Team Conflict & Mediation: Bring in an Outsider

My last few posts have centered around team conflict in the workplace, and leadership strategies for managing and guiding team conflict towards the most desirable outcomes. However, sometimes the best exercise of leadership is to recognize when you are too embroiled in the conflict to get your team to the other side.

Sometimes a third party is needed to move your team beyond an impasse.

Sometimes a third party is needed to move your team beyond an impasse.

You might be slightly removed from your team’s politics and disputes by hierarchical authority, but as a leader who works with them on a regular basis and has vested interests in the outcomes of their work you can’t always avoid becoming embroiled in the complexities of thorny disputes. A two-party conflict can be complicated enough; managing a multi-party conflict can be overwhelming, and especially when as a team member you may need to be part of the resolution. At this point it is frequently more effective to bring in a third party neutral to design and facilitate a mediation that can address all the necessary aspects of the conflict. Read on to get a sense of how a mediator can systematically and effectively approach multi-party conflicts, helping you and your team(s) move beyond your impasse. [Read more…]

Leading Through Team Conflict: Containing the Negative

In my last post I explored how team conflict might actually be a positive and productive process. Harmful or negative team conflict, however, requires intentional action on the part of a leader to keep it from corroding the team dynamic and having lasting effects. Carole Townsend cites M. Nelson’s five approaches for addressing negative team conflicts: Direct Approach, Bargaining, De-emphasis, Retreat, and Enforcement.  Which approach you use should depends on the nature of the problem.

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Leading Through Team Conflict: Nurture the Positive

“As a leader, you probably dedicate more of your time on issues like productivity and meeting deadlines than on conflict resolution. When there is strife and personalities clash, you may reach for what you think will be a quick fix: find the ‘problem’ people and separate them from the rest of the group.  Despite your best intentions, hunting for a problem person, labeling, or ostracizing is not the answer. Labeling any of your team members or allowing them to label each other as “toxic,” “the problem,” “a jerk,” etc., only perpetuates disconnection.”

This was written by two executive coaches, Joan Bunashe and Lindsay Broder in an article in Entrepreneur, and other past research supports the assertion that managers tend to place conflict resolution at the bottom of their to-do list. But while it may be tempting to feel that your leadership position entitles you to focus elsewhere while your team works out their disagreements, you’re likely to shoot yourself in the foot with this approach. A team plagued by conflict will eventually stop delivering, and your meeting deadlines and productivity checks won’t be much help. On the contrary, your position as a leader means you can make crucial interventions on the level of conflict to keep your team on track. [Read more…]

Thumb Wars: Y text conflict gets us nowhere

Newsletter Edition:  January 2016

I recently watched my son and his cousin argue with each other in a furious exchange of texts – and I thought to myself how unsuited this medium is for conflict resolution. This month’s newsletter is a reflection on how our mediums change our messages – and how texting might threaten more than it promises when it comes to dealing with conflict.



What are we really getting – and missing – when we carry out conflicts through texts?

Texting, though a popular and increasingly automatic habit for all kinds of communications, appears to have more likelihood of creating conflict than resolving it, due to its built-in one dimensional nature. Productive conflict – conflict that gets us somewhere, brings something to light, produces changed perspective or altered behavior  – involves a whole host of processes, only a few of which involve the literal exchange of words that could be translated into a text message. Read on to reflect on how we ended up ‘duking it out’ with our thumbs, and how the medium of texting changes our attempts to communicate. [Read more…]

Leading Beyond ‘The Jerk at Work’

Phyllis Korkki, business columnist at the NYT, recently wrote a piece inspired by the work of management professor Gretchen Spreitzer and her colleagues on “de-energizing relationships” and their effects on individual performance in the workplace. For many of us (perhaps reading this from our office chairs) it will come as no surprise to discover that, according to the research, “de-energizers” tend to spread around their negativity and drag others down. As Korkki translates with her typical candor, “In non-academic parlance, these people are known as jerks.”


New Research shows that one negative team member can reduce the productivity of everyone on in the office – but good leadership can help.

Dealing with the ‘jerks at work’ is a challenge for all of us, but leaders and managers play a key role in determining how a negative employee impacts the workplace – they have both more responsibility and more institutional power to do so. This post is about applying leadership strategies to effectively mitigate “de-energizers,” and cultivate workplace relationships that enhance, not diminish, performance. [Read more…]

The Thorn in my Office: Three R’s for dealing with Difficult Colleagues

“Workologist” Rob Walker recently responded to a submission about “The Insufferable Colleague” – that person you dread bumping into with your morning coffee, the one you perpetually hope will be assigned to a different position, take on a different project, go to a different office. Many of us have had the experience of feeling pitted against someone impossible in the workplace, but ultimately if we let antagonisms rule and escalate they will only become harder to handle. In the end, getting stuck in a rut with an insufferable colleague can cost a lot in stress and distraction, and can even stifle career advancement. This post is about strategies for handling the challenges of difficult colleagues.

