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Conflict resolution

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The topic of Conflict Resolution includes how conflicts are dealt with and by whom. In particular we discuss the types of processes used, factors that reduce conflict avoidance and structures that prevent conflict.

A new perspective

Conflict resolution is a vital piece of the system in a Teal organization. If there is no boss to act as a conflict meditator, then a new process to handle conflict is required. In a Teal organization, conflict resolution is based on peer relationships. Without this approach, the organization would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to function.

Most Teal organizations work on certain assumptions about human nature: that workers are thoughtful, trustworthy adults, capable of being accountable and responsible for their decisions and actions. In a workplace based on Teal assumptions, a clear conflict resolution process, together with appropriate training, gives people the path and skills to work through disagreements with maturity and grace

Every historical stage has given birth to a distinct perspective on conflict resolution and to very different practices:

Red organizations

In the Red paradigm, there is dominant exercise of power by the boss or leader to keep others in line. Fear is the glue of the organization. In general, conflict is handled by suppression, power or dominance, and strict rules are enforced by fear of consequences.

Amber organizations

The Amber paradigm has formalized roles within a hierarchical pyramid structure and top-down command and control (what and how). Stability is valued above all and is maintained through clearly defined roles and processes.

Methods for managing conflict include avoidance or suppression. Rules are imposed by those with authority and may be enforced through legal action. These types of organizations have strong HR processes for managing conflict and grievances between employee and employer.

Orange organizations

In the Orange paradigm, there is also a hierarchical structure, but management is by objective (definition of the what; with more freedom on the how). In many Orange organisations, although there are formal conflict resolution procedures, conflict is often not well adressed. Although individuals are often encouraged to resolve disagreements by themselves, conflict may often need to be settled by intervention from a third party. This is most often done by referring the issue to the boss or by deferring to HR policies and procedures. These procedures create a level of objective independence from the those in conflict.

Green organizations

The Green paradigm again uses a classical pyramid structure, but with a stronger focus on empowerment. Green organizations have values-based cultures that include principles of integrity, respect, and openness. There is a large investment in fostering collaboration, communication, problem solving and drafting agreements that meet underlying needs. These processes can sometimes remove the source of conflict. When they do arise, conflicts can take a long time to resolve as groups seek to find a harmonious solution. However, the boss is usually the final arbiter in conflict situations.

Teal organizations

In Teal organizations, conflict is seen as a natural part of human interaction and, when safely supported, is often viewed as healthy and creative. Conflict handled with grace and tenderness can create possibility and learning for all involved. In Teal organizations time is regularly devoted to surface and address conflicts in individual and group settings. Often formal, multi-step conflict resolution practices are used and everyone is trained in conflict management. Conflict is restricted to the parties involved, and mediators, or peers who might be asked to serve on a mediating panel. Such a panel rarely has responsibility to impose a solution. The focus is instead on helping the involved parties find a solution.

In practice

An organizational culture that supports effective conflict resolution

Conflict resolution mechanisms can be difficult to put in place and to maintain. The process is effective to the degree that there is a culture within the workplace where people feel safe and encouraged to hold each other to account, even when that feels uncomfortable.

Here are some basic principles that underlie many of the Teal organisation's approaches to conflict in a supportive culture:

  • It’s impossible to change other people. We can only change ourselves.
  • We take ownership for our thoughts, beliefs, words, and actions.
  • We don’t spread rumors.
  • We don’t talk behind someone’s back.
  • We resolve disagreements one-on-one and don’t drag other people into the problem.
  • We don’t blame problems on others. When we feel like blaming, we take it as an invitation to reflect on how we might be part of the problem (and the solution).
  • We focus on strengths more than weaknesses, on opportunities more than problems.

Therefore, in addition to specific conflict resolution processes, other structures are needed to create and maintain this type of supportive culture. For instance, many organizations find it helpful to establish a set of values and translate these values into concrete behaviors that are either encouraged or declared unacceptable in the community of colleagues. Many Teal organizations also institute specific meeting practices to help participants interact with each other from a place of wholeness, to keep their egos in check and to ensure everybody’s voice is heard. This might be done by, for example, starting a meeting with a minute of silence, finishing a meeting with a round of appreciation or a structured decision-making process. Another key contributor to a supportive culture is the office space, which should feel safe, provide place for quiet reflection and encourage individual and collective wholeness.

