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The Absence of Courage

Broken concrete pier or jetty and rocks on a blue sea. Hills on background. Long exposure photography.

After the Shock Wave

This week’s blog can also be called Ethic’s Seismic Fracture, and here is why.

Wells Fargo Corporation opened fake bank accounts and fake credit card accounts, and charged its customers fees for accounts they did not know existed. These actions were both illegal and unethical and will have significant consequences for all those involved. It has all the trappings of a soap opera scandal and everyone is piling on adding his or her opinion wherever they can. But the story is not over and I think there is more to come.

This is an ethical failure of seismic proportions, and I will likely write about it in a future letter, but it is too soon because I don’t believe we know the whole story. It does offer an excellent segue into a related issue that I think is relevant to this story.

An article in the Harvard Business Review discussed the subject of listening and why this is such a critical skill for CEOs and other leaders. The author noted that a recent survey indicated as many as 25 percent of CEOs of major companies were either not good listeners or down right bad at it. The article went on to explain that this deficit at that level of leadership in a company can have severe consequences to the point of damaging the company. I think it’s safe to say the authors of that survey got that one right.

When such a deficit exists at the top level, imagine what the absence of this skill would mean in someone heading up a major business unit who must communicate and receive feedback from other business unit leaders. Information naturally flows up an organization making information transfers across the various organizations difficult at best, but it is made more difficult if the person in charge of one of these organizational structures does not listen well.

Think for a moment about a company much like Wells Fargo where employees at multiple levels in an organization are trying to convey important information up the chain of command; information that signals the train is going too fast and is about to go off the tracks, but that information doesn’t move up the organization. It meet resistance that shows itself in several ways. These can be procedures that require detailed explanations and lengthy reviews for no apparent reason, a set of well-established routines that do not conform to any written procedures or policies and which cannot be bypassed, and a culture that says to the average manager or employee “make your numbers first and save your complaints for later…” The transition from poor listening skills to an un-willingness to listen is a very short step.

One of the most important skills a leader has is the ability to listen. It is one of the ingredients of leadership that separates a leader from the rest of the crowd. Does this mean that you can’t achieve a leadership role without this skill? No, it doesn’t; a person can achieve a leadership role in a company or organization without this skill, but the chances of doing well in that position are significantly diminished without it.

The leaders at Wells Fargo failed in their leadership role. It is not the first company to suffer a severe failure of leadership, and it won’t be the last. As more time passes I think we will find there were ample opportunities to change the work ethic in that company, but the warning signs were ignored. I believe the failure to listen at various levels of the organization was the catalyst that sowed the seeds for disaster.

Successful leaders learn early in their careers that listening is part of a process designed to produce communication with others that works so that misunderstandings are reduced or eliminated. I encourage those who read my letter each month to read, or if you have already, then re-read Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He understood that listening, especially empathic listening requires training. Sometimes leaders trained themselves to achieve this level of listening, and sometimes leaders found someone to teach them how to achieve this level of listening.

In chapter 5 of his book Stephen Covey wrote that there are several principles of communication and he begins by saying “seek first to understand then to be understood”. I believe those principles are as valid today as when he wrote his book some 30 years ago.

The idea that you first needed to understand the person you were talking to was a completely foreign concept to the vast majority of people. In the business world of that era it was seen as an impractical point of view, and that view was not hard to understand in that most communication at time was directive in nature where the boss told his employees what to do and when he wanted it done and the employee was expected to figure it out.

I am firmly convinced that empathic listening as he wrote about has a sound ethical foundation and provides the best framework for building listening skills of the scope and reach that will separate you from the crowd, and sustain you in your role as a leader.

A strong ethical culture requires the right kind of action. Listening is an action and so it must be supported by the right kind of action to be successful.

Food for thought: Great readers and great listeners all have great work ethics. They work hard at what they do and they are devout about their reading and listening. (Andy Wilkinson)

CDC Integrated Services believes that small businesses are the foundation of ingenuity and supports the efforts of the Services Cooperative Association in Houston in its efforts to foster and promote entrepreneurship

Emotions and Conflict

Tough to brakeThis is the third post in my series of comments on the Wheel of Conflict developed by professors Bernard Mayer, Ph.D. and Christopher Moore, Ph.D. In developing the graphic illustration of the different factors that drive conflict, these two gentlemen placed Emotion immediately after Structure. There are sound reasons for their decision to place where they did because emotions drive one’s actions, behaviors, and even thinking.

