Restorative Teambuilding

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By Sam R. Lloyd

What is a team? The classic textbook definition is a group of people working to- gether to accomplish a common goal. That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

Effective, successful teams require several ingredients including mutual trust, mu- tual respect, lots of communication, cooperation, collaboration and support for one another. The most effective teams often have a lot of affection for one another!

Many groups struggle to ever become a real team. Other groups complete the fa- miliar process of forming, norming, storming and performing and appear to be functioning as a team but closer examination reveals that they are not quite there yet!

Unfortunately, we human beings have a great talent for conflict and little prepara- tion for the kind of relationships described above! The great majority of people grow up in families in which we learn a lot about conflict and considerably less about open, honest, sharing, caring collaborative relationships. No surprise that people find it challenging to join a group of strangers and function as a team as de- scribed earlier!

Any group working to become a team or maintain effective teamwork will have many conflicts. Some will be very brief and relatively minor and others will be more serious and ongoing. Even the minor conflicts tend to result in accumulated bad feelings, an erosion of trust and, possibly, a considerable loss of respect for one another. This accumulation and some major conflicts can damage relationships quite seriously.

When a group reaches the point where miscommunication is frequent, trust and re- spect are shaky, power struggles are more common than collaboration, it is past time for the group to focus more on relationships and less on tasks. To not do so is to allow the team to continue down a path that leads to continuing sub-par perfor- mance and possible failure!

At this point, you might be thinking it is time for some team-building training. This might do the trick. Often, even good quality team-building training may not be enough to get the group back on track to functioning as a successful team.

Why? A number of factors tend to make it difficult to achieve or rebuild the ingre- dients for a successful team.


The typical team-building training tends to focus on a variety of exercises in which people experience goal-setting, working together to solve problems or figuring out how to help each other navigate a ropes course, climb a mountain, survive for days in an isolated environment, etc. These experiences can be challenging, fun for some, and rewarding for all who experience success but they often do not carry over into the needed improvements in the workplace performance. Many find it difficult to translate the learning experience into the every day realities of their work environment.

The kind of training that is more likely to help the group members become a true team is training that teaches interpersonal skills. It is the lack of such skills that creates the biggest challenges for good teamwork and that may have resulted in the group having more conflict than collaboration.

My decades of experience with providing interpersonal skills has provided plenty of evidence that brief interpersonal skills training programs will help a small per- centage of participants learn and develop the needed skills but the majority will quickly lapse back into their pattern of behaviors learned much earlier in their lives. Even with extensive and intensive training, some will not implement most of what they learned upon their return to work!

For this reason, more and more organizations are providing individual coaching for employees to help them develop skills and make desired behavior changes to im- prove their performance and success. Coaching can help someone learn, practice and develop new skills more effectively and permanently than training programs typically produce!

Most of my coaching clients have already experienced a number of training pro- grams before entering into a coaching relationship! The missing ingredient usually is a lack of follow-up positive reinforcement and debriefing attempts to use tech- niques and skills learned in training to learn more about what works and why something did not work. They get this when they work with a coach over a period of weeks and months and the emotional support provided by the coach also helps. Emotional support at work is rarely provided!

Even if each member of a group were to receive training and/or coaching, there is still a very important missing ingredient in the recipe for returning to successful teamwork.

The damaged relationships need to be repaired! Accumulated bad feelings need to be expressed and heard and people need the opportunity to apologize, accept re- sponsibility for contributing to past conflicts, and to work together to reach agree-

ment about how they will work together going forward to restore trust and respect and how to interact more successfully now and in the future!

The growing field of restorative practices has been developed to address this im- portant need. Restorative practices are often lumped together with other alternative dispute resolution approaches such as mediation and arbitration. It is important to understand the differences.

Mediation is used when parties in conflict decide (or are ordered by management or a court) to involve a professionally trained mediator to help them reach an agreement about how to resolve a dispute. This is a very valuable approach for identifying the key issues involved in a dispute, the concerns, wants and needs of each party, and the common ground that can help the parties to begin moving to- ward compromise.