How conflicts are addressed

In a conventional workplace, people often raise a dispute with a boss to settle the matter. In self-managing organizations, disagreements are resolved among peers, often using a conflict resolution process. Peers hold each other to account for their mutual commitments and responsibilities. Holding colleagues accountable in this way can feel uncomfortable and Teal organisations sometimes offer support and practices that encourage openness and emotional intelligence to emerge. Broadly there are three types of practices that Teal organizations put in place to help deal with conflicts.

  • First, methods are developed to help people bring tensions to the surface.
  • Second, clearly defined conflict resolution processes are available to help people safely confront each other when needed.
  • Third, most self-managing organizations train every new recruit in conflict resolution and interpersonal skills.

Bringing tensions to the surface

It can be hard for someone to stand up to a colleague and say, “We need to talk.”. Processes used by some organizations include regularly scheduled group meetings, company retreats, purpose circles and values days. Surfacing becomes a way of helping others to view conflict as normal, creative and a way of learning about diversity and difference. These practices enable others to share their vulnerabilities, see creating safe spaces.

Here are some examples:

  • At ESBZ, a school in Berlin, every class gets together at a fixed time each week to discuss and deal with tensions in the group. The meeting is facilitated by a student, who supports a number of ground rules that keep the discussion safe.
  • At Heiligenfeld, once a year, colleagues in every team rate the quality of their interaction with other teams. The result is a company-wide “heat map” that reveals which teams should have a conversation to improve their collaboration.
  • RHD holds a bi-monthly “-isms in the workplace" meeting. Anyone feeling that the organization should pay attention to a specific form or occurrence of racism, sexism, or any other “-ism” can join the meeting.

Conflict resolution processes

In self-managing organisations, having a clear and well understood conflict resolution process helps people raise issues. Typical conflict resolution mechanisms include: one-on-one discussion, mediation by a peer and mediation by a panel. Some organizations also use team or individual coaching to work through an upset.

For example, :

  • In the first phase, the two people sit together and try to sort it out privately.
  • If they can’t find a solution agreeable to both, they nominate a colleague they both trust to act as a mediator. The mediator doesn’t impose a decision. Rather he or she supports the participants in coming to their own solution.
  • If mediation fails, a panel of topic-relevant colleagues is convened. Again the panel does not impose a solution.
  • If resolution is not found, the founder or president might be called into the panel to add to the panel’s moral weight (but again, not to impose a solution).

Training in Interpersonal skills

Because effective conflict resolution skills are so central in self-managing organizations, many organizations train all their colleagues in interpersonal skills to enable them to deal gracefully with conflict. Generally in their first weeks at work, new hires are given foundational training including: self-management, deep listening, dealing constructively with conflict and creating a safe environment. For instance, companies like ESBZ and Buurtzorg train colleagues in Nonviolent Communication developed by Marshal Rosenberg.

Frequently asked questions

If so much time is spent talking through every conflict, when does the work get done?

Working through conflict in a collaborative way without a solution imposed by a boss can take time. However, the structure of Teal organizations within which employees are trusted to make decisions collaboratively from a place of wholeness and care for others, prevents many conflicts from happening in the first place. Also, many Teal organizations extensively train their employees in effective communication and similar skills that make talking through conflict an easier and faster process. Even if resolving conflict does take some extra time, there are many benefits, such as increased productivity from happier and more empowered workers.

Doesn’t it usually end up with a few team members doing most of work because there is no boss to oversee the situation when someone slacks off?

In traditional companies, when one person doesn’t deliver, colleagues grumble and complain but leave it to the person’s boss to do something about it. In self-managing organizations, people have to step up and confront colleagues who fail to uphold their commitments. This can sometimes be difficult or uncomfortable. Teal organizations invest a lot of time and effort in giving people the skills and resources they need to do this effectively.

