Resolving Workgroup Conflict: Group process vs. Mediation

The Problem

Fred and William have no use for one another’s ideas. They obviously ignore one another in meetings. When talking with colleagues, they make disparaging remarks about the other. There is clear tension when they’re both in the room. Their boss knows to avoid putting them together on a project. This tension has been going on for years. Everyone knows it’s dysfunctional.

Conflict as a Problem

Conflict is an integral part of worklife. As long as people are talking with one another, their ideas will clash at times. A workgroup with a wide range of opinions and perspectives can generate a creative and vibrant environment, but people will experience a few bumps along the way.

Problems arise when people get stuck.

The important point about unresolved conflict isn’t the conflict. The fact that people maintain strong differences of opinion does not in itself create a problem. The important point is when that disagreement becomes charged with resentment and anger.

In addition to sparking unpleasant emotions, unresolved conflict breaks down group processes. Individuals slow down the rate or thin out the depth of their encounters with one another. They may not stop communicating entirely, but the chances of meaningful contact diminish.

Action

Bringing William and Fred to a mediation process opens the possibility of clarifying their distinct perspectives. They could search for resolution or at least ways of tolerating one another.

A group process, such as CREW, redefines the issue as a workgroup problem. After a period of extended conflict, the tension has moved beyond William and Fred. Everyone is involved. They have their own emotional reaction to the William/Fred dynamic. They have adapted their behaviour to accommodate it.

Mediating the dynamics of William and Fred leaves a lot unresolved. And as they participate in the workgroup with others, they are likely to revert to their established ways of doing things.

Points to Remember:

  1. Group dynamics are powerful. Even when individuals decide to change their behavior, their encounters with colleagues push them towards their old ways of being.
  2. People like control. A process that explicitly empowers a group to solve its problems will meet with less resistance. People get more done when they’re masters of their fates.
  3. Group dynamics become self-perpetuating. The same powerful dynamics that kept the group stuck in a bad place previously can become the engine for maintaining a new way of being together.

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