The Peer Circle: Holistic Surgery for the Infected Workplace

 Holistic Surgery for the Infected Workplace

Jean passed the talking piece to Kimberly. You could see her shoulders straighten, a deep intake of breath, a glance around the circle of her assembled colleagues. She was steeling herself to say what was difficult but necessary. Kimberly explained that, for her, the constant putting down of customers and negativity around workplace conditions was unacceptable and made it difficult to enjoy and take pride in her work. She asked that the team demonstrate professionalism toward clients and respect the fact that everyone ought to be able to come to work and expect a reasonably supportive environment.

Kimberly spoke to the middle of the Circle; a message not “pointed at” anyone but offered as her honest experience and request. As the talking piece moved around the room people, contributed their thoughts. Jim said that, while he appreciated Kimberly’s point of view, he felt that there were legitimate concerns about how the workplace was being managed and about the tools that were being provided to do the work. It was important to him that he be able to criticize some of the choices being made without being labeled a malcontent.

The Challenge

Protracted group conflict within a workplace is among the more daunting challenges that HR and conflict management professionals face. A peer or corporate circle is a creative response to conflicts that are driven largely by historic relationship and values differences. In this instance, the work group had a long history of conflict that was multiply determined. A number of conventional approaches had been employed with limited success.

Our firm was brought in to consult around an “out of the box” approach. We recommended a peer circle be convened based on the following observations:

  • Management identified a significant minority of disaffected people that was exerting a negative influence on others.
  • The issues were not limited to discrete relationships but represented cleavages among staff.
  • There was thought to be a restless “silent majority” whose interests were not being served by the status quo,

Assessment and Preparation

Two facilitators (Heather Swartz and I) interviewed each of the 25 staff, supervisors, and manager over the course of two days. From these interviews, we mapped out alliances and conflict contribution systems. Using this data and our impressions of participants’ communication skills and preparedness to take a stake in the outcome, we designed two Peer Circles that were to run for six hours on two consecutive days. We used the day between the interviews and the Circle sessions to determine the seating plans for each of the circles and design the room where the meetings were to be held.

The considerations that went into the seating plan were to:

  • provide support persons near key players (antagonists or protagonists) to encourage them to bring forward their concerns;
  • provide space between allies and enemies such that moderating points of view could be brought to bear, allowing the people most likely to be triggered within the circle to gain insight and perspective; and
  • create an overlap of those persons whose orientation appeared to be unconditionally constructive in both circles to provide a degree of continuity and thematic integrity (values that we felt needed to be nurtured in order to improve things) to the process.

The union — one of the larger ones within the transportation industry — shared management’s concerns about this workplace and was committed to working with them toward an improved environment. The facilitators briefed the Regional Representative about the process and invited him to participate. Because the process was a novel one for this organization, head office sent a senior human resources consultant to the session to participate.

The Circle was designed with facilitators occupying the 12 and 6 o’clock positions and the union representative and HR manager occupying the 3 and 9 o’clock positions. This meant that the conversation could not get too far off track before either the facilitators or HR or union representative had an opportunity to reframe or reorient conversation.

The facilitator located at 12 o’clock was the Host and assumed primary responsibility for the substantive agenda in the form of provocative questions. The Host could modify the questions, skip questions, or introduce new questions as he saw fit based upon where the conversation has been going and the group’s progress in dealing with the issues identified through the interview process.

The 6 o’clock facilitator, called the Guardian, had primary responsibility for the unfolding of the process and managing any impasses or key learnings that were achieved. Guardian used a bell, which she would sound if she wanted something to “sink in” or if things became very emotional, and she wanted to give people an opportunity to reflect before responding. Anyone within the circle could ask for the bell to be sounded; one of the ground rules was that when the bell sounded, there would be 20 seconds of silence observed.

The Process

The Host introduced the Circle process and suggested some ground-rules, adding any that the group wishes. He then opened the circle with an invocation (in this instance, a recorded piece of music). The first question was voiced and the talking piece was passed to one of those sitting next to the Host. Each person was asked to address the question. One was allowed to “pass” on occasion but everyone was encouraged to share their thoughts with the group at least every second time the piece came around. While someone held the talking piece, no one else spoke. This ensured that group members would all have a voice and that issues would be explored rather than debated within the circle.