More than 50 years of research offer compelling evidence that emotions strongly shape most decisions, and are a key driver of behavior, and are often the impetus behind conflicts in the workplace and even between companies. Emotions are not uniformly negative as both science and history teaches us. Strong emotions can drive people to achieve extraordinary things; even anger can generate positive outcomes.

But the converse is equally true in that emotions such as anger can create a negative and damaging environment in the workplace and is often the driver behind many workplace conflicts.

Psychologist John D. Mayer argues that emotions carry a physical aspect when they bridge thought, feeling, and action and can impact a person’s physiology both positively and negatively depending on the level of stress being felt at the time of the decision/action. This simple truth has been experienced by anyone confronted by a demanding task coupled with a critical timeline.

Managers and supervisors often fail to recognize that decisions people make in the workplace are judged, by those making the decision or taking the action, on the basis of the risk to themselves. That perceived risk strongly influences their decisions or their actions. Someone who feels anxious about the impact of the outcome on him/her may choose a more conservative approach, involve others, take longer to execute the task, and potentially sacrifice the best outcome for one that is safe.

A negative work environment will drive other negative behaviors. Doing the safe thing can lead to doing only the least necessary to stay “under the radar”, and it can lead to other more damaging behaviors such as missing schedules, making excuses, asking others to do the work for you.

Managers and supervisors need to develop an active awareness of those situations where emotions can have an adverse effect on the work, the cohesiveness of the group, and the productivity that is necessary to produce the necessary outcomes, and they must be able to react in a constructive way to avoid the potential for conflict without creating reasons for greater anxiety and uncertainty.

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August at the Library

Direct from The Ethics Workshop.   Have you been to the library recently?

Well, come join us at the Kendall Branch of the Houston Library (see below) on August 25th.

Start Now Indicating At This Time And Immediate

Experience an Introduction to:


Mark down the date and location shown below. Spend just two hours with us and you will learn about the building blocks for a more dynamic culture in the workplace.

Behavior drives failure and behavior drives success. Lean how to prevent/mitigate failure and increase success in your work.


In two hours YOU will learn:

That doing the right thing sets the stage.

That doing the right thing at the right time defeats failure

That doing the right thing for the right reason is the difference between success and great success.

In two hours find out how these building blocks apply to real life situations and can transform a department or a company.

 AUGUST AT THE LIBRARY – join us on the 25th from 1:15 to 3:15 PM at 609 N. Eldridge Parkway, Houston, TX 77079.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST??  WOW!  YOU ARE IN LUCK. For this day only it is FREE.

The regular price for this is event is $189.00 per person, but we are introducing it to businesses in West Houston and Katy on the date indicated above through this no cost introductory offer.

To register, or for more information about other dates, please contact Jerry Cooper at: 832-452-8537, or at

Jerry P. Cooper

CDC Integrated Services, LLC

Structure and Conflict


In my earlier post I introduced the Wheel of Conflict created by Professors Bernard Mayer, Ph.D. and Christopher Moore, Ph.D.  When you read their work and the work of other practitioners, the starting point is often a discussion about the role of structure as a source of conflict. The point the two authors emphasized was that many conflicts result from the dynamics that exist between a manager/supervisor and the employees that report to him or her.

The primary fact of any company’s or organization’s structure is they contain a hierarchy where the higher you are in an organization the more authority and power you have over the actions and decisions of others. The manager or supervisor is the key player in anticipating and mitigating the potential for conflict. Therefore, one of his/her primary rolls is avoid being the source of conflict.

In any department, group, or team conflict is inevitable because the members of that organization will have different views on how to advance the work and often there will be differences of opinion on how to proceed. These differences can be exacerbated by the realities that every organization faces: limited resources, limited time, budget constraints, and a range of other constraints as well.

The manager or supervisor has a critical responsibility to see that the structure under which the team operates does not become the problem. The organizational structure by design puts limits and controls over any process and the people there. The manager’s goal is to make those constrains as neutral as possible.

It often sounds trite, but the key to eliminating structure as a source of conflict lies in the way managers communicate with the other members of the team. What gets communicated, how it’s communicated and when are critical factors in how a team responds to the information they must work with.