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Workplace Bullying: Is Mediation the Solution?

Controversies over bullying have smattered headlines in recent years. New awareness has sparked a broad conversation about behaviors in schools, workplaces, and communities that may alienate or cause undue psychological stress to students, co-workers, and community members. Currently a debate is taking place as to whether new laws might address the issue of workplace bullying. Importantly, these public exchanges have stimulated new energy to address bullying, and new creative discourses about how individuals and institutions can respond to bullying.

Mediation is an incredible tool – it must be pretty clear that I believe strongly in its capability to aid in conflict transformation, problem solving, and building more constructive communication environments. However, no matter its proven efficacy, it nevertheless remains important for those in the field to have critical conversations to examine how and when various conflict resolution tools, like mediation, are appropriate to employ.

In an issue of Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Moira Jenkins responded[1] to debates she witnessed at an International Workplace Bullying Conference and a Mediation Conference, regarding the rightful place of mediation in addressing workplace bullying. Her response offers us useful insights into understanding workplace bullying as a question of conflict.

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What’s Your Style? Insights on Conflict Styles

In my last post I emphasized the effect that structural and normative context can have on conflict. Context is absolutely paramount, but even in similar scenarios, individuals involved in a conflict scenario will have differing responses and behavioral tendencies. Think about your family, friends, or co-workers: who leaps into conflict with force and passion? Who takes on a mediative role? Who avoids conflict altogether?  Now think about your own tendencies in conflict.

This post is about different conflict styles, and how awareness of them can help you better understand yourself and others in conflict.

Conflict Styles

While conflict styles have been widely studied, the most commonly used classification schema was developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann. In Thomas and Kilmann’s configuration, there are five styles: competitive, collaborative, compromising, accommodating, and avoiding. They map the styles on a two dimensional graph, with “Assertiveness (concern for self)” running along the y-axis, and “Cooperation (concern for others)” running along the x-axis.  Each style embodies different strengths and weaknesses in conflict.

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Leadership and Conflict Management through Presence

We live in a fast world: fast global transport, fast digital connections, fast bottom lines. As denizens of a digital society, we are often encouraged to function at a pace akin to the growing capabilities of our technologies. Running from one moment into the next, our focus becomes consumed by the dual pressures of meeting deadlines and keeping track of the constantly fluctuating environment in which we seek them.

When it comes to conflict management, running too fast and managing distractions is a recipe for trouble. In his book Leading through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, Mark Gerzon argues that leaders must develop mediator-like qualities to manage conflict. A helpful overview of Gerzan’s book, done by the team at, can be found here.

Presence in Conflict 

Gerzon’s third guiding precept for leaders as mediators is “presence.”   Presence requires a leader to be fully aware and centered within the present moment. Conflict scenarios are complex and nuanced in nature, and escalation often occurs as impassioned parties become defensive or aggressive. As turbulence builds, presence allows the mediator to be keenly aware of the multi-dimensional elements of the communicative scenario. Perhaps the parties have misunderstood one another, each perceiving the other as antagonistic when, in fact, there are ample openings in the discourse to build agreement. Perhaps parties are employing different approaches, all valuable, that can be integrated into a constructive strategy.

Such insights are only available to an individual who is cultivating inner stillness, deeply attentive to the scenario at hand. They are aware of the dynamics at play, invested in understanding the interests and experiences of all parties, but can remain cool and thoughtful if tensions or emotions run high.

As such, presence involves a critical element of self-awareness. [Read more…]

Don’t Use the Suggestion Box: New Ideas Deserve Dialogue

The Sunday New York Times Business section has two fabulous columns that I read religiously because  they are replete with wisdom that is relevant to the conflict management world.  One is Corner Office by Adam Bryant which is an interview with business leaders about leadership.  It contains early career lessons about management and tips for rising managers and leaders.  The Workologist by Rob Walker contains workplace conundrums posted by readers and thoughtfully answered by Mr. Walker.

In last Sunday’s Workologist, “Face the Fussbudgets” a consultant posed a concern about financial pettiness at the workplace and sought recommendations about creating a mind shift in the CEO and CFO to look at the impacts of fiscal cautions on productivity and morale.  The Workologist gave some good recommendations about having perspective and respect for different functions in an organization.  But what is the best way to raise the flag of concern to upper management?

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