Early on, the questions and the discussion generated was more at the surface level. As the group became more comfortable with itself, people began to share at a deeper level, and the questions encouraged this. From time to time, people within the circle chose to acknowledge the wisdom or courage that someone demonstrated by what they said. Some asked questions of the group to move the action forward or bring it back to an area that was not explored sufficiently.

The facilitators occasionally took the opportunity to offer the group a story from their experience or a piece of learning that they picked up along the way. Others did the same. The Host or the Guardian took the opportunity to sum up or reframe a comment to either achieving closure on a topic or moving forward the action. Refreshment breaks were provided every 90 minutes or so.

At a certain point, the group demonstrated that it arrived at a degree of consensus. At this point, one of the facilitators framed a decision ask the group if it was ready to move on. A straw poll was taken, and more discussion took place when necessary.

Generally, the process can run anywhere from a few hours to a day or more. In this instance, because it was a 24 / 7 operation, each session ran for about six hours, excluding lunch and breaks.


The process described above was the first in a series. It is a work in progress. A second Circle usually takes place 90 days or so after the first. The manager involved described the impact this way:

One of the biggest improvements is that the quieter staff members are speaking out now. Some employees have embraced the Circle Workshop experience and have followed through on their commitment. But some have not.

A follow-up session is critical…In my honest opinion, there are still a lot of issues between some staff that need to be resolved. In the first session, we only touched the first layer of the cake. I know the objective of the workshop is not to point figures or alienate someone, but people need to be honest if we want to move forward.

The union representative offered this:

I firmly believe the exercise has value and consider the services [of the facilitators] to be to the point and professional. I look forward to round 2 when a review of the impact of the first exercise is fully evaluated and measured.

What We Learned

The workplace is still having trouble. Factions remain. A number of those who were identified by management as disaffected decided to absent themselves from the process. There has been limited or no uptake among them.

It will take a determined effort by management and those who made commitments within the Circle to see the workplace renewed. We expect that, during the subsequent Circle(s), there will be more conversations that are difficult, with the need to confront differences in values and communication styles. The cooperative spirit evident during the circle may or may not take root.

There is now a very clear mandate provided to management by those in attendance that is supportive of more accountability for people’s communications and actions toward one another. The “silent majority” is speaking up more often for what they want and are being supportive of one another. Some of the worst behaviours have stopped or occur less frequently.

Some staff members are struggling with bullying behaviour and petty harassment that is difficult to “pin on” any one person. People are paying a price for the kind of change they want and it is not always pretty to watch. As with any change, there is a period when those who are invested in the status quo will fight to protect it. The Circle made this struggle overt and the conversation about it explicit.

To draw a comparison with a famous scientific experiment involving frogs and hot water, those “in the soup” are now aware of the temperature of the water and are making an effort to moderate the environment so that it can continue to sustain life and provide a degree of satisfaction for everyone. The story continues.

About the Author

Rick Russell, Queen's IRC Facilitator

Rick Russell has been working full time in the dispute resolution field for 23 years, first as the Ombudsman to McMaster University in Hamilton, then as a commercial mediator. In 1993, he co-founded Agree, a full service conflict management firm. Rick has a busy mediation and facilitation practice specializing in commercial, construction and workplace issues, as well as conflict management training, arbitration and partnering. He also works frequently in the area of workplace investigation and fact-finding, workplace assessment and restoration, conflict coaching and advanced conflict management training. Rick serves on the faculty of highly regarded programs at both University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College and Queen’s University’s Industrial Relations Centre (IRC). Rick has held leadership positions at the Ontario Bar Association ADR Section, and at the ADR Institute of Ontario. Rick’s speaking, training and facilitation practice includes international engagements in the USA, Barbados and Ethiopia. A graduate of McMaster University (History) and the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Law, Rick is an avid hiker, canoeist, nature photographer and writer. He lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife Margaret and their four sons.