The Wheel of Conflict

Steering wheel of the train service for controlling

Wheel on train service vehicle

No single element in a conflict stands alone, and no conflict arises from one single reason. There are multiple factors and these are better understood when they are placed in relation to a wheel as discussed below.

Structure, emotion, history, communication, and values are elements/factors that influence the dynamics of conflict in the workplace. All of these exist to some degree in every conflict, and how they interact and influence each other often drives the direction and the severity of a particular conflict.

Professors Bernard Mayer, Ph.D. and Christopher Moore, Ph.D;’long time students, teachers, and practitioners of conflict resolution, created a graphic in the form of a wheel to help those who want  to avoid, mitigate, and when necessary resolve conflict. Each of the above elements, viewed as a section of the wheel, form distinct aspects of a conflict, and those confronting conflict can use this representation as an aid to thinking their way through the minefield that is conflict in today’s workplace.

In the coming weeks I will use this space to discuss each of these factors and why looking at them individually is a necessary first step in understanding the larger picture. The concept of the Wheel of Conflict is important for those trying to resolve conflict because it helps them understand the complex and tense emotions that are present in these situations.   The wheel reminds us that one’s point of view is not necessarily shared by the others involved in the conflict.

I will discuss structure in more detail in my next post, but for the moment I will leave with Messrs Mayer and Moore’s description that it is in part  “…the dynamics of the participants that might be creating the conflict, for example, boss and employee…”

Just a Thought

tug of warThe word Argument is heard often in the field of conflict resolution. It is one of the words heard most often when a conflict is examined during the course of a mediation or even a post-mediation lessons learned process.

It is an important word with broader application that one gets by listening to what goes on around them. Many of us hear every day that someone got into an argument with so and so. All of us can benefit by the reminder that the most common understanding of this word is well down the list of definitions. There are a total of six definitions for this word, but one is obsolete, so only five are relevant today.

For this post, I believe the strongest benefit for us in our everyday considerations is number two on the list which is “a reason or set of reason given in proof or rebuttal”. Closely following this definition is the third definition which is “a coherent series of statements leading from a premise to a conclusion”.

Defining an argument as a quarrel or disagreement is well down the list. My point in this post, in a sense, is a continuation of my earlier post. As executives, leaders, managers, your goal is not to avoid or mitigate disagreements, but deal with them through reasoned persuasion or by reasoned argument. And lest anyone forget, reasoned argument carries with it the obligation to listen using both active listening and empathic listening skills.

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The Conflict Peril

concept with matches- chain reactionThe companies I consult with fall into one of two camps; they know they will have problems if they are not proactive, or they have a problem and it needs resolution now.  I have far too few of the first, and more than I should of the second.  Periodically I remind my readers that there is real peril in not resolving conflict in a timely manner. I have written before about the adverse impact on profits, on organizational cohesion, and the impact on quality and reliability of a product or service.

Many studies over the past 25 years give ample empirical evidence of the damage resulting from conflicts that are ignored. So why do so many companies shy away from explicitly preventing conflict or confronting conflict once it begins to impact the organization. What is it about a company’s culture and the leadership that shapes that culture? Let’s face it folks; a conflict produces a lot of early warning signs, and it’s the leader’s job to heed those warnings and change whatever is producing those clear warnings. When they fail to act, to adjust, they are failing as leaders.

When I meet with a CEO or his key executives I ask each of them some simple questions.

Do you avoid talking about conflicts that inevitably  appear?

How proactive are you in promoting procedures and processes for training managers and employees in conflict resolution?

How aware are your employees of the various techniques and tools available to them to prevent, mitigate, or resolve conflict?

The responses to these three questions varies greatly, and that is why I stay busy.

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Did You Know?

Tough to brakeMost conflicts in the workplace can be avoided. This is nothing new; you have probably heard that before. So why is it so difficult to prevent conflicts from erupting in the workplace damaging relationships, organizational cohesiveness, productivity, and so many other important facet of the organization? Regrettably, we are conditioned to take actions and make decisions that exacerbate the potential for conflict.

No conflict lands on your desk fully formed “out of the blue”.  While it may have caught you by surprise, it was building just beyond your horizon, and like a hurricane, it gave you a number of warnings that you either did not see, or did not interpret correctly. No conflict begins without someone or  more than one ignoring the first building block of any conflict – a disagreement.

