Are the Neutrals Working for Themselves? Chapter 29
Michael Watkins is an associate professor at Harvard Business School in Boston, where he teaches courses on negotiation. This article is adapted from Chapter 7 of the author’s book, “Breakthrough Business Negotiation: A Toolbox for Managers,” Jossey-Bass (April 2002), which won a book prize in CPR’s 2002 Awards for Excellence in ADR.
Different types of third-party interveners can play constructive roles in managing and resolving conflicts. Traditional mediators are one well-recognized type of intervener. Others include arbitrators, whose coercive power equips them to impose settlement terms on the contending parties, and negotiators, who pursue their own interests by bargaining with the contending parties to end the dispute. What roles can these different types of interveners play and what core dilemmas do they confront as they do so?
To understand the roles that interveners can play, it is useful to explore why third parties intervene in conflicts and to identify the sources of their power. Why do outside parties decide to intervene in conflicts? They may be invited in. But even “impartial” mediators may be pursuing personal or institutional goals, such as enhanced reputation. And many otherwise-neutral mediators (who have no pre-existing bias toward one or another of the disputants) nevertheless have a substantial “bias toward settlement.”
Other outside parties insert themselves into a conflict because it threatens their vital interests. If a conflict “spills over,” affected outside parties have a powerful incentive to minimize the damage. And outsiders partial to one of the disputants try to influence the conflict in favor of their allies.
Third parties can wield three types of power and their roles in conflicts are strongly shaped by their sources of power: facilitative power, coercive power, and bargaining power.