The mediator’s role is to facilitate the communication process and to help the par- ties make these discoveries and develop alternative solutions. The outcome most often will be a compromise, which breaks the stalemate but can leave all parties less than completely satisfied.

In building or rebuilding teamwork, compromise falls short of what is needed!

Arbitration is a more formal process that can be dictated by contract or court order in which a professional arbitrator is brought in to examine the dispute and to learn the perspectives, goals and/or demands of the parties. The arbitrator decides what will be done and the parties are required to accept the decision. The result may be one party being very dissatisfied or all parties being unhappy about the outcome.

The Restorative Process can take various forms depending upon where it is used and the circumstances of the situation. For example, an increasingly common ap- plication is an alternative to criminal prosecution that is known as Restorative Jus- tice.

This approach involves an offender (or offenders), the victim or victims of the crime, supporters of these parties, the arresting officer, one or more community members and a facilitator (or co-facilitators). The participants meet with the facili- tators separately to learn how the process works and to allow the facilitators to learn about the incident from the perspective of each party before the actual restorative conference.

The restorative conference brings together all of the parties who sit in an open cir- cle (no furniture in the middle). Each party tells his/her story while the others listen

without interruption. Most often the offender speaks first, which allows the victim to hear what the person was thinking and feeling at the time of the offense, why the person decided to do it, why they were chosen as the victim, how the offender now thinks and feels about what he/she did. Often the offender will express remorse and give an apology.

As each party tells his/her story more and more information is provided for all par- ticipants, they learn how the incident had an impact on each person, and the harms are identified. This is an important step toward figuring out how to later reach agreement about how the offender will make restoration. After each party has been heard there is an opportunity for asking questions. The facilitators provide some information about the offender gleaned in the pre-conference interview to help the others know more about the person than just the single incident.

The final step in the process is for all parties to brainstorm ideas about how the harms will be repaired as much as possible. The possible actions must be relevant, reasonable, observable and measurable ways that the offender can repair harms and demonstrate that he/she is accepting responsibility for his/her harmful actions and for undoing the damage to the victim, the arresting officer and the community. From the list of possible restorative actions the group reaches consensus about which will be required of the offender and a contract is written. All parties sign the contract and the offender is required to complete all of the actions by the time limit (which must be reasonable) and provide documentation of the completion of each action to the law enforcement agency.

Failure to complete the contract results in the case being returned to the agency for possible prosecution of the original criminal offense. This is a powerful incentive for the offender to complete the contract.

The benefits of this approach include:

  • The victim has an opportunity to learn why the offender did what he/she did.Most victims want to know “Why me?” This opportunity does not exist in the criminal justice system.
  • The victim is involved in determining how the harms will be repaired, tohear the offender apologize and express remorse, and to achieve resolution that can help him/her feel satisfied with the result. (Victims are informed when the offender completes the contract.)
  • The offender learns how his/her behavior harmed various people in a setting that is very personal and often very emotional. It is quite common for the conference participants to experience a wide range of emotion, which is why tissues are always available!
  • The offender has the opportunity to make amends (financial restitution, community service, personal service, public apology, teaching others about the consequences of poor choices, etc.) and to make smarter choices in the future. (This process has an impressively low rate of repeat offenders!)
  • The community benefits by some form of community service in many restorative contracts and by knowing that offenders who participate in this process have accepted responsibility for their actions and are unlikely to cause harm to others in the future. The community also benefits because this process is much less costly than the criminal justice system of trials, appeals, incarceration and its very high rate of repeat offenders.How does this relate to our topic of teamwork? The same process can be used to help groups undo some damage and work together to reach agreement about changes in their processes and interactions to help them become a more successful team!