The disagreement is the easiest of the potential conflict hurdles to overcome. By definition it simply means that you face a lack of consensus. Today, in thousands of offices, the executive, the manager, the team leader is telling the group there is a new project, program, or major purchase.  The teams form, and the initial strategies discussed. Before too many days pass disagreements will start to show up.

At this point no one is right and no one is wrong. A lack of consensus simply means different members of the team see the path to success differently. The first rule is do not defend your point of view. Begin by listening to the other members of the team, explain your point of view at the appropriate time, and discuss the differences. The disagreement stage is not the point in the process where one stakes out positions and begins to mount a defense. That is a recipe for failure.

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On being clear

Nineteenth century illustration of manned whaling long-boats with harpooners. This whaling method of launching long-boats from a mother ship was used to hunt the bowhead whale and the Atlantic right whale, amongst others. Reports by late 16th century explorers of whales in the Arctic, led many European countries to begin to hunt them. Long-boats and hand-held harpoons were used. Until the harpoon gun was invented, to be used on steam- powered ships. By the 1970s, efficient whaling methods had led to the near extinction of many whale species before an international ban was imposed. Whale meat is used for food; whale oil for cosmetics; ambergris for perfumes.

used by permission of Microsoft

I read an article on the power of the short sentence not long ago. The blog post caught my attention because the writer used the works of Ernest Hemingway to make her point. I have several of his books and re-read one or two of them each year, and I agree with the woman who wrote the article. It is his use of the short sentence that adds power and drama to his stories.

In keeping with that article’s theme, I will keep it pithy (to echo a certain television commentator).  Conflict needs to be resolved by the parties that created the conflict in the first place. As a mediator, I make my living guiding parties in conflict through a briar patch of their own making, and the most successful mediations result from negotiations the parties take ownership from the start. In mediations where the parties have the most positive outcomes are those where, once I have set the stage, the parties find the outcome they need.

Many years ago I read a book about whale hunting in the 19th century. In the book there is a scene where the whales have been spotted, and the boats lowered into the water. As the boat crews are rowing toward the whales, the bo’sun is giving instructions to a rookie sailor.  He looked the rookie in the eye and told him that once the whaleboats were in the water, the most important job was not steering the boat, but keeping it from capsizing.

I always find that a useful mental image to take into a mediation. Want to know more? Visit us a

Asking The Right Questions

3D Maze

In mediation as in many aspects of business and life in general asking questions is important to the successful outcome of any endeavor. When you’re in school you are taught that there is no such thing as a stupid question. The motive behind that thinking is that students have to be taught not to be afraid to ask questions.

This same thinking finds its way into business coaching and training models and this sometimes does more harm than good. By the time someone has entered the business arena in whatever capacity that person should already know that asking questions is important; so the real question, pardon the pun, is how to ask the right questions. In Jeffrey Gitomer’s Little Red Book of Selling he sets out a number of axioms about asking questions, and I will offer the following three to illustrate my point.

  • What you ask sets the tone and the perception of the other party
  • What you ask determines their response
  • What you ask makes or breaks the deal

How he addresses these truths is worth reading because they have an almost universal application. In mediating disputes asking the questions in the right way is critical to the success of a mediation. A question phrased incorrectly or carelessly can have an immediate and adverse impact on the progress of a negotiation. Conversely, a well-crafted question can be the catalyst that advances the negotiation process.

The key is being prepared. It sounds simplistic but it’s not. Some mediations allow the mediator time to think about what questions to ask, but others occur with little time to prepare. However, those doing the actual negotiating almost always have some time to think about the questions that need to be asked. That opportunity should never be ignored; otherwise failure is the likely outcome.

Is Testing in the Workplace Ethical?

photodune-336218-bridge-xs1The simple answer is yes-testing in the workplace is legal. Tests are not only critical in hiring people with the skills and competence to do the work, but they also are used to decide a candidate’s aptitude for the work. It is a widely accepted practice rooted in both culture and law. So why do companies and people get into trouble ethically and legally when implementing various tests; whether pre-employment or post employment.  The reason individuals find themselves in trouble in this area is that they do not take the time to understand the rules, and there are rules related to administering tests.