Labour Arbitration and Conflict Resolution: Back to Our Roots

The 2010 Don Wood Lecture was delivered by The Honourable Warren K. Winkler, Chief Justice of Ontario. The Chief Justice’s lecture presented a synopsis of changes in the labour relations field. The Chief Justice spoke about the “Golden Era” of labour arbitration (1944-1967), and drawing on his experiences and observations, commented on changes in the field today. These changes include a shift in the culture of labour arbitrations, from one of camaraderie amongst colleagues, to a litigation-based process. He concluded his talk with a call to action for labour arbitrators to rid the “dysfunctional arbitration culture” by raising awareness of proportionality (the amount of time spent on a case has to reflect the importance of the case) and protecting the integrity of labour arbitration by ensuring a fair process, with affordable cost, and appropriate timelines.

The Don Wood Lecture in Industrial Relations was established by friends of W. Donald Wood to honour his outstanding contribution to Canadian industrial relations. Dr Wood was Director of the Industrial Relations Centre from 1960 to 1985, and the first Director of the School of Industrial Relations, established in 1983. The lecture brings to Queen’s University distinguished individuals who have made an important contribution to industrial relations in Canada or other countries.

In Conversation with Bernard Mayer

How can organizational leaders help to create healthy, conflict-friendly workplaces? Bernard Mayer, a Queen’s IRC Facilitator who is an international expert in conflict resolution and mediation, shares insights for managers in the following Q & A.

What is a ‘conflict-friendly’ environment?

The key here is to acknowledge that organizations, communities and relationships need conflict. It is naïve to think there will be no conflict where there are different needs and values. These are not superficial things, and as a result, we will have conflict.

Whether an organization is healthy isn’t related to whether there is conflict, but to how it is handled. A healthy organization welcomes genuine conflict, makes it easy for people to raise issues, has an environment that encourages this, and promotes a constructive response.

So people can safely, powerfully, consistently and directly raise issues. Conflict is also not prematurely referred to an impersonal bureaucratic process; nor is anyone made a scapegoat for the problem.

In other words, a conflict-friendly organization accepts the importance of the conflict process.

What are the most common ways organizations avoid conflict?

Organizations are enormously creative, as are individuals, at avoiding conflict. But there are four general ways that are the most common.

One way is simply denial and minimalization. That’s whenever someone raises a conflict and you say, ‘It’s just few malcontents,’ or ‘It’s not that big a deal.’

The second way organizations deal with conflict is they misdirect. They don’t deal with it directly and openly: they bureaucratize, refer it to a subcommittee or person far from the real issue, they scapegoat, or they immediately relate to it as a legal issue rather than a problem to be solved.

The third major way is using escalation as a means of conflict avoidance. Sometimes people are threatened with punitive consequences, or a boss gets really angry. The purpose is not to raise the issue so it can be constructively dealt with; it is to inhibit people from raising issues.

Fourth is premature problem-solving, or solving the wrong issues.

Think about sexual harassment a moment. It is a common problem in many workplaces, subject to great deal of denial. We individualize it. People are intimidated about raising the issue and are often victimized if they do.

Also what often happens is that people throw procedures into place that are supposed to deal with it. But they ignore the underlying culture of the workplace and the gender politics of the workplace that create an environment allowing it to go on.

Maybe what’s needed is a process of employee training, raising consciousness, changing the culture. But the fact is that far too often we rush to resolve the problem rather than staying with it a while, trying to really understand what people are concerned about.

How do we learn to handle conflict in way that benefits our organizations?

I’m not big on giving people prescriptions, but there are certain things we know make a difference.

The very first thing is to accept conflict as inevitable and healthy.

The second is to listen, to try to understand on a deeper level. It’s the most important thing we can do around conflict. Listen to what people saying, not judgmentally, but to try and understand. You don’t have to like what they are saying, but you can start by trying to understand.

Managers are often guilty of saying immediately how they are going to fix something without really spending time to understand and connect with the person. I suggest they try taking the attitude “My job is to understand; later I can come up with solutions.”

I also suggest three words that are almost always useful: “Tell me more.” Part of it is in the spirit you convey: of curiosity, of wanting to know, of wanting to understand, of not necessarily having answers all the time but taking it seriously.

A third skill is to learn to say what important to us, what we think and what we need, in a powerful way – but one that doesn’t shut others down, or seek to do that.

We also need to become good at coming up with forums for discussion and interaction around issues, and problem-solving where appropriate.

Another skill is knowing when to ask for help; where to go to ask for help; and developing organizational capacity to provide help.

