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Team Conflict & Mediation: Bring in an Outsider

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

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.

Surveying the Situation

A team or multi party mediation begins with a needs assessment conducted by the neutral. In order to reach a complete enough resolution it’s important to not rely on just one or two people’s analyses of the issues. As a third party neutral a mediator can conduct a broad assessment with multiple actors, withholding any judgements or reactions in a way that might be difficult for a leader who is entangled with the content of the conflict.

When working with multi-team executive groups I often do a team effectiveness survey before carrying out any face-to-face mediation sessions. This allows me to develop a broader sense of the core issues causing difficulty, and plan and structure the facilitation(s) accordingly. Additionally, through this process unfiltered perceptions can work their way into the open so that the facilitation can address the true underlying problems and not simply continue playing out destructive cycles of disagreement.

Determine the Destination

After survey results are tallied and a group report is put together I work with teams to determine their expected outcome(s).  Nobody wants to spend a lot of money on consultants and take time away from the office just to pursue some amorphous goal such as ‘improved team relationships.’  I work with clients to help them identify outcomes that are SMART--specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time bound. Determining SMART goals makes gives a strong pragmatic undertone to the mediation and allows everyone to manage their expectations and needs, creating focal points that parties can work together to reach. They also allow the mediator to make key decisions about managing time and energy in the facilitation. As a neutral he or she will closely observe the dialogues that play out and work to facilitate them towards those focal points without getting lost in emotional overtones or digressions.

Walk the Talk

Through these vital planning stages an agenda emerges that will serve as a roadmap for the conflict resolution process. Following this agenda the mediator will help the team(s) through a dialogue or series of dialogues that are intentionally structured to move the team(s) past the roadblocks.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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