A Few Project Management Lessons from Mediation Training

Dec 17, 2013
10 Min Read

Ostensibly, Dr. Valerie Taylor’s keynote presentation at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Computing in October was a case for diversity in computing teams. I found her remarks far more wide-reaching than the issues of who works on your project team, though she certainly displayed plenty of wisdom on that score. Instead what grabbed me was her advice about improving listening skills – largely targeted at diversity issues – and how well it applies to any project manager.

Dr. Taylor is the Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs in the College of Engineering at Texas A&M University, and an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Fellow. She also is executive director of the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in IT (CMD-IT), a nonprofit organization with – the formal bio tells me – a vision of contributing to the national need for an effective workforce in computing and IT through synergistic activities related to minorities and people with disabilities. I rarely get through any paragraph using the words “synergistic activities” without wrinkling my nose the way my cat responds to sniffing citrus (sorry, kitty), but after listening to her speak for an hour, I forgave her the phrase. (If you listen to the full session, you will too.)

Diversity gets all tied up in “how many of which kind of person we have on the team,” and alas that blinds us to the purpose of bringing in all sorts of expertise, variation in technical and business backgrounds, and creative outlooks (which are a function of who we are and where we come from). Or, as Taylor described it, we want to create teams and organizations whose culture of human behavior is defined by what team members know, how they acquired it, and how they apply it.

As I’d describe it, it means we need to understand where the people we work with (and who work for us) are coming from, what they care about, what excites them. If you want to inspire your team to make the project important to their own lives, then the individuals have to be important to you as their leader.

And it’s the assumptions that’ll kill ya.

Taylor cited an early experience from when she attended Purdue as a graduate student. Another student, a white male, learned that she was from Chicago. He immediately asked, “Are you from the projects? Are you first generation? Did you have to worry about gangs?” She was polite about her answers, and later he came to apologize for making unwarranted assumptions. “I’m really sorry at the way I approached you, but that’s all I know,” he said. That led the two of them into a conversation about her actual background – her parents have degrees, her father is an engineer who started a company – and the two became (and remain) fast friends.

How often do your assumptions trip you up?

Those who deal with issues of “obvious” diversity – such as skin color or gender – are especially cognizant of what it takes to create a language of engagement. Taylor sees this happening in three steps:

  • Engage
  • Embrace
  • Enhance

Take the time to learn about the other people. Get to know them, Taylor said. “At the end you end up with something much greater than what you started with.”

That makes sense in terms of encouraging the young woman on your team who joined a formerly-all-male staff, and it’s good advice for those who bring on people from different cultures (whether that means someone with an accent from the southern U.S. or the south of India).

But consider for a moment how it might apply to any team at all, because we are all from different backgrounds, and each of us brings our own experience to a project we work on.

One exercise that helped Taylor – and I think may help you – was to go through mediation training. The primary goal of such training is to teach you how to do mediation between conflicting parties when you’re trying to come up with a solution. But Taylor learned that “Mediation training is to learn how to navigate two people in conflict to come up with their own solutions. Because if two people do not take ownership of the solution it’s not going to occur.”

That “ownership” is important. As a mediator, you don’t propose the solution; the two people come up with their own solution.

Her takeaways, which in my opinion apply to any project, in terms of engagement:

Conflict is usually about emotions, and how some action makes you feel.

If you’re a person driven by logic, you may not want to deal with emotions, especially when they are not your own. But they’re at the heart of any conflict.

“You have to take the time to learn the history that led up to the emotion,” Taylor said. Emotions come into meetings and discussions all the time.

Use neutral language.

Pay attention to the adjectives you use. That’s not to say you don’t usually use adjectives, but look at the ones you choose.

If you tell one set of workers, “That’s a good idea” but regularly tell another set, “Wow, what a fantastic idea!” you are differentiating between them – and perhaps not treating them fairly and equally. Give some thought to the language you’re using, and what it tells the people who report to you.

Check your listening skills.

Don’t just fast-forward to the highlight. Repeat what you heard the team member say. By doing so, you learn what someone actually wanted to communicate.

That’s not only for your benefit as listener and manager. Sometimes, in my experience, when the speaker hears what he just said, he realizes it wasn’t precisely what he meant.

Perhaps that sounds like a “duh.” But Taylor gave some examples of cultural differences and how we each – as managers – pay attention to creating a common language.

For instance, if you have someone on your team that comes from a background where it is Not Done to question elders and those in authority. As the senior member of the staff, she is an elder. But, said Taylor, “When we have a research meeting, I like questions! Because that dialog leads to something that is much better than the starting point.”

If you’re dealing with people whose culture says not to question elders, then how do you embrace that attitude and enhance it? “We have the students present with each other. In that way, there’s a feeling of comfort in asking questions of other students,” she said. “I’ll save my comments for last. I realize that if I start out with my comments, then in some cases it’s taken as so. I don’t claim to know the answer; I just want to raise a point. So I save it to last, so we can have a better dialog and engagement so that everyone has an opportunity to speak and to be involved in the discussion.”

Even in the best-run project, each of us runs into conflict. Perhaps these suggestions can help you resolve it just a teensy bit easier.

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