For some reason we are perfectly willing to ask for help from legal, financial, public relations, even technical HR experts, but we are really reluctant to ask for help with the relational issues that are really key to what makes a successful workplace.

People often file grievances because they don’t know how to deal directly with a problem or issue and they aren’t provided coaching, training, or the forums to directly talk about it. Then you go file the grievance, and often the first step is to talk directly with someone, and you are provided no help in doing that – even though it could really make a difference.

Often the stuff that’s most difficult in dealing with human relationships is the simplest. For example, how do you listen to someone who you are furious with?

How do you manage it?

I’ve been teaching this stuff for 30 years, and frankly, I don’t always do it very well.

The very first part is you take care of yourself. Take a moment to get clear, have someone hear you and get some sort of affirmation, understanding, before you try to deal with things directly, if you possibly can.

If you can’t, it is one of these walk-on situations, you breathe, do whatever it takes to centre yourself.

The second thing is to become clear why you are angry and upset, then work on stating that as clearly and forcefully as you can. But say it in the way that you’d want other people to if they had those thoughts, feelings and concerns about you.

It is the opposite of being nicey-nice, which is one way of avoiding conflict. It is about being powerful in raising issues clearly and respectfully at the same time.

I believe when we are at our best we all can do this. The biggest problem is we’re afraid that we can’t, so we avoid things in a way that ultimately makes them worse.

It is hard. You can’t just wave a wand and make it happen the way you would like, but you can at least realize it is something you can become better at.

What happens when organizations avoid conflict?

I see this lot. Rather than confront a problem, especially when a powerful employee is involved, people restructure things in all sorts of ways. In one hospital there was a doctor who was a skilled specialist, upon whom they depended. I was asked to come in and provide conflict resolution training to the staff.

Why? This doctor was behaving inappropriately. He was abusive to nurses, colleagues, and probably to patients as well. Instead of saying ‘Help us figure out how to deal with this doctor,’ they said ‘Give conflict training to all of us.’ I think this happens all the time.

Of course the doctor was going to take it too – and this one-day experience was supposed to change his personality. What happens in these circumstances is the behaviour continues, morale goes down, and key people leave. People avoid dealing with issues directly and the problem gets larger.

In what kind of situations is escalation often used to avoid conflict?

A good example is what has happens with efforts to deal with medical employees with alcohol or substance abuse problems. The first approach often is to deny the problem until something happens – and that something is often very bad. Then the next approach is to get very punitive and demanding, and to set up elaborate monitoring procedures. That doesn’t work very well either. It sets a standard and a norm at least, which is a good thing. But it doesn’t directly address the roots of the conflict.

What happens in a conflict-friendly organization?

People deal with conflict openly, directly and forthrightly. They say, ‘We have a problem here; let’s just talk about it.’

One example was a large organization that had been through some very ferocious strikes. What had happened was not good for anybody, and prior to the next collective bargaining round, I was approached by both union and management to work with them.

I’ve done this a number of times. Without all the games people play in collective bargaining, I helped them find ways of saying in a safe, direct, unfettered way what they really thought about what had happened. We talked about how relationships were going, and cleared the air.

We also discussed how they were going to deal with the next round of bargaining, and what would happen when the necessary dynamics of bargaining made everyone feel pissed off at one another again. How were they going to deal with this? It made an enormous difference.

How does unresolved conflict drain an organization’s resources?

Avoiding conflict, not dealing with issues, and not creating an environment where conflict can be raised costs organizations billions of dollars a year.

The biggest pitfall is to avoid dealing with issues. A second big problem involves solving the wrong problem. It happens all the time. The worst is when people go through a whole strategic planning and restructuring and process to avoid dealing with a problem employee.

Many businesses go down the tubes. Why do most mergers and acquisitions fail? Not because the business plan was bad necessarily, but because people didn’t take into account all the different conflicts that inevitably arise when you take two different cultures and organizational styles and put them together.

The price of not creating a conflict-friendly environment is high.

Getting to Yes

In his research and practice, Queen’s IRC Facilitator and mediator Gary Furlong has found that when it comes to real-life conflict, one size does not fit all. In the following sampling from his new book, The Conflict Resolution Toolbox, Gary discusses the value of the Circle of Conflict as a multi-purpose tool — one of his “top eight” to help mediators, negotiators, lawyers, managers, and supervisors reach agreements in even the most intractable disputes.