Are peers really fully trusted to resolve conflicts? In Teal organizations there is still a founder or CEO. Doesn’t this person have the final say?

When there is disagreement between two colleagues, they may try to send it up to the founder or CEO or other person deemed to have more authority. The temptation to settle the matters in this way is resisted. Instead, the conflict resolution mechanism helps colleagues work through the conflict together. In this way, they learn that their voice is valued and they do have the power to hold peers to their commitments, without the intervention of a boss, even if it can be uncomfortable at times. A CEO or founder might be involved later on if the original colleagues can’t sort the issue out one-on-one and if they choose this person as a mediator or panel member. But neither a mediator nor a panel can impose a solution. Other support may also be requested when teams run into trouble, but ultimately the participants must find their own solution.

In practice

Here are some practical examples from organizations that have adopted conflict resolution structures:

Morning Star

Tomato harvesting, transporting and processing - United States - 400 people - For profit

Use a conflict resolution process called the “Direct Communication and Gaining Agreement”, which supports parties in finding agreement. Mediators may be called in for support, but they cannot impose a resolution from above.

Within Morning Star, there are 23 teams (called Business Units), but no management positions and no HR department. Colleagues operate entirely on self-managing principles that were established early in its history . When the first tomato processing factory was built, Chris Rufer and the company’s first employees met to define how they wanted to work together. They decided that two basic social values should inspire every management practice at Morning Star: individuals should never use force against other people and they should honor their commitments. These values are at the heart of the company’s conflict resolution process, which is described in great detail in the “Colleague Principles”. This is a core document outlining Morning Star’s self-managing practices. The conflict resolution process (called “Direct Communication and Gaining Agreement”), applies to any type of disagreement. This could be a difference of opinion about a technical decision, an interpersonal conflict or a breach of values. Specifically, it can be used in performance issues when one colleague believes that another is not pulling his weight.

Whatever the topic, the process starts with one person asking another to gain agreement: In a first phase, they sit together and try to sort it out privately. The initiator has to make a clear request (not a judgment, not a demand), and the other person has to respond clearly to the request (with a “yes,” a “no,” or a counterproposal).

If they can’t find a solution agreeable to both of them, they nominate a colleague they both trust to act as a mediator. The colleague supports the parties in finding agreement but cannot impose a resolution.

If mediation fails, a panel of topic-relevant colleagues is convened. The panel’s role, again, is to listen and help shape agreement. It cannot force a decision, but usually carries enough moral weight for matters to come to a conclusion.

In an ultimate step, Chris Rufer, the founder and president, can be called into the panel, to further reinforce the panel’s moral weight. Since the disagreement is private, all parties are expected to respect confidentiality during and after the processes. Of course, this confidentiality also applies to the two persons at the heart of the conflict. They must resolve their disagreement between themselves and are discouraged from spreading the conflict by enlisting support and building rival factions.

Buurtzorg

Health care - Netherlands - 9,000 people - Not for profit

Conflict is handled collaboratively within the team structure, sometimes with the help of a regional coach or mediator.

At Buurtzorg , nurses work in teams of 10 to 12, with each team serving around 50 patients in a small, well-defined neighborhood. The team is in charge of all the tasks that, in similar organisations, are fragmented across different departments. The initial Buurtzorg training includes techniques for conflict resolution and Nonviolent Communication developed by Marshal Rosenberg. Conflicts are worked out collaboratively within the team. For instance, when one person has lost the trust of the team, the team tries to find a mutually agreeable solution. If that doesn’t work out, the group calls in its regional coach or an external facilitator to mediate. In almost all cases, the presence of a mediator brings resolution. In some cases, the person and the team decide on some mutual commitments and give it another go. In others, after some deliberation, the person comes to see that trust is irrevocably broken and understands it is time to leave. If no agreement can be found, as a last chance to try to settle the matter, the team members can ask Jos de Blok, the founder, to mediate. In the rare cases, where even this fails, they can ask him to put an end to the person’s contract (legally, he is the only one who can do so).

Resources for Human Development (RHD)

Social services - United States - 4,000 people - Not for profit

Clear ground rules have been written to create a safe environment and constructively managing conflict and anger within the context of self-managing teams.