To prevent conditions that cause companies/individuals to violate the federal anti-discrimination laws in a way that intentionally or unintentionally results in discriminate based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or age (40 or older), any testing program has to follow:

1. Objectivity – When testing is include in the process of evaluating prospective employees, they must be objective. The purpose should, to the extent practical, be reflected in the policies, procedures, and job descriptions governing the work in question. For example, physical ability requirements have to clearly correlate to the work performed, and not be used to avoid hiring someone who is physically capable but who may also have a disability, such as a prosthetic arm or leg.

2. Validity – Closely related to objectivity, the issue of validity is important from the perspective that the tests being administered must be a true reflection of the skill or ability that the work requires. The validity of a test is established if the test conducted for the purpose of assessing the individual is appropriate to the work, and the conduct of the test will produce results that can be measured.

3. Reliability – If a test cannot measure the qualities and capabilities in a consistent way that produces measurable results, such tests are not reliable and are not valid. Reliability means that the results can be repeated over a series of tests. The term often used is replicated. It is important that tests be designed for a specific job or series of tasks.

Tests are expensive to develop and implement, and so it is essential that care be taken to make sure any testing programs a company implements or modifies be examined using these criterion. The legal consequences of failing to do so are significant.

Greek Mythology and Ethics

Houston Arbitration Mediation

The story of Sisyphus comes from Greek Mythology.  According to the legend Sisyphus was a king who ruled through guile, deceit, and cruelty. According to the story this king’s misdeeds were so severe that the god Zeus punished him by compelling him to push a huge boulder up a steep mountain, and his punishment was that he would never succeed in reaching the top of the mountain. No matter what he tried, at some point on that slope the boulder would roll back down, and Sisyphus would have to start over again. According to the legend he could not pause and do something else; take a break, have lunch, or even rest. He was condemned to push the rock up the mountain, and when he failed, to start all over again. Over the centuries philosophers have had a field day making comparisons between Sisyphus’ dilemma and our all too human shortcomings.

Ethics and Greek Mythology

So what does this story have to do with ethics? In more modern times tasks that are repetitive and have little or no value, whether performed in a corporate or government environment have become known as Sisyphean tasks. Companies and agencies are aware of the tasks that yield little or no value, yet they are reluctant for a variety of reasons to abandon them. It is here where ethics are often compromised. Employees are well aware that some work they perform has little or no value, and the temptation to skip the task, or take a short cut can be irresistible. Once an employee begins to skip this task or perform the minimum he or she thinks will do, it is a mindset that can poison the rest of his or her work.

Ethical failures matter regardless of the tasks from which it originated. This is why it is necessary that companies have regular conversations with employees and managers about ethics so that every decision and the work affected by those decisions are executed with an ethical framework firmly fixed in the employees mind. Where low value work is found to have infected an organization, employees should not suffer in silence, but challenge the need for the work to continue.

Challenging does not mean complaining about doing the work. It means the employee should apply quality assurance/quality control methods and tools to demonstrate that this type of work is detrimental the overall performance of a department or group, and that it should be abandoned or assimilated into a related set of tasks which do provide value. Where the type of work described here is found, the following steps are recommended:

1.  Compare the work against existing standards. If the work is not described in a written standard or procedure, the work must either be amended to conform to the standard/procedure.

2.  Can the work be measured such that the data can be used to determine actual performance against expected performance.

3.  Can a value be assigned to the work that exceeds the costs expended to produce the data.

If the work cannot conform to all three, the work should be abandoned or rolled up into other work that is more cost effective.


How to Avoid the Escalation that Leads to Conflict

People Shaking Hands Across Table
A recent article on offered a commentary on Forbes Magazine’s annual Best Places to Work survey. The article touched on a number of issues that interest mediators and conflict resolution practitioners, but three of the points from the Forbes survey are particularly useful to anyone who wants to improve their workplace environment. These are issues that I talk about with my clients that experience employee disputes.

The first of these is a low tolerance for griping and chronic complaining. Employees who have a legitimate concern, even if only from their perspective, present their complaint in a positive and constructive manner, are treated with respect. Those who frequently gripe or complain but do present their grievance in a positive manner can create an environment where disagreements flourish.  The companies in the Forbes survey tend to have cultures that have a low tolerance for this type of communication. They tend to have formal communication training programs and processes to train their employees in positive communication techniques.

The second point highlighted by the article is that a number of the companies surveyed include in their communication processes training on how to resolve conflicts constructively. It is a concept I strongly endorse. In my own work with clients I emphasize the importance of providing employees with the training necessary to recognize when disagreements are becoming problem issues, and giving them the tools to work though these disagreements.