The Circle of Conflict is strong as a diagnostic model, in that it proposes specific categories for understanding the dynamics that are driving the conflict without being limited to any particular substantive type of dispute. For this reason, it can be used with just about any type of conflict a practitioner may be involved in. In addition, this tool gives practitioners a way to identify the different causes of a conflict, and helps them look beyond the “presenting” problem to begin to question underlying or root causes.

The Circle of Conflict diagnoses and assigns the underlying causes or “drivers” of the given conflict to one of five categories:

  • Values (belief systems; right and wrong; good and evil; just and unjust)
  • Relationships (negative past experiences; stereotypes; poor or failed communications; repetitive negative behaviour)
  • Moods and Externals (factors unrelated to the substance of the dispute; psychological or physiological; “bad hair day”)
  • Data (lack of information; too much information; collection problems)
  • Structure (limited physical resources; authority issues; geographical constraints; organizational structures)

The model offers concrete suggestions for working with each of these drivers, and directs practitioners toward Data, Structure, and a sixth category, Interests, as the focus of resolution. “Interests” refers to an individual’s wants, needs, hopes or fears. Put simply, the guiding principle for the practitioner is to help the parties stay focused [on these three categories], as this is effective in moving them toward resolution rather than escalation. The Circle does this because it asserts that you cannot directly “solve” Values, Relationship, or Mood/External issues with the other parties.

When working with the Data and Structure categories, the model gives specific strategies for the practitioner to focus on, with an emphasis toward joint problem solving.

Some strategies for working with Data problems are:

  • Have each party explain, challenge and correct erroneous data
  • Jointly assess data
  • Surface assumptions around the parties’ assessment of data
  • Challenge assumptions made about other parties’ motives
  • Jointly gather data that each party will agree to accept and rely on.

Some strategies in working with Structure problems are:

  • Identify structural issues both parties face, and brainstorm solutions jointly
  • Negotiate a ratification process if authority is a problem at the table
  • Negotiate who needs to attend for both parties to most effectively resolve the issues
  • Renegotiate priorities for both priorities that are more compatible and workable
  • Brainstorm ways to maximize use of scarce resources.

By far, the Interests slice is the most important area to help parties focus on. Some strategies in working with the Interests of parties are:

  • Identify the full range of interests the parties have in relation to the issues they face
  • Identify and focus the parties on their common interests
  • Look for solutions that maximize meeting each party’s interests
  • Help the parties creatively solve the problems by trading low-priority interests for more important ones.

Two additional conflict patterns the Circle highlights can be very useful to a practitioner in diagnosing conflict: the Values/Data dynamic, and the Structure/Relationships dynamic.

Values/Data Dynamic

If one party sees the conflict primarily from a Values perspective (i.e., feels that it is primarily a moral or ethical problem), and the other party sees the conflict as a Data problem, an interesting dynamic takes over. The person who perceives the conflict as a data problem will tend to give more and more information to the other party in an effort to convince that they are right. The Values person, of course, is very unlikely to change his or her mind based on more data (and are unlikely to even read the data!). The conflict is likely to escalate rapidly, with the Data person accusing the Values person of bad faith(“I keep giving you important and relevant information, and you just ignore it!”) while the Values person will start to consider the Data person unethical or unprincipled (“What kind of person would try to rationalize this kind of decision?!”) The real problem, or course, is that they are actually dealing with two different problems, and are unaware of that fact. If this happens, the conflict will migrate to the top half of the Circle fairly quickly, landing on the Values and/or Relationship drivers, two of the hardest to resolve.

Structure/Relationship Dynamic

Suppose two individuals, A and B, work in different departments, and A needs a report from B to complete his work. For B, this is a low priority, but for A, it is very high. This is a structural problem, in that A has no authority to order or direct B to do what he needs. For the first few days, A will accept B’s promise that he’ll “get to it as soon as possible.” After a week or two goes by without getting a report from B, A will stop thinking that B’s problem is a lack of time, and will start to personalize it, saying, “The problem isn’t B’s time, he’s had two weeks! The problem is B; he doesn’t want to help me.” And rather quickly A and B will no longer just have a Structural problem, it will become a Relationship problem – and much harder to solve.



