Academic Leadership Support - University of Wisconsin - Madison Office of Quality Improvement

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Building a Golden Bridge

Disputing parties often become entrenched in their positions. They dig in, hole up, surround themselves with new walls of resistance, and prepare to hold their positions at any cost. A siege mentality permeates the conflict, with little likelihood of a peacefully negotiated solution.

A key to transforming this state of impasse is the concept of "building a golden bridge." This involves recognizing the importance of psychological concerns and the need to "save face" in the dispute. Often, this requires one party to make a meaningful offer to seek a new solution that has not been previously discussed. Here's an example:

Don (a Project Manager) and Lorenzo (the Department Administrator) have been co-workers for many years. Some time ago, Lorenzo stopped sending Don information about upcoming deadlines, apparently because he was frustrated that Don never seemed to honor them anyway. In turn, Don complained to others that Lorenzo was sabotaging his work. Their animosities built up over the years, creating a tense office environment for all in the Department. Finally, Don confronted Lorenzo after an important grant submission deadline had passed, resulting in significant difficulties for Don's project next year. The Department Chair pulled them into her office, chastised them for their public behavior, and directed them to sit down and work things out. She offered to facilitate their discussion, if they preferred; they accepted her offer and agreed to meet together. (See information on Chairs and Academic Leaders as Mediators)

During their discussion, Lorenzo explained that he had resented Don's "sense of entitlement" for many years. "Don expects all of us to serve him," Lorenzo explained, "regardless of our other work or priorities! I admit it: I don't always copy him with information, but I'm not the sole source of that deadline and it is HIS responsibility to know how to manage his program. If he needs information, he can always come to me and ask for it."

In turn, Don expressed his frustrations: "Lorenzo is responsible for making sure that all of us - whether he likes us or not - get the information we need to do our jobs. Some people get preferential treatment around here; he's always trying to impress the faculty and his friends. Sure, I might have missed some details over the years, but I have a lot to manage here and I need administrative help to get it done. Lorenzo is supposed to provide that to me, and I'm NOT going to grovel before him to seek his charity!"

They remained entrenched in their positions, each demanding respect from the other before being willing to extend it himself. The Chair, as facilitator, then observed: "It seems that you are both expressing a need for respect from the other person. Furthermore, you have both observed that our Department has allowed each of you to antagonize and frustrate the other without sharing responsibility for creating that environment. Finally, we've reached this stage in the interactions. Is there anything that the Department, as a community of faculty and staff, can do to help this situation?"

In response to this statement, Lorenzo and Don both quickly asserted that it was their own responsibility, not their colleagues, to fix the problem. But they also agreed that the atmosphere around the university had changed a great deal over the years: People rarely came together anymore to have potlucks or social activities, everyone was stressed and overworked, and staff meetings felt like a waste of time because most people felt they were taken away from more pressing duties. From there, Don was able to express to Lorenzo how he had a new appreciation for the challenges of his job, and Lorenzo apologized for not providing the information to Don. They were able to develop a specific plan by which Don's funding application could now be expedited, and the Chair was able to contact the foundation involved to support their late paperwork. In addition, they agreed to meet monthly to review how things were going, as well as to identify information that would be needed in order to smoothly work together in the future. Finally, they asked the Chair to have an "open staff forum" at which all could discuss how they were handling work stress and learn whether there were any workload adjustments that could be beneficial; she agreed to contact Office of Quality Improvement to facilitate that discussion.

Did you find the golden bridge? In this case, it was the Chair, as mediator, who invited both parties to explore another aspect of the dispute together. As a result of that exploration, they were willing to extend "olive branches" to one another and find a dignified solution to the problem.

As noted earlier, the key concerns are often psychological and procedural; if we can create a process by which people can safely and productively address these concerns, it frees them emotionally to address important matters of substance (such as workload issues, communication expectations, etc.) that need to be addressed.

In summary, use the 8 Step Process to frame the order of your discussion. If you get stuck, consider the value of building a golden bridge, as well as other strategies for managing impasse, in order to explore potential areas of common ground through continued negotiation. Look at the problem as it is expressed in its entire system, not merely as it plays out among the disputing parties, for opportunities to build that bridge; as long as looking at the overall system doesn't bring people into the "blame game" (i.e., "We wouldn't have any problems if it weren't for the Administration!"), it can be useful to focus less directly on one another for a little while, and gain perspective on the issues. As needed, utilize third parties as mediators, including Chairs and other with leadership roles, in order to manage such conflictive processes.

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