In my earlier posts I talk about how workplace disagreements can escalate into conflict for a variety of reasons, and how these conflicts can damage the progress of the work and damage the goals and objectives of the department or organization. Employees who can discuss their views in a controlled setting create the kind of environment that can prevent or mitigate the escalation that transforms disagreements into workplace conflict.

The third point discussed emphasized the importance of separating the issue from the person. Employees and supervisors need to recognize that personality traits are not the problem. They can influence how people react to issues, but it is the issue that matters and not the other person’s personality traits.

Are Provocative Questions Helpful?

On a website dealing primarily with mediation and its many facets a contributing writer suggested that it was perhaps time for mediators to adopt a version of the Hippocratic Oath. The writer includes a brief summary presumably distilled from those who favor such an oath as well as a brief summary from those who presumably oppose such a formal process.

The article poses the question to provoke a discussion among the readers of the articles posted on this website. If one were to land on the website and read the article out of curiosity their initial reaction might be something on the order of “of course mediators should swear an oath, etc., etc.  Yet that conclusion, while normal, would rest on a shaky foundation.

What is the Hippocratic Oath? It is an ancient oath that physicians and physician assistants swear to uphold. Its foundational principle is first and foremost Do No Harm. There are a series of covenants within the oath, and they are all predicated on the above stated principle. The oath exists in its original form as well as in more modern language, and its original purpose was to separate the trained healers from the charlatans. And that remains its principal purpose today.

So what is the underlying proposition of the author of this article? I found none in the article posted on the website. My experience tells me that a hypothesis or proposition is based on observed failures that affect adversely some desired outcome, and I do not see this here.

I am both an arbitrator and a mediator and I believe in conforming to and complying with the ethical standards of my profession. There is a written code of ethics for arbitrators and for mediators, and I work hard to adhere to those standards. Many of the arbitrators and mediators I worked with and those whose work I know are equally committed. The code of ethics to which mediator subscribe is a good one in that it focuses the practitioner on his/her duties and responsibilities. Its focus is on the behavior of the mediator.

My objection to an oath is three fold. One, oaths are administered to people who are placed in a position of public trust where they are called on to act on behalf of the public. Examples of this are elected officials, officials appointed to sensitive positions, and other similar criteria. A second objection stems from the fact that the imposition of oaths has historically been a prelude to licensing, and licensing was widely used in many states as a means of limiting competition. The third reason while separate is somewhat related to the second in that oath taking can lead to creating standards and processes that conflict with the laws and customs of individual states, and which again can lead to a process that limits competition and flow of ideas, tools, and techniques; which are the life blood of what we do as mediators.

Mediators do need to be qualified and, from what I have observed, the certification processes that exist in the various states are up to the task of making sure that practitioners have the training and tools necessary for the work they do.

The Gap between Conflict and Resolution

Bridge2I am in the conflict resolution business and every day I open the newspaper or turn on the television, and see many examples both large and small demonstrating how unskilled we are in diffusing conflict in a constructive manner. As a mediator, a conflict resolution specialist, if you will, I write about conflict here and in my monthly newsletter.

Whether it is played out on the national stage or in your local community, what is plain to see is that people often talk about resolving issues peacefully, but they are poorly equipped to diffuse a conflict and move to the next phase. One thing is absolutely certain; conflicts are not resolved on the picket lines or in the streets.

We are a litigious society, and there are many reasons how that came about, but one of the more enduring myths is the idea that lawsuits solve problems; that they are a way of solving conflict. And this could not be further from the truth. This is a costly time consuming way of resolving the underlying symptoms of a dispute, but it does not mitigate or eliminate the conflict. It is simply a way of managing or controlling it at the edges.

I also write about ethics as ethical behavior is integral to successfully negotiating disputes both on the part of the mediator and those doing the actual negotiating. I believe strongly that ethical behavior requires discipline and practice. This requires that institutions, companies, and even individuals have a method or process for understanding and carrying out their activities in an ethical manner. One of the reasons that many conflict resolution efforts fail is that one or more of the individuals is not fully invested in the process, and holds back or disguises their true motives.

Is the Whistleblower dead?