The Seven Habits of Successful Mediators

An expert in managing conflict, Dr. John S. Andrew teaches negotiation at Queen’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; provides independent facilitation and mediation services to parties involved inland use, environmental, and transportation disputes; and leads executive seminars on strategic consensus-building in corporate real estate.

Dr. Andrew spoke with us about what makes a good conflict manager. You need to be part problem-solver, part creative thinker, and part loner, undaunted by the prospect of eating lunch by yourself.

What is the role of a mediator?

In conflict resolution we try to find a solution that allows as many of the parties as possible to have their key interests met. Seldom is it all of their interests, but usually a settlement can satisfy their most important ones. That’s really the challenge.

There’s a classic example I use for teaching. There are two sisters fighting over an orange. Both of them want it – those are their positions, and they’re completely incompatible. I ask the students, ‘What’s a possible solution?’ and someone usually says, ‘Get a knife and cut it in half’, which of course meets only 50 percent of each party’s interests.’ That’s not great – if were trying to sell my house for $300,000 and got $150,000 for it, I would be pretty unhappy. The best answer is that you need to get all of the parties to identify and share their real interests underlying their positions. Ask them why they want the orange. It turns out one wants the pulp to make juice, the other wants the rind to make a cake. So it’s possible to meet 100 percent of the interests of both parties.

This is a simple example but it gets people thinking in a new way. Finding the interests is important because there are usually more compatible interests than conflicting ones in a dispute. Once everybody at the table understands the key interests of the other parties, then you can begin to make trade offs and “expand the pie” rather than divide it.

What are the key attributes and skills of a successful mediator?

1. You have to be able to quickly understand the essence of the conflict. You often get just a few days notice of a mediation, and you’re under pressure to come up to speed about the dispute as fast as possible.

2. You have to be able to get the parties to focus on their interests rather than their positions. For months or years they’ve been saying, ‘This is what we want, this is what we want.’ You need to get them to identify what they really care about. I was involved in a railway dispute in British Columbia that was fascinating and complex. It was a good illustration of the need to, and difficulty of, identifying true party interests. For quite a while it appeared to be a fairly straightforward transportation dispute, with many common interests between the parties. However, as we began to unravel the interests it became apparent that for some of the parties it was really more of a land use/real estate conflict, and their interests had little to do with the operation of the railway. The land adjacent to the railway was worth far more than the railway operation itself, and real estate eventually became a whole new set of issues. Only once they were on the table could we begin to make progress toward a solution.

3. It is essential to be completely neutral and impartial, and be able to convey that to the parties. Both perception and reality are important. Some of that is the language you use and how you conduct yourself during mediation, and it can be very simple: if there’s a lunch break, eat by yourself. The parties may be getting together and it’s natural that they invite you, but you can’t unless everyone is together. Disputants are very sensitive to your degree of fairness. If you lose the parties’ trust, it’s almost impossible to get it back.

4. You need to know when to let the parties hash it out, when to step in, and when to suggest possible options. You ask yourself, ‘Are they making progress on their own?’ Sometimes you’re better just sitting back and letting that process happen but it can be uncomfortable. Remember it’s their dispute and they have to craft the solution jointly – you can gently steer them but you can’t hand them any solutions, even if you see them. It sounds terrible to say, but a good mediator doesn’t care about the content of a settlement or whether the parties even reach agreement. You’d love to be able to say, ‘I’m such a good mediator, I’ve done 120 cases and 99 of those have been resolved,’ but that’s not a good measure of success. Lots of agreements are reached that are bad agreements. Sometimes the best thing is for the parties to walk away before that point. I’m there to help the parties to craft their own agreement, and if they reach one, that’s great. But there are lots of legitimate reasons why they might not. This is a voluntary process, and there has to be buy-in from all the parties. They won’t all love the agreement, but the key is that meets their most important needs and they crafted it themselves. If I come in and suggest something, they are less likely to implement it and buy in, and the agreement is more likely to break down later.

