1, Number 2, March/April 2000
Matthew Erickson, University of Waterloo
from the Conciliation Quarterly Spring 1998
special issue entitled How Close to the Fire?: The
Peacemaker as Insider. Used by permission. CQ offers
consistently useful thematic issues with high quality
content that readers may wish to check out. Back issues
is best situated to intervene in workplace conflict? Some
organizations answer that question by emphasizing that
managers and supervisors are to intervene directly in
disputes within their areas of responsibility. Other organizations
see a benefit in retaining the services of "outsiders"
or external dispute resolution agencies and consultants.
A third alternative is to utilize a "designated insider,"
an individual skilled in conflict intervention who is
part of the organization, but not part of the particular
department or issue in dispute.
each approach has its advantages, I am impressed with
the potential of a designated insider to round out an
organization's dispute resolution initiatives. I am not
suggesting that managers or colleagues should not play
a role in resolving conflict within their lines of responsibility.
Nor do I suggest that external agencies should not play
a role in resolving disputes within organizations. However,
there may be situations when intervention by someone who
is outside a department or work group, but inside the
organization, may be more effective.
I was called into a mid-sized department at my university.
The department director expressed concerns over the apparent
inability of the staff within one unit to "get along"
and described bickering, gossip, absenteeism and emotional
direct supervisor had attempted, on several occasions,
to identify the concerns and rectify the situation. This
was an experienced supervisor who saw the problems, clearly
wanted to help and tried his best.
only did the supervisor's attempts to rectify the problem
fail, things began to get worse. Staff performance, and
thus customer service, was negatively affected. Frustrated
with the staff's behavior and low morale, the department
director requested my assistance.
began meeting with the staff in small groups, inviting
them to identify their difficulties and possible causes.
Two things became apparent through these meetings. First,
the source of the group's difficulties appeared to be
among only four staff members. Second, I was able to identify
one reason why the supervisor was not effective in his
attempts at intervention. The supervisor had recently
introduced some departmental changes. Response to the
changes varied widely with some staff disliking the changes,
which they saw as disruptive, and with others accepting
on the changes led to arguments among the four individuals
at the center of the conflict. The arguments generated
ill will that spilled over into other areas of their day-to-day
contact. The supervisor's intervention attempts focused
on the spillover behavior, not the root of the conflict.
conducted a series of mediation sessions where the four
staff members talked to one other about the impact the
changes had on them individually, and discussed their
frustrations with the changes and with each other. Sharing
perspectives on the recent changes led to discussions
on other past workplace concerns.
three sessions on a broad range of issues, the supervisor
joined the group. The supervisor heard the staff's concerns
about the changes, as well as plans on how they were going
to work together now. These plans included ways of responding
to emotional behavior, strategies for handling gossip
and conflict, and ideas on how to improve departmental
intervention worked because the department director and
the supervisor realized barriers existed that limited
their ability to effectively respond to this situation.
The availability of a designated insider gave them the
opportunity to bring expertise to this situation. The
department director could confidentially ask questions,
articulate concerns and check perceptions without committing
to a course of action or an expenditure of funds.
assistance from outside the organization would pose greater
barriers. The process of selecting and contracting outside
service and justifying expenditures contributes to making
the outside contract cumbersome. Those of us who have
worked as mediators have, more often than not, thought
to ourselves "if only I would have had a chance to work
with the parties when this whole thing began." The interests
of an organization are no different. We want to ensure
that we are in a position to respond quickly to difficult
can facilitate this quick access to their services. Because
of his or her placement within the organization, the insider
can provide education on services, while working to strengthen
ongoing relations within the organization. Raising insider's
visibility and reinforcing credibility are key to ensuring
quick access. People see great value in picking up the
phone and speaking informally and confidentially with
a knowledgeable colleague regarding a concern. They also
trust the advice, knowing that it is provided with a solid
understanding of the organizational culture. Outsiders
are limited in terms of accessibility, visibility and
possibly perceived credibility. Managers and supervisors
can be limited by their lack of conflict intervention
experience and skill base, proximity to the conflict,
perceived partiality and the barriers to full disclosure
of staff to their supervisor.
designated insider can combine the best of both worlds,
being familiar, credible, visible, neutral, accessible,
skilled and confidential. However, the designated insider
should not be viewed as the sole intervention option for
those difficult and long-standing problems that management
does not want to handle, nor as the place where disputants
automatically go when they have a concern. A credible
designated insider needs to be seen as complementing management
in carrying out its responsibility to attend to the needs
of the employees, and to assist the employees in responding
to difficult situations. Narrowly defining the role of
the insider and limiting the scope of intervention reduces
the benefits. The insider's role should be flexible and
allow for a broad range of third-party assistance.
present work as a designated insider is as much a matter
of evolution as of conscious design. Although my current
job of Coordinator of Ethical Behavior and Human Rights
gives me a fairly senior position on campus, people probably
see me as more outside the hierarchy than as a part of
it. The individual to whom I report also allows me a lot
potential for me to be seen as a credible source of help
is enhanced by the fact that I came into the position
with a decade of previous experience dealing with campus
conflict as student mediator, Ombuds and staff relations
coordinator. These experiences afforded me a wide range
of contacts and relationships in the university, making
it more natural for people to turn to me when they need
assistance. Ultimately, this kind of perceived legitimacy
and credibility may be more important than any particular
Erickson is Coordinator of Ethical
Behavior and Human Rights at the University of Waterloo
in Ontario. He oversees the University Conflict
Resolution Support Program.