Houston Arbitration Mediation

Whistleblowing is much in the news these days. However, the reports showing up in the newspapers and on television are not the typical whistleblowing stories. For many years the reports about whistleblowers revolved around misconduct by companies. Those reports not only disclosed serious misconduct by companies, they also showed that the whistleblowers often suffered retaliation within the companies they worked for.  As a result of this the laws regarding whistleblowing were strengthened to better protect those who reported wrongdoing by an employer. The dictionary states in straight forward language that whistleblowing involves the disclosure by a person, usually an employee in a government agency or private enterprise, to the public or to those in authority, of mismanagement, corruption, illegality, or some other wrong doing.

Under legislation now in effect, companies and government agencies (local, state, and federal) must have in place policies and procedures that establish a process independent of the chain of command where an employee can communicate their concern to an individual or group of individuals who have the authority to keep the whistleblower’s identity a secret, and to investigate the allegation(s).

It is ironic therefore to see an entire series of whistleblowing reports coming out of multiple federal government departments. These reports reflect major failings within multiple departments. The failings of these agencies go beyond abuse of authority and the total scope of these abuses is the subject of ongoing debate and will be investigated for years to come. What is striking about these numerous events being reported is the frequency and severity of retaliation against the whistleblower. Given the depth and the details being reported there is little doubt that the retaliation is real.

So now there are a series of events where wrongdoing is being reported and those reporting the wrongdoing are being punished, and those doing the retaliating are not being held accountable. This is the most disquieting fact in the morass of ongoing investigations.

In the business world great progress has been made in making the corporate structure more responsive to errors and mistakes whether they are rooted in carelessness or misconduct. It would be disappointing if all of this progress were to be compromised by the cavalier behavior of government employees who feel free in the current environment to behave in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

Persuasion – Does it apply in a Mediated Dispute?

Persuasion – Does it apply in a Mediated Dispute?

Houston Arbitration MediationA recent article discussed in focused on the notion of “persuasion”, and whether it should be encouraged or discouraged in the course of mediation. The article rightly pointed out that many practitioners see the use of persuasion as a negative that can seriously compromise a mediator’s neutrality. The focus of the article centered on its impact within different mediation models (Facilitative vs. Evaluative).

The catalyst for much of what was discussed in this article comes out of a study by two university professors, Douglas Frenkel and James Stark, and entitled Changing Minds: The Work of Mediators and Empirical Studies of Persuasion. The study explored the significant amount of empirical data produced by various social science studies on the impact of persuasion in disputes. To a large degree that article was aimed at practitioners and at those interested in the subject as an area of study.

I found the article on the above referenced website to be thought provoking and I read the study as well. I won’t dwell on the guts of the study because as a practitioner I do not want to get lost in the forest. That said I do not find the notion of persuasion to be a verboten topic. More to the point, I think many mediators find the notion uncomfortable because they do not really understand what lies at the root of persuasion.

Before I get to this root let me state clearly that I do not attempt to persuaded one side or the other to adopt a solution, course of action, or any specific outcome.  Yet, persuasion is the root of many successful outcomes. So what do I mean by this? Well, the goal of the mediator is to get the warring parties to examine alternatives paths that will yield a mutually acceptable outcome.

The parties in conflict have to be influenced or urged to stop defending their position/issues, and coaxed into explaining their point of view, and at the same time get each side to listen to other’s point of view. Explanations lead to discussion and discussion leads to the implicit acceptance by both sides that the other side has a point of view. It’s not important at the beginning that either side accepts the other’s point of view as being valid, but once these points of view are fleshed out by the parties, the process of searching for a way forward becomes possible.

It is the process of explaining instead of defending where the parties themselves use the tools of persuasion to find the outcomes they need. It is the mediator’s role to understand this goal and to construct his or her questions in a manner that moves the dialogue away from attack and defend towards a discussion. Even in mediation that does not succeed, which sometimes happens, the tools of persuasion give the parties a chance to understand the other side more clearly and that is not a bad thing.

In Pursuit of Absolutes

The title of my monthly newsletter is Putting It in Context.  In the letter I look at conflict, its causes, and the affect it has on companies, organizations, and individuals. The letter looks at the tools and techniques for dealing with conflict, and how I use them in my work. I write about ethics as this is a core principle for effective conflict resolution. My bi-weekly blog also touches on these concepts in that I target a particular issue to give my readers potential ideas that they can apply in their own particular circumstances.