5. You need to know when to have a private caucus – when to take the parties aside. And then you do so with all of the parties. This can be very effective – you can give them a sense of what will likely be acceptable to the other side, and what they’re true BATNA is – their “Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.” For example, if I hear people say, ‘Well, I really don’t want to negotiate because if we go to court we will win,’ I can sit them down and say, ‘Based on my experience you aren’t going to do as well as you think, and it’s going to cost everyone 10 times as much. So even if you don’t get exactly the agreement you want, you’re going to get it months or years earlier, and save a lot of money and anguish.’

6. Shuttle diplomacy – being able to effectively shuttle ideas and offers between the parties – is another skill. Sometimes parties will say, ‘Well, offer this to them,’ and I might suggest modifications that will make it more palatable to the other side. Sometimes they’re subtle changes in the wording or the order in which items are offered. The challenge is that a mediator obviously can’t give away any confidential information, so giving guidance to parties is a delicate business, and you have to keep careful track of where you obtained certain information and what needs to remain confidential to one party.

7. Finally, I think it comes down to your own personality and how you relate to other people. Credentials are nice, but does having a Ph.D. really make me a good mediator? Not really. What makes you a good mediator is doing mediation, and you probably learn more from your mistakes than anything else.

Team-Building Wisdom from the Ottawa Senators

We asked John Phelan – who teaches leadership at the Queen’s School of Business and has been the mental skills coach for the Ottawa Senators hockey team since 2000 – about the similarities between sports teams and organizational teams. He says that building relationships is the key to good teams and good leadership – both on the ice and off.

How long have you been studying teams?

I’ve been coaching since I was 16, so I’ve spent a lot of time asking the question, “How do we get everybody on a team to contribute and work toward a team goal?” I was at Queen’s in 1989 doing my Masters of Arts degree in sports psychology, and I had the opportunity to work with the three-week Executive Development program at the School of Business. I have continued doing that since 1989, except for a period of time when I coached in the American Hockey League in Prince Edward Island.

Based on your observations, what makes a good team?

The more people understand themselves, the more they’ll fit into a team setting because they won’t have inhibitions or doubts. It is important to have an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, and to try and find out if you have any intellectual arrogance – when you stop listening because you think you know everything already – which can really damage a team.

Do the same rules for good teams apply equally to sports teams and organizational teams in workplaces?

Yes, they do. One important thing that sports teams do really well is identify roles. For example, on a professional ice hockey team, there are 12 forwards and 12 specific roles. They could be similar but each player knows what his role is. The same is true with defensemen. Often you see that when someone gets outside his role, or gets frustrated with his role, the team becomes less functional – or even dysfunctional, and people get traded.

The same thing happens in business; you come into a project setting and it is absolutely critical to define roles and everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. To create this openness for people to contribute you have to say, “Let’s open up and have a real brainstorming session,” as opposed to saying “That’s ridiculous,” or “That won’t work.” As soon as that happens, how are people going to react? They’ll say, “I’m going to be here physically, but my mind is going to be somewhere else.”

When you talk to some organizations, it’s amazing how often this happens. There was an executive from an oil company who suggested that her firm was getting 30 percent of what people had to give because of not developing personnel, and not developing teams to the capacity possible.

What is the role of a captain on a sports team? Is there an equivalent on a workplace team?

The key to being a really good captain is to deal with people one on one, to get to know all the team members really well. That way you know what makes them perform well, can see when they are not performing well, and can talk to them and listen to what they have to say. A really good captain brings out the intangible force that turns a really good team into a team with synergy, not a five plus five equals 10 team, but much more. As well, the captain can help the members create their own vision of what the team’s vision and goals really mean.

In business, the person who plays the captain’s role is often not appointed. It’s the person you don’t think is doing anything, but they know about everybody, and people come and talk to them because they are very good listeners. It is important to take the time to get to know people. You really need to build trust.

How should team conflict be handled?

There has to be confrontation in any team, and that is a good thing. Confrontation is simply how you resolve conflict. I might say to someone, “So tell me what is bothering you.” Humans too often see confrontation as bad, and they wait too long to address things. Then it gets emotional, and the issue doesn’t get resolved – people start to bring up skeletons in the closet from the past that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and it all gets hijacked.

