I have seen first-hand the harm that can be caused by conflict in organizations: Valued people leave. Stress. Decisions aren’t made and things don’t get done. A feeling of helplessness.
Mediation offers a cost-effective, efficient, and collaborative way to resolve harmful conflict and preserve relationships. I help clients create organizations where people can focus on their work without the distraction of personal conflicts.
But not all conflict is bad. I am passionate about working with teams and boards so that members can trust one another enough to have constructive and respectful disagreements about things that matter.
Like many mediators, I came into the field after doing something else. I taught philosophy at the university level for about 10 years. My academic specialties were the philosophy of art and ethics. But no matter what the specific material I was teaching, I always considered that my primary task was helping others to think clearly. I’m still doing this, but now as a mediator.
Some of my recent work:
- Helped prevent the break-up of a profitable business partnership through conflict coaching and ongoing support.
- Restored a respectful workplace at a small industrial firm by helping them develop and implement a “Code of Conduct.”
- Investigated sexual harassment and bullying allegations for a major Canadian university.
- Coached a client to prepare her for a difficult negotiation about the family property.
- Helped a creative-sector firm to resolve conflicts that had arisen in the course of a management transition.
- Restored damaged working relationships by helping to resolve long-standing conflicts between two company divisions.
I also provide civil mediation services for lawyers and their clients as an associate with the Sadowski Resolutions Group LLP. I am on the Attorney General’s roster for the Ontario Mandatory Mediation Program.
I work with single individuals and with large and small organizations. One thing never changes: client names and identifying details are strictly confidential.
I’m still active in academic philosophy. You can find out more about my work at www.jeanettebicknell.org When I’m not working or spending time with my family, you are likely to find me at a yoga studio. (But don’t worry, if you work with me I won’t ask you to sit in a circle and chant, etc.)
Thinking About Conflict and Value is my blog. Conflict is what mediators spend most of their time thinking about, working through, and trying to resolve. Value refers both to moral values and to aesthetic or artistic values. I write on a wide variety of topics, including best practices in mediation, ethical and legal issues in the arts, workplace conflict, business ethics, and the ethics of everyday life. You may also find the occasional book review. I invite you to join in the discussion on these blog posts.
From the Blog:
Check out my contribution to the Globe and Mail’s “Leadership Lab” series: What Managers can Learn from Mediators. In it I share some of the things I have learned from my work in civil mediation (working with parties who would otherwise be in court) and as a workplace mediator.
“We just don’t have the budget.”
Small organizations are often reluctant to bring in outside help because the cost of an intervention can represent a significant part of their budget. Yet the cost of workplace strife can be disproportionately higher for small organizations than for larger ones.
The cost of workplace strife, in both time wasted and money lost, is likely to be high for any organization. If your organization is big enough that conflict is causing you stress, then it is big enough to bring in outside help.
Here are some reasons why conflict in a smaller organization can be particularly stressful:
1. When relationships are strained in a small group, everyone knows about it and everyone is effected. Even those who don’t want to take sides may find it difficult not to be pulled in.
2. Relationships are more concentrated in small organizations. The smaller the group, the more intensely the conflict is likely to be felt. In a family of ten children, if two don’t get along the others can provide a buffer and help defuse tension. If two out of three siblings don’t get along, the third is likely to be caught in the middle.
3. In larger organizations there are many more options for moving people around and making it possible for individuals to avoid one another. People can be shuffled, re-assigned and transferred. But in a smaller organization, you can’t simply send someone to the Calgary office. Similarly, allowing certain employees to work from home may not be an option. So it is all the more important that everyone be able to work together effectively and respectfully.
4. If an employee leaves a small organization, he or she may take with them specific knowledge and skills that are not easily replaced. Other things, like institutional memory and long-standing relationships with suppliers and partners outside the organization, might simply be irreplaceable.
Both small and large organizations can benefit from workplace mediation. Don’t forget that a large organization is made of smaller units. While a mediator might work with an organization as a whole, say to advise on policy or help develop a code of conduct, we are also brought in to work with smaller units, and even with single individuals.
The good news is that while the cost of an intervention might be proportionally higher for a small organization than for a larger organization, the benefits are also likely to be disproportionately higher.
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The belief that one “bad apple” is responsible for conflict or that personality differences are a major source of trouble is, in its own way, comforting. If all that is needed to stop conflict is to remove one individual or ensure that certain people never have to work together, then workplace conflict doesn’t seem like such a hard problem.
I have to admit that sometimes, it is actually the case that removing one person can make a huge difference. But this happens less frequently than you might imagine. Think about it: You probably come across people every day with whom you have “personality differences” – neighbours, family members, friends-of-friends, colleagues. I doubt that you have conflicts with all of them. Most of us easily navigate personality differences and get along with various kinds of people, even if we realize that we will never be close friends.
So if “personality” isn’t the cause (or the main cause) of workplace conflict, why do such conflicts arise? When I analyze a workplace conflict, I look at the following factors. They may not all apply in every situation, but usually more than one will be relevant.
Values: These are strongly held convictions about the things that matter most. They could be about politics, religion, morality, or even about the best way to raise children. While these kinds of personal convictions may not come up at work, differing values about the mission and direction of the organization are often a source of conflict.
Interests: This means anything that an individual wants, needs, hopes or fears. It could be money (in the form of a salary increase, a bonus, or a bigger departmental budget). It could be career advancement. It could be the fear of losing one’s job. It could be a desire for prestige or a fear of letting the organization down.
Relationships: By this I mean a history of negative or positive interactions between individuals. If two people have had conflicts in the past, and these weren’t handled effectively, there can be lingering effects.
Externals: These are factors outside the organization that might influence conflict within it. They might be factors that effect everyone, such as a weak economy. Or they might be factors that influence only specific individuals, such as health concerns or family issues.
Data: Incorrect or incomplete information has been an aspect of nearly every conflict I have mediated. When people are working with different or inconsistent data sets, conflicts can easily arise. And to add to the confusion, people in conflict often have no idea that the other side may have different information.
Structure: Organizational factors are tricky to discuss and can be difficult for people to see. Sometimes the very way in which work and workplace relationships are organized can cause conflict. Structural factors are one of the main reason to bring in outside help in resolving a conflict. An outsider can see the makings of a conflict in what looks (to an insider) like “the way we’ve always done things.”
Leave a comment below and tell me what you think causes workplace conflict.