Dealing with intergroup conflict as a consultant can be tough. Here are some basic steps to follow...
Since the initial meetings that take place between a client and consultant is an accurate predictor of the subsequent engagement that follows, it is important to initially recognize and consider process issues, including the goals and needs of the client (Block, 2011). In the general scope of ameliorating intergroup conflict and its counterproductive effects, one of the main culprits comes from competing goals and objectives (Thompson, 2014).
In order for a consultant to understand the nature of the conflict and how it is being managed, the practitioner must be able to clearly comprehend the client’s desired end state for the groups involved in conflict, and what a successful intervention would look like to achieve that goal. This goal can become the guiding light for understanding how to foster alignment within and between groups, while reducing levels of affective conflict and maintaining moderate levels of substantive conflict (Rahim, 2002).
The following offers a three-step process for aligning the consultant’s
interventional discovery implementation process with the client’s needs, adapting Peter Block’s (2011) model for contracting meetings to (1) increase trust and comfort through personal acknowledgement, (2) communicate mutual understanding for the perceived nature of the conflict, and (3) specify client wants and needs for the desired end-state.
Step 1: Personal Acknowledgement
The first step is to break the tension that inherently comes with having to seek out the advice and assistance of a third party, in an effort to build a rapport of trust and comfort (Block, 2011). The client should be able to feel that the consultant is not there to pass judgment or make matters worse, but instead enable the client to achieve his or her goals (Freedman & Perry, 2010).
The consultant should make sure to exhibit honesty, openness, and authenticity in order to set the tone for frank discussion about painful issues that plague the firm. Special attention should be made in understanding the precedents set through the client’s initial speech, attitude, nonverbal behavior, interactions, and any relevant external factors, as these will become the cues for understanding how conflict is managed by the client (Block, 2011; Freedman & Perry, 2010).
Fear and resistance should be expected, and dealt with head-on by first acknowledging it verbally, and then offering a solution for moving forward, if at all possible. Once an acknowledgement is made for a mutual understanding of the importance for reciprocal trust and and comfort, the consultant may wish to dive into the business problem facing the client.
Step 2: Understanding the Perceived Nature of the Conflict
It is vital for the consultant to take the time to objectively and nonjudgmentally
understand the nature of the conflict, as seen through the eyes of the client (Block, 2011). First, a mutual understanding of all the parties (individuals and groups) involved should take place, and the consultant should find a way to eventually gather representative perspectives from each group mentioned and agreed upon.
A process of strategic, open-ended questions should be implemented to dig deeper into both the presenting problem and the potential underlying issues or causes that may be perpetuating intergroup conflict.
The inquiry should lead to an overall evaluation of the structural health of the organization, helping to gauge how pervasive the interaction issues may be, the people and processes contributing to the issue (Thompson, 2014), and whether there exists any intergroup stress, aggression, frustration, and/or prejudice (Brown, 2001).
Once more of a mutual understanding of the nature of the conflict has taken place, the consultant can assess the needs and wants of the client in an effort to align these with the consultant’s needs for implementing the appropriate intergroup conflict intervention process.
Step 3: The Client’s Wants and Needs
One of the most important aspects of the consulting process is to achieve a clear
definition from the client of what a successful engagement looks like (Block, 2011), and how these parameters can either help to facilitate or impede the discovery and interventional processes. The consultant must be malleable enough to allow the client’s desired end state to dictate the resulting engagement process while ensuring the integrity of the process and quality of its impact remains intact.
Additionally, the consultant must make sure to understand not only what the client expects as an end state in the firm, but also what the client expects from the consultant, and time must be taken to ensure both gaps are fulfilled properly (Freedman & Perry, 2010).
This initial gap analysis not only dictates discovery, diagnostics, interventions, and outcome assessments, but also becomes the comparison point for understanding intergroup competition versus cooperation, the existence and use of superordinate goals, and the possible conflicts affecting intergroup behaviors and competing group interests (Brown, 2001).
A client’s wants and needs can also include expectations and limitations, such as budgetary and scheduling concerns, concerns of confidentiality and power, and can logically lead to the consultant offering their needs and wants as well.
It is important to note that Peter Block’s (2011) model does not end where this discussion ends, offering several more steps before completing the contracting process with a client. For the purposes of this discussion’s scope, however, gauging the client’s expectations, and its initial alignment (or lack of) with interventional goals for reducing intergroup conflict can include:
(1) Opening with a personal acknowledgement of the difficulties with having to hire a third party in order to build trust and raise comfort levels,
(2) Understanding the nature of the conflict as perceived by the client while simultaneously being able to gauge how it is being managed, and
(3) Clearly identifying the client’s wants and needs (expected outcomes), both for the intergroup conflict and the consulting relationship, in order to understand how to address the consequential gaps deriving from the current state and the desired end state.
Inevitably, it must be the client who is allowed to remain in the driver’s seat, while the consultant ensures paving a clear road for navigating goal alignment, conflict management, and achieving interventional success.
Brown, R. (2001) Group Processes. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Block, P. (2011). Flawless consulting: A guide to getting your expertise used (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
Freedman, A. M., & Perry, J. A. (2010). Executive consulting under pressure: A case study. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(3), 189-202.
Rahim, M. A. (2002). Toward a theory of managing organizational conflict. The International Journal of Conflict Management, 13(3), 206-235.
Thompson, L. L. (2014). Making the Team: A Guide for Managers (5th Edition). Boston: Prentice Hall.