One of my roles in player development is to be there if players have issues. They say, “John, can we talk?” and we’ll sit down. I’ll hear the issue, and help them establish what we need to do to resolve it. I ask them, “What’s in your control? Do you need to talk to the manager, or coach?” They might say, “What if they don’t listen?” If they don’t, you can’t control that, and at some point, you have to let go. In professional sports, if you don’t, it will affect performance, and players may either get sent down or traded. You put in considerable effort, but if the coach doesn’t agree, you have to ask yourself how you can learn from this experience, and whether there’s anything you need to personally change – perhaps cultivate a better relationship with someone, or perhaps learn to speak more clearly. Too often people get frustrated and say, “The hell with you, I’ll isolate myself,” and more often than not end up hurting themselves as they are not performing up to the expectations of the team.

What can team leaders do to make sure that conflict gets raised and resolved?

This is one of those things you can’t force on people, and that’s where captains and people who understand teams recognize that relationship is the key. People will come to you if they know you are a good listener, and you can probably deal with conflicts before they get way blown out of proportion and start damaging team performance.

And that’s part of the real secret of good leadership on teams – in his books, Robert Greenleaf talks about becoming a servant leader. His premise is that true leaders understand that their role is to help other people around them develop, become healthier, freer, stronger, more autonomous, and that this stems from relationships.

What else have organizational teams got to learn from sports teams?

In my relationship with the Ottawa Senators, I’ve seen that the coaching staff is very objective on assessment of players. They come in and talk to players about things like how much ice time they’ve had, how many shots on goal, the percentage of time on the ice they’ve been in the offensive zone. I know business tries to be very objective, but sometimes it’s hard to be except to say, “Did the project work, or not?” The more you can develop objective criteria for individuals, the better it is. It helps the individual clarify and perhaps even adjust performance.

Also, sports teams tend to spend time together outside of their profession, and they get to know one another. I think that leads to that intangible synergy. The more I know about you, the more I’m going to care about you. Especially with project teams, the more you get together the better it is; it creates that synergy. I think in business, especially in project teams, it’s very valuable to get to know one another.

Task and relationship are both essentials for teams. And if you take a little more time with relationships, the tasks will likely have more of a chance of being completed successfully. But it is hard; building a working relationship is hard to do. And remember this is not about necessarily liking the person, but it is about respecting the person and the role that person has with the team.

Also, it is very important at the end of meetings to debrief and say what has gone well, what you need to work on, and who does what. So often you leave and assume everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing – but it is important to make sure that not just the person but everyone understands who doing what. This helps to clarify roles.

Further reading: Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness; The Power of Servant Leadership; and The Servant Leader Within: A Transformative Path, all by Robert K. Greenleaf.

Relationships by Objectives: The Experience at Petro-Canada

If Canadian industries are to compete successfully in the new economy, unions and management must move away from their traditional adversarial relationships. This study analyzes a conflict resolution method, known as Relationships by Objectives (RBO), that directs unions and management away from conflict and towards cooperation through joint problem solving. RBO was part of the Preventive Mediation Program provided by the Ontario Ministry of Labour beginning in 1978. Although the Ontario government repealed this program in 1995, it continued to be offered in several provinces in Canada, and in the United States.

This study discusses the rationale for such programs and provides a comprehensive view of the process involved in a RBO program. The second half of the study examines the impact of RBO on the union-management relationship between the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, Local 593, and Petro-Canada’s Lubricants Centre in Mississauga, focusing on the short- and long-term impacts of the program. This case study includes extensive interviews with members of management and the union. Various industrial relations and economic indicators are also used to judge the effectiveness of the RBO program in promoting industrial peace.

Internal Dispute Resolution

This research paper traces the development of Internal Dispute Resolution (IDR) as a way of resolving human rights issues internally without involving third parties. It also provides detailed practical advice for designing IDR programs, which improve employee morale and cost less when compared with more traditional, formal procedures.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Where once Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) referred to an alter­native to the courts, ADR in the field of labour relations is increasingly being referred to as an alternative to arbitration. The objectives of ADR and the newly emerging Internal Dispute Resolution (IDR) are to settle disputes prior to having to go to binding arbitration over which the parties have little control. ADR and IDR are recognized as giving the parties greater direct voice in fashioning remedies and more timely settlements.

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