Big “G” or Little “g” Grievance? The Difference Matters

Highway road sign saying

About two times a year I get contacted specifically for conflict resolution/mediation services because a group reports that they have no other options but to bring in an outside party to mediate a situation. The following is my typical response to the question as the difference matters, considerably.

First and foremost, I am not certified in a mediation or conflict resolution credential, and there are groups that do specialize in this area. However, before saying “yes” to one group and “no” to another, you may want to consider my perspective.

My goal, for any organization initiative (whether that is a student’s project on a performance issue, friends and clients’ working challenges, etc.), is to attempt to identify the root cause(s) that contributes to the issue. This manifests into a performance issue and if you have a performance issue, you certainly have root causes.

If we aren’t careful in our diagnosis of the nature of the issue – little “g’ grievance versus big “G” Grievance – the group seeking resolution may travel down the wrong path, which can be extremely costly in terms of monetary resources and cultural currency. When appropriately used, conflict resolution and mediation services nicely address the issue(s) at hand. However, when selected incorrectly, the service may only superficially address some of the concerns and establish new rules for decorum in the workplace. The latter is significant for consideration because some believe that creating rules like “you don’t talk about this” or “you must do this if…” are helpful. Unfortunately, they can also be harmful to the work environment because they merely sweep the issue under the rug, failing to recognize some fundamental human needs. When this happens, there is a risk of exacerbating the issue and in this environment of new rules – the initiative/response/intervention often drives the concerns deeper under the surface, further away from true resolution and healing. In most situations, whether it is a weed in the garden, a health ailment, or a people issue in the work environment, failure to address the issue at its root cause results in a resurfacing of issues or symptoms.

The label for conflict resolution/mediation is powerful; it is also too encompassing. I’ve found that in most situations, we are talking about interpersonal concerns and little “g” grievances (not lawsuit level, just cultural/behavioral/performance issues existing in a work climate that has perpetuated the issue(s), and the group would be much better off with a non-conflict/mediation consultant. In many instances, the surfacing of such issues can be traced back to skill, power, and communication issues. Many times, regardless of the environment, people tend to not address the issue(s) directly. This has so many implications for the organization and its ability to accomplish its goals and compromises the organization’s efforts to fuel the human spirit at work.

If you have a little “g” issue at work, there are a few things you can begin to do to work towards resolving the issue.

  • Pause, and determine a plan or strategy that will guide your efforts
  • Open the lines of communication
  • Create opportunities for all people to receive small, regular drips of feedback
  • Lead with intention, lead with heart
  • Move towards a more coaching-esque leadership approach
  • Finally, be mindful of how you may come across. Unfortunately, our heart and our intentions are not always reflected in our demeanor and behaviors (think RBF – recently I was in a video shoot truly loving the experience and really leaning into it, but the angry look on my face suggests otherwise. This is a lesson I learned many years ago, and I must keep working at it. I am so embarrassed for how I looked, versus my intention). So, in the fine words of rap artist IceCube, we may need to “Check Yo Self before You Wreck Yourself.”
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