Conflict resolution

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

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.

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.

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.

Concrete cases for inspiration

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