Mediators and wolves; how do we compare?

November 22nd, 2012

Conflict resolution in a wolf pack

I happened to come across an extract in a book I was reading recently which detailed how a pack of wolves is structured and the roles that each wolf has in the pack; the pack works because everyone has a role to play and each knows their own and others roles.

I began to think that this might be comparable to organisational structures and the part that individuals may, or may not, play in resolving disputes or conflicts and also where the role of a mediator might fit in.

A wolf pack comprises an alpha, beta, tester and diffuser wolf.

  • The alpha wolf is the leader of the pack and the brains of the outfit; he tells others where to go and when to hunt and is the decision maker.
  • The beta wolf is the disciplinarian. The alpha wolf is too valuable to do that. The beta wolf is the big thug who takes down any one who is a risk to the alpha wolf. The beta wolf is dispensable as there are plenty of others who could replace him.
  • The tester wolf is  wary and suspicious and he does not trust anyone. He will be scouting for change and on the lookout for something new and his role is to warn the alpha. He is akin to the quality control guy and if others are not pulling their weight he will create a situation to prove their mettle usually by picking a fight.
  • Finally there is the diffuser wolf. He is described as being “- like little geeky  [mafia] lawyer who provides comic relief” . He knows how to keep other strong personalities calm;  if others are fighting he will jump in between them and clown around. In this way he will divert attention and emotions will calm down. He plays the critical role of peacemaker.

In an workplace context defined roles and responsibilities and knowing how it all fits together is as important for an organisation’s survival as it is for a wolf pack; I have seen many conflicts arising where there is uncertainty over this. The alpha role is of course recognisable as the leader of an organisation. In my experience a leader at the very top of an organisation will rarely be the one to directly take action to displace those beneath them; more commonly that task is left to others, those who could be compared to the beta. I can also recognise the tester who is the character more likely to be creating conflict than helping to resolve it.

So what about the diffuser? The role of peacemaker is a crucial one. Ideally anyone who has a management role should have the key skills necessary to manage conflict positively so it would be good to have at least a few testers within an organisation. A diffuser is perhaps more comparable to the line manager who knows the parties well and who can step in and help to resolve matters at an early stage whereas a mediator can play a vital role if matters cannot be resolved in this way. That said how does the role of the diffuser compare or differ from the role of a mediator?

  • The diffuser is an integral part of the pack. A mediator on the other hand is a neutral party who has not had a part to play in seeking to resolve matters previously and who can be seen as being entirely independent.
  • Humour can be a useful tool in helping to diffuse situations as long as it is used appropriately. Mediation is an intense and emotional process and occasional humour can reduce tension and anger, reframe problems, and put the situation into perspective. In this way there may be an opportunity for greater connection and understanding.
  • Acknowledging emotions are an important part of the process of resolution so it will not always be helpful diffuse them without greater understanding. Therefore a mediator needs to use tools other than the humour and clowning around used by the diffuser. A mediator will try to facilitate each party achieving a better understanding of each by identifying needs and interests, demonstrating deep listening skills,  empathy and reframing the issues more neutrally or positively.
  • I am no wolf expert but I imagine the diffuser often operates in the presence of other members of the pack. A mediation is confidential; a mediator will build trust allowing the parties to have the confidence to get to the real and underlying issues which can assist in resolving matters.
  • Parties in a mediation will have agreed to enter into the process on a voluntary basis; the diffuser simply acts and jumps in when necessary.
  • Finally, a wolf’s eyes are said to look into the soul. Anyone involved in seeking to resolve conflict also needs to look beyond the words said and have that sixth sense as to what lies beneath.

I cannot imagine that a wolf pack would allow an external wolf into the pack to help resolve disputes (although they do apparently howl to invite in a lone wolf). In a workplace however, both diffusers (aka line managers) and mediators have distinct and separate roles and both have their place in helping to resolve conflicts in appropriate situations. I would like to think that both line managers and mediators would display more empathy than a wolf when resolving conflict but I do accept that this might well be very unfair to wolves and I mean no offense to these amazing and highly intelligent creatures from whom we can all (including mediators) learn something.

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5 Responses

  1. neildenny says:

    Fascinating ideas Alison… A pleasure to meet you and your blob by the way.

    It brings many thoughts to mind and the most striking one for me is that the Alpha wolf is, I presume, quite comfortable being alpha and doing his alpha thing.

    Is it not the case that leaders in organisations need to be bolder in talk g the lead in approaching and tackling dysfunctional conflict? Is a failure to do so a dereliction of duty at worst or, at the very least, a missed opportunity?

    I’m going to subscribe for more thought provoking stuff like this! Thank you.

    • Hi Neil,
      I entirely agree leaders should take more of a role. Unfortunately my experience is that this is often not the case, although I do accept that I may have a bit of a jaundiced view having dealt with the fall out of conflicts for many years!!

      Thanks for you kind comments, I enjoy your posts and material too, particularly loved the Do Lectures video on guitair syles; Eric Clapton being an all time fav anyway.

  2. Hi, Alison. Thanks for the article. When I read about the “diffuser wolf” I recalled an article by Robert Benjamin years ago about the “Mediator as Trickster”. It’s an interesting take on the role of the mediator.

  3. Hi, Alison. Thanks for the article. Your reference to the “diffuser wolf” reminded my of an article Robert Benjamin authored years ago – entitled the “Mediator as Trickster”. It explores various mediation strategies and tactics from the perspective of the “trickster” archetype.

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