and Earl as an outsider, it would seem Earl worked hard to help Grandma and that she probably owed him the roses. Yet all along, Grandma had harbored anger while Earl had labored with the perception that nothing was wrong.

"I found it intriguing how these differential perceptions overlapped a latent conflict that sat and fermented for years, then flared up all of a sudden," says McLean Parks. "How do those different perceptions affect one person who doesn't see a conflict while the other does? How do people resolve such conflicts? These questions form the core of my research."

From Rosebushes to Workplace Retribution

For McLean Parks, the Grandma and Earl story is a paradigm for real-world business situations. What happens when a manager (Earl) thinks all his employees (Grandma) are happy when, in fact, they are not? The employees—or employee—are unhappy and believe an injustice has been done, while the manager believes that nothing has been done to create the unhappiness or injustice.

"When this occurs, something needs to be rebalanced, like the need to throw rock salt on the roses," McLean Parks says. "If you are not happy, you may do things such as take an extra 15 to 20 minutes on your break, or you may be rude to a potential customer. These may be small things, but if you have a toxic workplace with a large number of unhappy employees, then the aggregate of their retributions can cost a company a lot of money."

Employees who act out against their employers do so for a variety of reasons. Yet, McLean Parks says more often than not it comes down to employees believing they have suffered an injustice. If employees believe this, whether justifiably or not, they are going to react.

"Employees have this non-legal but nevertheless binding psychological contract with their employer. The contract concerns what they believe they owe the company and what they believe the company owes them. When they perceive that the contract has been violated, they usually will find a way to react," McLean Parks says.

As she has studied employees and employers across the country, McLean Parks has found that employees' desire to be treated with dignity and respect is one of the most-often-mentioned violations to the contract—not low pay or not being promoted. McLean Parks tells a story about "inter-actional justice," in which a man is terminated from a company and escorted out of the building by armed guards. While this may not seem like an injustice, these events happened on "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day." By not firing the man more discreetly, and, in fact, firing him in front of his daughter, the employer sent a message to the other employees that dignity and respect do not matter.

A Half or Whole Orange?

To bridge the gap between McLean Parks' research and her classroom teaching takes another story. This time, two children are fighting over an orange. To stop their squabbling, the mother cuts the orange in two and gives each a half. From the outside, this seems like a good solution. However, one child wanted to make orange juice, while the other wanted the rind to flavor a cake.

"Technically, each child could have had a whole orange if there had been more fact-finding," she says.

Opening minds and encouraging discussion during conflict resolution is what flavors McLean Parks' approach to teaching. It is one of the ways she invigorates her students. Craig Thompson, M.B.A. '97, M.S.C.E. '00, a former student and current teaching assistant, says, "What shows Judi at her best is her ability to reach students. Professional M.B.A. students, for example, come here after a full day of work to learn about organizational behavior for three hours. Instead of nodding off, everyone is fully engaged and participating in lively discussions."

In her organizational behavior class, McLean Parks helps students learn how to motivate employees, fairly assess their performance, and get them to follow directions without feeling used.

"Most students come to business school to learn economics, finance, and those types of information. But the students who have aspirations of being managers or leaders need a full set of tools to manage the majority of employees," McLean Parks says. "It's a good management talent to be able to truly see something from another's perspective."

The Not-So-Soft Side of Business

According to Stuart Greenbaum, dean of the Olin School, McLean Parks works on the human side of management, as opposed to calculating financial ratios or recording transactions according to generally accepted accounting principles. He says, "I like to say that the soft, or human side, is the hard side, and the allegedly hard side is relatively easy. Judi brings a lifetime of scholarship and an enormous human sensitivity to that soft side."

McLean Parks, who came to the University in 1995 and became the first female tenured faculty member in the Olin School of Business in 1999, also teaches future managers and leaders to negotiate and resolve conflicts by using "experiential exercises." All class members are given the same case to negotiate simultaneously.

"In some ways being a good negotiator is like being a concert pianist," she says. "I wouldn't want you to have only read about playing the piano before I paid to hear you play. The same is true with negotiation. I wouldn't want you negotiating on my behalf if all you had ever done was read about it. You have to recognize all the nuances—that is the purpose of the experiential exercises."

Despite being given the same cases, students' outcomes vary considerably. McLean Parks provides an assessment of each student's negotiating style and whether it works.

"I talk about the need to be able to use any style of negotiation when the circumstances call for it," she says. "Just like over-wearing our favorite pair of jeans, we fall into patterns where we over-use certain styles of negotiation because that is what makes us feel comfortable. When my M.B.A. students see they have failed their first two or three negotiations, they start looking for better ways to get to an agreement where each party receives a whole orange rather than a half."

Her study of negotiation styles also led McLean Parks to investigate the differences between men and women when dealing with conflict and justice. She discovered that men and women use different criteria and persuasion techniques for coming to conclusions about an issue. She has a story that shows this firsthand.

A parks-and-recreation committee that included men and women met to discuss the possibility of adding a sandbox to a community park. McLean Parks observed the meeting and noticed that men immediately focused on money issues and were more task-oriented. The women, however, wanted to begin with understanding all the issues involved, why people felt the way they did, and how the community would react.

The main issue was the sandbox. Parents in the community had expressed a concern about the cleanliness of it because area cats might use it as a litter box.

"The response of the males was, 'Well, we'll put a screen on it. It's not a problem.' The response of the females was, 'If the parents think it's a problem, it's a problem, because they might not let their children play in it,'" she says.

According to McLean Parks, it is important for her students not to judge the different responses but to learn when and under which circumstances a certain style is more appropriate to use than the other.

Gender differences are just one other way that McLean Parks leads her students to understand the need to have a full set of skills as a manager or negotiator. She states that a person who cannot structure a negotiation and who doesn't understand the nuances of negotiation will most likely be hindered in the workplace.

"Males may be more comfortable being assertive, and females may be more comfortable being relational, but nevertheless, both should be able to use all styles when the need arises, because otherwise they won't have a full toolbox. I wouldn't want someone who only had half the tools to fix my toilet. I want my students to have all the tools they might need, so they can make a considered judgment about which style to use," she says.

C.B. Adams is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.

For more information, contact: www.olin.wustl.edu/faculty/mcleanparks.html.

 

 

"Most students come to business school to learn economics, finance, and those types of information. But the students who have aspirations of being managers or leaders need a full set of tools to manage the majority of employees," says McLean Parks.