When Team Building to Resolve Conflict is a Waste of Time & Money - Group Restorative Mediations

silhouette of team in blue

I am often approached by new clients who wish to engage me for a ‘Team-Building’ related process. Again and again I have observed that when there is a history of conflict between staff, a single team-building activity at best provides only superficial ‘band-aids’.

In large groups of staff, conflict often arises between factions within a team where staff polarise behind the key ‘ringleaders’ of the conflict. In a once-off team-building process these key spokespeople continue to advocate for the others and the staff who seldom speak-up will continue to stay silent. While these activities might be fun at the time, they are rarely transformative. After a while, low morale and disengagement inevitably re-surfaces as the underlying causes of conflict remain unexamined.

Through my 10-year consultancy practice in this work, I have developed a genuine Group Restorative Mediation process that is effective in diffusing long-term conflicts and unraveling the underlying issues to build lasting solutions.

A restorative group mediation has two components; one-on-one sessions with each staff member on Day 1, followed by a combined group process on Day 2.

Working with a diverse range of different personalities within a team, the first component offers staff a one-on-one session in a safe and confidential setting in which I use therapeutic skills to:

  • listen deeply to their respective stories;
  • gently diffuse anger and negativity;
  • question their emotional attachment to their assumptions;
  • assess their capacity for self-reflection, empathy and compassion; and
  • slowly earn their trust to suspend their cynicism and genuinely engage in the process.

The one-on-one sessions also afford staff an opportunity to provide anonymous and often valuable upward feedback to management as generic themes.

The staff are then provided a set of questions to consider for the group process the following day. These questions ask staff to re-connect to the value they feel for the work, the team and their colleagues (as through conflict our focus inevitably becomes fixated on the negative). They are also asked to consider how they might have contributed to things not working as well as they could or how they might have let others down. This second question is a key component of my restorative process. 

Based on an assumption that conflict is mostly co-created, each staff member has a role to play. On occasion I am told by a staff member that another person is 99% to blame. My response is “great, so let’s focus on the 1%”. 

Informed by Nelson Mandela’s implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which enabled perpetrators an opportunity to acknowledge their involvement in the traumatic history of apartheid and thus obtain future immunity from prosecution, the second question asks people to take responsibility for their own behaviour in the co-creation of the dysfunctionality of the team in a setting which is fortified by a prescribed ‘NO-FAULT’ rule for the combined session. It is made very clear that this is not an opportunity to blame each other, but an opportunity for self-reflection and accountability.

Through conducting approximately 85 group restorative processes with teams of up to 25 staff, I have been privileged and humbled to observe the tremendous sense of emotional release when staff are afforded an opportunity to acknowledge their own participation in past negative behaviours in a safe setting; sometimes even offering a public apology to others who have been deeply impacted by this negative behaviour. Collectively there is also a sense of tremendous relief that underlying issues have finally been unravelled and acknowledged.

The question about how to move forward as a functional and supportive team is then considered. From this question, staff can collectively focus on solution-oriented practical steps and action plans to improve the overall functionality of the team.

The chronology of the questions is also important. There is little to be gained asking a team to consider what is necessary for the team to work together better until individuals are willing to take some responsibility for why things have not worked as effectively as they could have up until now. I also cannot expect staff members to take responsibility for the role that they might have played in the overall dysfunctionality of the team unless they feel completely safe and valued.

Then, and only then, can any team-building, planning sessions or other work-related group processes be truly inspiring!


prison bars
"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didnít leave the bitterness and hatred behind, l'd still be in prison"
- Nelson Mandela
How We Use This Principle