As a practitioner in appropriate dispute resolution, I often like to look back on my experiences prior to entering the field.  Having around a decade of business management experience, coaching runners for just as long, and spending countless more years as an athlete (though not a great one), I have seen my share of conflict in business and in sports.  As a business manager I’ve seen employee-to-employee disputes, employee-to-customer disputes, customer-to-customer disputes, business-to-business disputes and so on.  As a coach and athlete, I’ve seen various types of athlete-to-athlete disputes, coach-to-athlete disputes, coach-to-coach disputes, and about every other combination of stakeholder group disputes that you can imagine.  Some of these disputes were short-lived and ended well, others ended in dismissal, suspension, or another form of punishment, but I would argue that most did not “end” at all.  In fact, I believe that most internal team disputes quietly fester and ultimately create dysfunction on a larger scale, leading to stifled team performance and ultimately significant costs in the form of both dollars and wins.

Personally, I believe that the business world can learn a lot about the costs of ongoing internal team disputes by studying the impacts that they can have on the performance of sports teams.  In sports, you don’t have to be an appropriate dispute resolution practitioner to spot a dysfunctional team that suffers from internal conflict.  It is blatantly obvious by both their performance on and off-the-field.  Internal conflict can lead to costly miscommunications, penalties, ejections, and losses.  Further, team frustration and anger over growing conflict may also end up leading to PR embarrassments, as players or coaches relieve their frustrations in public view.  Of course, I’m not saying that PR embarrassments are always related to internal team conflict.  More often, I believe that teams who continue to suffer PR embarrassments have systemic problems within their recruiting methodology and/or lack conflict management systems and training within their organization.  However, the basic argument that I want to make is that internal conflicts and disputes lead to noticeably diminished team performance.

Why is Sports Mediation a great solution for resolving internal team conflict?

Highly functioning teams need to be able to communicate effectively and often between team members.  When disputes arise between team members and they are either reprimanded or made to sweep the dispute under the rug, there is no real resolution.  This often leads to strained teammate communication, as individuals may only communicate when absolutely needing to do so, which can then wreak havoc on the way the entire team begins to function.  For example, think of how it feels when you’re caught in the middle of a dispute between friends or family members.  Does the dispute begin to wear on you and change your communication patterns with others?

As a manager, I can remember mediating a dispute between two employees in which both of them had become so angered that they had refrained from talking to one another.  This put a large stress on other employees and made it blatantly obvious to customers that something was dysfunctional.  As their manager, I was able to tell them that their “solution” (to not talk to each other) was not acceptable and that they would either need to be willing to mediate and resolve their differences, or I would have to make necessary changes, as their behavior was not acceptable in a team environment.  Grudgingly, in separate conversations, they both agreed to come to the table and talk to one another.  Utilizing narrative mediation we were able to uncover attribution errors and break down other previously held assumptions that they had about each other.  Apologies were readily given with these new understandings.  I was then able to guide them toward developing a plan, including processes for more effective future communication to avoid falling into the same patterns that led to their original dispute, and future courses of action should another unfortunate event happen.  Not only would their working relationship soon recover, but their friendship did as well.  Had I simply reprimanded them and then ordered them to adhere to a solution that I came up with, they never would have truly resolved their differences.  They might have tolerated each other to save their jobs, but they would not again have functioned as part of a finely tuned team.

This is precisely why mediation in sports is so important.  Teammates, coaching staff, administration and other contributing entities have enduring relationships.  If they do not resolve their disputes and other internal conflicts, the team as a whole will fail to work together in the harmonious way required of all beautifully and finely tuned machines.  In other words, the team will underperform.

Besides Sports Mediation, what other steps can teams take to mitigate internal conflicts and disputes to improve performance?

There are a number of steps that teams can take on their path toward becoming “finely tuned machines.”  Among which are to resolve and mitigate conflicts by getting key members of their team and coaching staff trained and by hiring a sports-conflict practitioner to consult with them on a regular basis.  To further reduce internal team conflict, a sports-conflict practitioner can regularly facilitate their meetings to uncover and resolve areas of conflict for athletes, coaches, and administration.  Of course, sports mediation can always be utilized as needed to make sure that disputes don’t “fester” and become larger problems.  Teams can also employ a part-time of full-time Ombudsman.  Ultimately, when team stakeholders work with a sports-conflict practitioner, I feel that the practitioner’s input and coaching also begins to increase the “conflict IQ” of all stakeholders involved, leaving them more able to quickly resolve their own day-to-day future conflicts.

To put it bluntly, I believe the inner workings of any well-functioning team must include the ability to resolve conflict appropriately and expeditiously if they are ever to reach their full potential.  Services such as sports mediation, team facilitation, and Ombuds services are relatively low-cost, high-impact solutions for mitigating internal team conflict and improving team performance.  I am particularly adamant about these services not only because I am a practitioner in the field and have seen their benefits, but because I can look back on my prior experiences as a manager, coach, and athlete and truthfully say that I believe many unresolved conflicts would have been resolved and led to improved team performance had the appropriate dispute resolution services been utilized.

Author: Jeff Sather