Each of RHD’s programs is run by a self-managing team, with an average of 20 and at most 50 people. Units, as these teams are called, are encouraged to develop their own sense of purpose, pride, and identity. Units are responsible for their entire operation. Central staff at headquarters is kept to a minimum. Specialist staff can counsel teams, but the final decision is kept in the unit. At RHD, teams have a team leader (called “Unit Director”). Unit Directors have no power to impose decisions and cannot unilaterally hire or fire anybody.

RHD is explicitly founded on a number of basic assumptions about people and work, including that: 1) all people are of equal human worth, 2) people are essentially good unless proven otherwise, and 3) there is no single way to manage corporate issues well.

RHD has developed a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for Employees and Consumers. The first two articles spell out RHD’s objective of creating a safe environment and constructively managing conflict and anger. The organisation has identified several basic assumptions, which guide operations. One is that there are multiple “right” ways or paths we can follow in making decisions. Thus there is no one “true” or “absolute” reality. Each person in a situation holds his/her own view of reality and his/her own perspective about the most effective way to do things. Whilst conflict and difference (or disagreement) are to be expected, explosive or otherwise hostile expressions of anger are not acceptable in RHD. As a member of the RHD community, it is important to be able to do two things: a) Separate from our own need to be “right” in order to hear and respect others’ realities and perspectives: and, b) Differentiate between thoughts (what’s going on inside your head) and behaviors (what you do or say).

The document goes on to spell out in detail five unacceptable expressions of hostility. The first, “demeaning speech and behavior”, is described in the following terms: Demeaning speech and behavior involves any verbal or nonverbal behavior that someone experiences as undermining of that person’s self-esteem and implies that he/she is less than worthy as a human being. Such behaviors include, but are not limited to, name-calling, ridicule, sarcasm, or other actions which “put down” people. Demeaning a person with such physical behaviors as rolling one’s eyes when the person speaks or otherwise negating her importance as a member of the community is also unacceptable. Anyone encountering such hostile behavior has the right and responsibility to surface it as an issue. Other expressions of hostility include ”negative triangulated messages”, “threat of abandonment”, “disconfirming the other person’s reality” and “intimidation/explosion” are defined in an equally precise manner.

“Above” the teams, there are no middle managers, but rather hub leaders who support a number of units. Hub leaders expect to be kept informed of major existing or potential problems. While they may advise or help, the responsibility for resolving problems stays with the unit.

Heiligenfeld

Mental health care - Germany - 600 people - For profit

Innovative management practices are used to create a supportive work culture that fosters trust, empathy and compassion, while decreasing conflict.

At Heiligenfeld every Tuesday morning, all 350 employees come together for an hour and a quarter to engage in joint reflection. Every week, a new topic that is current and conducive to self-reflection is put on the agenda. Recent meetings have reflected on subjects as diverse as conflict resolution, dealing with failure, company values, interpersonal communication, bureaucracy, IT innovations, risk management, personal health and mindfulness. The meeting always kicks off with a short presentation to frame the subject matter, followed by self-reflection in small groups. Every group elects a facilitator who enforces ground rules that create a space where it’s safe to explore, to be authentic and vulnerable. In the confines of the small group, helped by their colleagues’ listening, people dare to dig deep and gain new insights about themselves and others. Colleagues are exposed every week to a space made safe by ground rules that invites them to truly be themselves. They learn to see each other in the light of their deep humanity, in the beauty of their strengths and vulnerability. The trust, empathy and compassion that develop in these meetings expand to permeate the whole organization

ESBZ

Education - Germany - 1,500 students, staff and parents - Not for profit

Innovative curriculum and organizational model that fosters a sense of community and encourages the surfacing and resolution of conflict.

At ESBZ , a large school has been broken down into smaller, self governing units, to create a sense of community within mini-schools. In addition, all teachers and students are trained in Nonviolent Communication. Utilizing these and other conflict resolution skills, every class gets together at a fixed time each week to discuss and deal with tensions in the group. The meeting is facilitated by a student who enforces a number of ground rules that keep the discussion safe.

Related topics

References