Impasse. Logjam. Intractable Conflict.

July 26, 2011

The political stalemate in Washington, as disheartening as it is, provides a good opportunity to think about the conflicts that lead to claims, and the challenges of investigating claims when individuals have staked out a position/set of beliefs that seem completely contrary to one or more coworkers or supervisors who have equally powerful perspectives/beliefs. Particularly in allegations of hostile environment or systemic discrimination, parties have spent a long time talking themselves (and likely others) into their perspectives. They become inflamed by suggestions that there might be another way to see things, and should you insist that they try, they often fold you into those they view as “the other side.”

Several years ago, I investigated the work environment in a large nonprofit organization. After several complaints emerged of discrimination based on national origin/ethnicity/religion, they asked me to conduct an inquiry. Each and every one of the complainants was credible, and pointed out actions of management and supervisors, coworkers and even clients that they felt showed animus. Some had been disciplined in ways they felt were unfair. Others “knew” of incidents that supported their view that the organization was toxic. In one case, a complainant had been accused of misusing a piece of equipment, and pointed out that his majority coworker had used the equipment in the exact same manner with impunity. A second described a supervisor repeatedly calling attention to his protected class, making him feel uncomfortable. Because the 8 complainants had come together and shared their data prior to complaining, they felt absolutely certain that their data set was legitimate. The organization was poisoned with racism from the very top.

Speaking with management was equally challenging. For every specific incident, there was a different perspective. The equipment usage had not been the same, and the documents showed that this was the case. The supervisor who referred to protected class was concerned about the employee’s constant accusations of racism and had asked what could be done to diminish that perception. The employees were “plotting,” “jumping on the bandwagon,” and “were the real discriminators.” There was no basis for the complaints, and that was that.

As an investigator, we are stuck with facts, and it was with great regret that I stuck to my role and reported that while some incidents reported were accurate, many others were disputed fairly and by evidence. Those are the days when being an investigator is frustrating, because through the process of listening to the stories and sentiments of all of the parties involved, it became clear that the question before the organization was not just the legal one regarding the weight of the evidence, but the organizational challenge as to how the organization would move forward.

That gets me back to intractable, or seemingly intractable conflicts, and the valuable perspective that interest based conflict management brings to the table. My two “bibles” that have informed and supported my work in this area are Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury and The Mediation Process by Christopher Moore. According to the first, to resolve a conflict,”…each party must…percieve that the continued existence of the other is both necessary and desirable from the point of view of his own self interest.” The second uses the Circle of Conflict to divide conflict into several categories; data conflicts, relationship conflicts, values conflicts, procedural conflicts.Moore’s circle of conflict Moore stresses that data conflicts– simple differences in data –say I thought our meeting was at 3, and you thought it was 2 — can easily become procedural conflicts –you never give me the right information–and then relationships conflicts –you set me up to miss the meeting. To make resolving workplace conflicts effective, it is important to work at the “bottom” of the circle — focusing on data differences, procedural differences and substantive differences, and by getting these worked through, to develop the trust it will take to begin to resolve relationship conflicts.

In workplace conflicts, two inevitable interests are present; for employees and managers, to receive satisfaction and remuneration for their work. For the organization, to get the work done so the organization can meet its goals. Beyond that, there are many more interests, such as (for employees) fairness, dignity, safety, boundaries and (for employers) having policies obeyed, getting good performance, shareholder value, profitability or mission. Identifying and finding common ground in these interests can form the basis for some powerful dialogue, some healing, and some new respect. There can be civility between “warring factions.” I know, because I have facilitated these meetings. Not to say it is easy. These interventions are time consuming, they are often emotionally intense, they require caucusing to reduce defensiveness and strict ground rules to keep the process afloat. Nevertheless, this type of arduous process of listening for interests and finding common ground may present the only sustainable resolution to the polarization and destruction of two or more groups with profoundly different realities. Absent that, there will simply be more eruptions of conflict fed by the sense that the concerns of all were not taken seriously, and those things wanted — have not resulted. The goal is to move away from what people “want” to what their interests are, and focusing on creating a road map to make sure those interests stay front and center. I for instance, have seen seemingly impossible conflicts softened by having participants describe what being “respected” would look like or feel like. Or to have people passionately speak to the importance of their work in their life, and how events have affected them. At the bottom line, finding what we have in common and exploring shared interests humanizes the process in a way that rights-based or position-based resolution cannot.

It seems that at work and in Washington if you can get past what people ‘want” in order to win, and get to what their shared interests are, in order to go forward together, there is a far greater chance of enduring, principled solutions. Unfortunately, to get there, we need to find ways to get past the legal fictions of “right” and “wrong,” and find our way to shared interests.

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