I found myself thinking about absolutes while re-reading a book by George F. Keenan.  He was a diplomat in an era when diplomacy required men to have substance – in their education, their training, their intellect. He wrote books and articles that ultimately defined for decades how the United States would use the doctrine of Containment in its relationship toward the Soviet Union. In his book American Diplomacy, several of the concepts he discussed have application outside of politics to this day. In discussing the concept of Containment, he argued persuasively against the pursuit of absolutes – absolute amity, harmony, security. The foundation of his argument was that in trying to achieve laudable goals you can go too far, get the opposite result and harm the general good of the nation.

This does have a direct bearing on many of the conflicts that occur in companies and organizations. Pursuing desirable goals and objectives can go too far, causing a backlash within a company’s structure damaging the culture, the cohesion of an organization, and potentially the quality and timeliness of the products and services being delivered. In his book he uses more classical language, but the heart of his argument was that going too far in pursuit of an objective is often the product of ego. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a corporate environment knows that people in positions of authority who are ego driven are at the heart of most conflicts.

One of the things that I stress when helping parties in dispute is the important of identifying and separating the issues and making the mediation about the issues and not the people. Do you have a question? Contact me at, or at 832-452-8537.

Stepping Into Blended Families – Very Carefully

Much of what I do as a mediator involves disputes between companies, employee disputes, intra and inter-organizational disputes, and disputes between individuals. I have mediated disputes between individuals and companies often vendors they did business with. When it comes to divorce mediation, I turn down most of those requests such that this type of mediation is less than 15% of my work.

It therefore something of a surprise that I was approached last year to mediate a dispute involving a blended family, and from that experience I have since been approached to assist in several other disputes, all of which involve disputes within a blended family environment.

Unlike divorce mediation where the mediator is tasked with assisting couples bring to closure a relationship which was destroyed and deal with the aftermath and its impact on children, the dynamics of blended families is underpinned by hope. Here are people trying to build a new family structure for themselves and the children they now share with their former partners. The families I have assisted want very much for their new family structure to work, for their children to be happy and to feel safe in the new environment.

I think what I enjoy best about this new aspect of my practice is how willing the parents are to do everything they can to make things work for the children. I do not diminish the obstacles the parents face in a blended family and I have made it clear to the parents that solving the more immediate issues is not the end of their journey. The children especially need a way of voicing their concerns and fears, and they need to do that with the support of a trained professional. But what is really rewarding is the pleasure and sense of accomplishment the new parents gain by climbing out from under the anger, frustration, and uncertainty about doing the wrong thing. The biggest thing they have to learn is that the best solutions begin with small steps. The children cannot be expected to immediately love the new mother or the new father, but it is a major step forward if the children like being around the new parent.

I have treaded very carefully in this new environment, and so far the feedback has been positive.


Beware the Ides of March

The Danger of Making Assumptions

In business, as in life, we all make assumptions about people and events, and we do this because we believe the assumptions to be true. We take it personally when our assumptions are shown to be false.

We often make assumptions to avoid the appearance of being ignorant or to avoid showing a lack of understanding. People often equate asking questions with weakness, and will make assumptions based on what they heard. We then proceed to defend them and go out of our way to prove the other person wrong.

Mr. Miguel Ruiz talks about the consequences and suffering that comes from this behavior. In his book The Four Agreements he makes an eloquent argument that making assumptions about events and people can lead to a complete failure of understanding. This can be both destructive and very costly to a business relationship.

If, having entered into a business relationship with another company or individual, you make the assumption that the other party sees the agreement the same way you do, and in the course of executing the specifics of the agreement, you discover that the other party does not see the details of the agreement in the same way, this inevitably produces conflict. The conflict amplifies the perceived differences and makes it harder to reach accommodation, particularly when the conflict is not addressed quickly or constructively. Both parties begin to spend time and resources justifying their points of view and defending them to the other party trying, as stated earlier, to prove the opposing point of view to be wrong.

Don Miguel Ruiz makes the argument that if words and phrases are offered with impeccable clarity, assumptions and misunderstandings are defeated, and conflict cannot rise up or be sustained. There is a powerful truth in his hypothesis because successful leaders learn early that assumptions are defeated at the outset by asking questions. They learn at their own risk that failing to ask questions can be fatal to the effective execution of an agreement and that asking questions both improves communications, and improves the clarity of what is communicated.