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…]

Team Conflict: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It

The plethora of literature available on this topic plays testament to the importance and sweeping relevance of team conflict in the contemporary workplace. Two minds are better than one goes the old adage, and in the workplace teamwork continues to reward those who cultivate it well. However, where you find synergy and collaboration, you are just as bound to find friction: “conflict arises from differences, and when individuals come together in teams, their differences in terms of power, values, and attitudes contribute to the creation of conflict,” writes Carole A. Townsley in an article for The Team Building Director. Our ideas multiply, but so do the challenges of being human. The good news? Educating yourself about team conflict can help you to lead your team through it – and rig the chances so you benefit more than you lose. [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…]

Your Mind’s Secret Skew: Exploring Implicit Bias


I hope you’ve had a wonderful summer, and found some time to relax with your friends or family in the sun and heat. As we turn the corner into autumn, it’s time to recalibrate to new rhythms and schedules, and maybe new projects, ideas, or colleagues.

Perhaps this shift is a good time to reflect for a moment and consider the hidden biases that we all carry with us in our interactions with the people we encounter in our lives. Harvard research from the past decade has revealed that the vast majority of us see people through lenses of prejudice or bias that we don’t consciously recognize. Even more befuddling, it appears most of us can’t necessarily predict our own biases when we try. This newsletter explores the concept of implicit bias, what we can do to counteract it, and what it means for mediation.


Many of us are aware of the destructive patterns of bias and discrimination that we have inherited from earlier configurations of this society. And on a broad spectrum, many of us have every genuine intention of disengaging from those destructive behaviors and building an increasingly egalitarian world. But in their book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard and Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington are telling us that those good intentions may not be enough. Not enough, anyway, to upset the staying power of this persistent hangover of institutionalized discrimination and prejudice that seems to plague our society. That, it seems, will take some more intentional effort. [Read more…]

Multiplying Benefits or Diminishing Returns: Which kind of leadership practices are you bringing to work?

In 2013 I published a series of articles revolving around Mark Gerzon’s book, Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities. Since then, I have been exploring the relationship between leadership and conflict, and how mediation provides us with special insights into the challenges of leadership.

In her book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter,” Liz Wiseman explores the differences between leaders who successfully cultivate their team members, helping the intelligence in the room to mix and proliferate, and those who dampen a team’s potential. This post is about multipliers and diminishers, and how mediator qualities can help you be the kind of leader you want to be. [Read more…]

Take the Heat Off, but Be Direct: Workplace TIPS


The way in which a conflict is expressed and communicated amongst colleagues in the workplace is an important element that will help to determine the outcome of the conflict, and whether it contributes positively or negatively to the work environment and its productivity.  In this month’s newsletter I explore some contemporary research about conflict expression, and how individual conflict styles play a role in bringing about different forms of expression. These connections lead us to some insights about key decisions that can be made, especially by leaders, to influence workplace conflicts and their effects.

New York Times business writer Phyllis Korkki recently published a piece on diffusing discord in the office by being “direct and low key.” In it, she references a paper in the Academy of Management Review which, according to Korkki, states that “it’s not just the nature of a disagreement but the way it is expressed that leads to a positive or a negative result at work.”

In other words, the process of the conflict itself is likely to have a very significant effect on the outcome, perhaps as much or more than just the content of the conflict, depending on the situation. Playing this insight out, the paper outlines four main categories of conflict expression demarcated by the directness of the communication and the intensity of the expression. According to Korkki and the American Management Review paper, the best combination for productive workplace conflict is a “high directness/low intensity” expression. In this scenario the problems or disagreements are communicated in a straightforward manner, but without the communicative intensity which tends to make them feel personal or threatening to everyone involved. You might still end up with elaborate debates, but it’s more likely to engender a positive, productive outcome, or at least avoid the vagaries of escalation or personal attacks.

This is an essential insight, but recognizing that “high directness/low intensity” might be the best approach for workplace tensions is only half of the solution. Putting it into practice is more challenging.  [Read more…]

Building Trust: Listening With No Agenda

In May, Adam Bryant interviewed Joel Peterson of JetBlue for the Corner Office column in the New York Times. Peterson stated that one of the main attributes that propelled him to top leadership positions at a young age was the ability to cultivate the trust of those around him. When Bryant asked him to describe that process, Peterson explained that those trusting relationships come as a “byproduct” of his habit of good listening.

“I’m a really good listener. It’s not a technique — I’m really interested in what people have to say… If you’re authentic, open, you call things as they are, you really are direct and you listen well, that develops trust.”

‘Good listening skills’ is a trope that enters most of our lives in our very first years of school and, as Peterson points out, an overly technical approach to this topic can give it a shallow cliché feel. But Peterson is also testifying to the fact that the art of listening is truly one of the foundational elements of building and maintaining relationships, as well as exercising leadership. Every day we make choices about how we embody this essential activity, and unquestionably those decisions have an impact on our personal and professional lives. In this blog post I want to briefly explore one aspect of listening that Peterson highlights his interview: “listening without an agenda.” [Read more…]

Fraught Family Fortunes: Reasoning with Relatives in the Workplace‏


Most literature regarding “family and the workplace” refers to the difficulties of balancing time and energy between our family role at home and our employee role at work. But what about when our family role follows us to the office? There are many ways that you might find yourself employed above, below, or alongside a family member in your professional environment. It can be convenient, helpful, and gratifying; it can also add new dimensions to workplace conflict. This newsletter is about some of the challenges of working with family, and how to confront them.

Last week newspapers were smattered with headlines covering the infamous Rupert Murdoch as he made his son the chief executive of 21st Century Fox. Among the chatter was this New York Times piece buzzing about the delicate and fraught process of handing down a dynasty the likes of Murdoch’s media empire within a family. This is a very high-profile example of family in the workplace (I’m guessing most readers don’t have their own  New York Times beat page, nor do most of our family conflicts involve $75 billion enterprises), but it made me consider how often our personal and professional realms do mix and mingle, and how rarely the unique difficulties of this alchemy are really addressed. [Read more…]