Conflicts in the workplace: internal mediation works!



Conflicts in the workplace

As a former in-house legal counsel based in Amsterdam I was part of many large international projects at multinational companies. Sooner or later, I found most of these projects would experience problems. Sometimes minor, but most often major.

An example: a strategic software project, highly visible for the international top management. Steered by the IT dept, with input from HR, legal, tax and finance departments. The project at hand involved engineers, tax lawyers, people in India, Europe, US etc. This means different working styles, time schemes, objectives, and cultures.

It went from bad to worse, due to unreasonable timelines and unexpected difficulties. Communication, as usual, done via email - not through live conversation.

Due to language issues and overload of work, some participants wrote more or less harsher, unfriendly sentences. Input was not given on time in many instances. Legal, tax and finance could not continue; frustration followed.

Resentment grows. Communication falters

Resentment grew, parties started sending more emails - either very long, covering their ass, or short, in reaction to the long conversations. Bad mouthing started. Delays. People and managers were c.c.-d on cranky emails. Top management started to become aware.

Reputations were hurt. And then -- people stopped talking to each other altogether. Silence.

Entry of a Business mediator

What would a mediator do to facilitate or mediate the conversation? One of my first actions as a mediator could be to have individual talks (called: caucus) with each of the key project team members. Then: 

Create a culture, facilitate the conversation and common goals.

Then - in a safe environment - create a new 'culture' for the project (yes a group or project can have a culture):  

no blaming, no excessive emails, but instead set intentions to solve matters via Skype or phone calls, or better yet, if possible, live meetings, to avoid misunderstandings. Then create common goals with timelines and get everyone’s commitment on these re-formulated intentions.

With the key members of the team: a talking (and listening!) session. By telling the other persons how the current situation affected their work and personal life, sharing of stories (on workload and various difficulties).

Some basic understanding is created. As it appears, most irritations were based on not insurmountable differences, but silly misunderstandings. Collateral damage, caused by work stress.

Create understanding

And where understanding is created, an opening arises for more cooperation. For little gestures of teamwork. Of humanity even. Like short emails celebrating or thanking work of a team member. After a 3 to 5 week intensive effort of inter-company mediation, an entirely different work attitude can  be created.

The wins: the project finished on time, 'go-life' in 20 countries. Personal relations repaired. More understanding for future projects. Celebrations - with pizza and beer. And some of the enemies would be doing the ‘polonaise’; a Dutch tradition when celebrating community and happiness.

Robert de Wilde is a business mediator focusing on IT and tech, and former attorney in The Netherlands and The Netherlands Antilles. For info on company mediation and facilitation: send an email to or go to Contact