Anyone who has ever spent time overseeing small children - or business work teams - knows that such groups can function perfectly well for long periods of time - and then collapse for no apparent reason into chaos and disfunctionality. Knowing how - and even more importantly when - to intervene in a usually highly functioning group is one of the most important skills that a consultant can bring to the group intervention process. A consultant both must understand the nature of the process in particular (and so must have what are essentially anthropological skills to allow the consultant to determine how the "natives" think) as well as a general, in some sense idealized sense of how work processes should work in the abstract. Such a knowledge of how work processes can be their most effective allows consultants to diagnose what the problem is when those processes begin to fail. But while the ability to pinpoint what is wrong is an essential skill for a consultant, just as essential for any effective consultant is an ability to improve communications among team members by instituting strategies and methods taken from mediation and the field of alternative dispute resolution. Getting people to want to work together is the most important step that a consultant can take in getting them actually to do so.
Conflicts arise in all groups, as Folger etal argue:
Conflict is, by nature, interactive. It is never wholly under one person's control... Conflict interaction cycles acquire a momentum of their own. They tend in a definite direction -- toward escalation, toward avoidance and suppression, or toward productive work on the conflict (p. 409).
When the parties to a dispute reach a sufficient point in the escalation of their dispute, lawsuits are filed; when avoidance and suppression are attempted, service of summons is obtained; and when the parties to a dispute take the direction of seeking productive work on the conflict, they frequently engage in some type of alternate dispute resolution approach.
This is one of the chief duties of the consultant in group intervention: To Alternate dispute resolution ("ADR") refers to a "variety of procedures for the resolution of disputes. Common to all ADR procedures is the word alternative. Each ADR procedure is an alternative to court adjudication" (Introduction to Alternate Dispute Resolution, 2001: 1-2). Consultants can use the methods of mediations and alternative dispute resolution to get people to emphasize their common goals rather than their differences According to one recent report:
Mediation and related forms of alternative dispute resolution are techniques for managing conflicts that may be employed independently or as alternatives to conventional methods of claims management including litigation (Alternative dispute resolution may avoid health care litigation, 2003, p. 85).
The option of resolving conflicts through a method that avoids both the courts and long guns is often summarized under the rubric of arbitration, which covers a range of nonjudicial, legal techniques that are designed to resolve disputes through the process of referring them to neutral, trained third party (which may be either an individual or an arbitration board).
The arbitration system in the United States has been built on two landmark pieces of legislation. The U.S. Arbitration Act of 1954 requires federal and state courts to recognize and enforce arbitration awards that are fundamentally fair. The Uniform Arbitration Act, promulgated by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 1955 and adopted by 49 states, spells out the basic requirements for validity of arbitration agreements -- venue and jurisdiction, process, remedies and appeals (Smith, 2000, p. 88).
In her essay, "Resolving Nonunion Employment Disputes through Arbitration," Kelly (2001) points out that as the number of lawsuits and the amounts of damage awards continues to escalate in the U.S., companies and individuals are increasingly employing ADR as an option to help resolve a wide variety of disputes with customers and employees in lieu of formal litigation.
ADR is widely used in resolving commercial disputes in such areas as real estate, auto retailing, banking and securities. The American Arbitration Association reports that the number of mediation and arbitration cases filed with that organization has tripled between 1996 and 2000" (Kelly, 2001, p. 4).
The ADR approach has been increasingly over the last decade been used to help resolve a variety of different types of problems, and can be used effectively by consultants in group interventions. Unlike many other techniques that have been used to attempt to solve problems in the workplace, mediation and alternative resolution dispute techniques emphasize win-win solutions from the first step.
Consultants and workers that are trained in mediation have better communications skills. One of the most important skills that come into play in the contemporary workplace is the ability to build teams that will allow for the most efficient and creative problem solving.
This requires skills in communicating because the essence of constructing a good team is the ability to judge differences in personality type amongst all of the workers in a division or a company and to assign each worker a job within the team effort that that person is capable of accomplishing and that - moreover - that will keep that person as happy as possible. Any well-designed human resources model must acknowledge that we are not all equally good at doing the same things and that one of the best ways to improve both productivity and morale is to ensure that - to the extent that is feasible - people get to do what they are good at.
Good managers understand that people should be assigned to tasks that they are skilled at. But they should also be assigned to tasks that they like because a worker who is happy (and feels respected) is more productive. Understanding the learning style as well as the work style of each person is an essential skill for managers, and one of the issues that will be focused on in this session.
Five consultants and ten workers from a variety of workplace settings who have gone through mediation training were interviewed for this research to determine how good they believe their conflict-resolution skills are.
Consultants believed that they benefited from mediation training more than did "normal" workers because they used such techniques on a continuing basis. Non-consultants found their own training in mediation useful, but said that they tended to forget the skills that they had acquired during those periods in which there was relatively little conflict in their jobs and had to try to resurrect them when needed.
Findings and Conclusion
The real challenge for each manager trying to craft a smoothly functional team in which all of these conditions are met for each worker. This is often very difficult, in part because it is often the case that the things that people are good at are not necessarily the tasks that they enjoy doing the most.
Part of the problem-solving skills that were taught in the training sessions have to do with practicing basic conflict-management methods. Conflict management is a tool that helps resolve problems before they reach intolerable levels. It can be used in the workplace, the school, at home. Its basic principles can in fact be used by diplomats and legislators and it is especially useful when problems arise because of cross-cultural misunderstandings. There are probably as many different styles of conflict management as there are styles of leadership, but its basic principles are the same. All organizations will experience conflict. Those that will survive such inevitable conflict and even find ways to prosper from it are those that have internal systems that encourage employees to voice their concerns, protect them once they have done so, and provide mechanisms for managing and resolving disputes may even be able to use inevitable conflicts to find ways to profit from it.
Conflicts arise in work because people have different ideas about the best way to accomplish different goals and different personal styles - something that is especially important to acknowledge in a multicultural atmosphere. They also arise from the American cultural value of individualism, which is played out in organizational systems of authority and conflict resolution, where subordinates are expected to question orders of superiors and attempt to resolve differences in a one-on-one fashion.
Thus American workers are reluctant to turn to collective actions when they become reasonably frustrated with organizational responses to individual efforts. However, the individuals of an organization must in fact work together. Once they accept this and mechanisms are put into place to ensure that collective work is as valued as individual work, the isolation that produces so much anger at work will have been undercut, and the most important step toward conflict resolution in the workplace will have been accomplished. Employees need to be convinced that their workplace has a commitment to the fact that all parties to a dispute have interests and concerns that demand respect and can be satisfied in the final outcome,…