Several years ago I assisted a fellow conflict resolution professional in facilitating a two-day retreat of federal government safety officers and their mid-level and upper-level managers.  They had come to Denver from all around the western United States.  Their goal was to exchange ideas among the entire group (management and field staff) about resolving:

  1.  historical communication issues (mistrust and animosity between field staff and management, too much paperwork – not enough resources, ignoring field input, etc.)
  2. structural issues (empowerment of field staff, clarification of roles/responsibilities)
  3. decision-making (bottom up or top down, collaboration) and
  4. other long-standing issues resulting in ill will among everyone present.

A two-day, timed agenda was created (including brainstorming, small group dialogue, making consensual decisions and then developing an implementation plan).  There seemed to be plenty of time on this well-planned agenda to accomplish the goals of the group.  This turned out not to be the case.

During the first day, the attendees spent their time airing old grievances and venting long stifled hostilities.  This tension between the safety officers and their managers was evidenced by either tepid participation in the scheduled teambuilding and communication activities, or active sabotage of them.  The parties continually brought up old grievances or slights (perceived or real) and made it clear that they thought that certain segments of management were incompetent or ineffectual.  No real progress happened that day – in fact, the relationship between staff and management seemed to be regressing.

My co-facilitator was an employee of the same federal agency as the participants and was somewhat reluctant to intervene in any overt way.  During our debrief of the first day’s events, I suggested that, as a true outside party, I be allowed to begin the second […]