    I was asked by a construction company to facilitate a restorative process with a small team (3 people) who were experiencing serious difficulties. They had reached the point where they were avoiding contact with each other and one person had announced an intention to resign and leave the company. The Vice President of Finance and Director of Human Resources wisely decided to invest a little time and money in helping the three employees learn how to work together as a success- ful team. Compared to the cost of losing a valued employee, the cost of a facilitat- ed restorative process promised to be a real bargain!

    The facilitator (me) met with each person privately to learn about the incidents that had led to the current situation and to give each person an opportunity to be open and honest with an objective outsider with a signed agreement of confidentiality. Employees often are reluctant to be completely open and honest with employers because they fear retribution.

    After learning from each person, I met with all three people. Each person was asked to tell his/her story following prescribed guidelines. The person talking will…

  • Make no accusations or negative judgments. The speaker must describe words and/or actions factually without blame and without assumptions about the motivations of others.
  • Express his/her own feelings with “I-statements”. “I was hurt and angry.” “I felt disrespected.” “I was confused and surprised.”

• Explain the tangible harm or negative impact resulting from the behavior of the other person(s).

The parties listening will…

  • Listen without interruption and make a sincere effort to understand and re-spect the perspective of the person speaking.
  • When asked by the facilitator, will restate what the speaker said and ac-knowledge the feelings of the speaker that were shared or sensed.
  • Focus on the wants/needs of the speaker.After each person told his/her story, there were some questions asked about the reasons for some of the actions and to clarify some understanding and differing perceptions of what occurred with specific incidents. Each time the participants were asked to restate what they heard to help assure accurate understanding and continuing respectful interactions.

    All three parties expressed sincere and tearful regret for some of the things that had been said or done. Each person accepted responsibility for his/her role in the vari- ous conflicts. Each person also expressed regret and remorse about the damaged relationships and a strong desire to work together in peace and harmony.

    As facilitator I guided the discussion into brainstorming ideas about how to interact differently, how to resolve problems, how to repair harms, etc. The group devel- oped quite a few ideas for the whole team and several specific changes for each in- dividual. The final result was a list of commitments for each team member and agreement by all three to keep the commitments.

    The relief in the room was tangible! There were hugs and laughter and expressions of gratitude and affection.

    The employee who had planned to leave chose to stay and management reported to me later that the team had continued to work together quite successfully with ob- servable positive interactions, mutual support and occasional fun! The total time required was a few hours!


    A gaming company (race track, casino and hotel operation) contracted with me to facilitate a restorative process with a group of 18 upper management people. The group included the president of the company, several regional directors, the general manager of one of the properties and his direct report middle managers.

This group had experienced a number of conflicts that involved several others in the group and most people harbored some unresolved bad feelings and negative perceptions about others in the group. All had participated in various kinds of man- agement training and quite a few had many years of experience in the gaming in- dustry, but most knew little about relationships and dealing with conflicts.

The departing president contracted with me to facilitate a process designed to iden- tify some specific conflicts, to help the participants in those conflicts learn how they contributed, how others felt, how they were harmed, how others were harmed, and how the organization was harmed. Another objective of the process was to identify issues that were recurrent and that needed to be addressed to explore changes that could help to prevent or reduce conflicts and the harms.

Leading up to the day of the meeting some had expressed concerns and some skep- ticism about members of the management group being willing to discuss openly their conflicts with others in the group or to address some organizational structure issues that had contributed to the problems. This is a common problem in organiza- tions. Very little focus on relationships creates a culture in which people do not openly discuss emotions, do not provide helpful feedback to one another about be- havior that invites conflict, and do not initiate conversations about repairing dam- aged relationships and improving the quality of interactions.

Our process began at 10:00 am in a meeting room with chairs in a circle without furniture in the middle. When people entered the room they knew this would not be a normal meeting! They already had received a document that explained the pur- pose of the meeting and how the process would work. The document included guidelines for the discussion and a comparison of dialog and debate. We were go- ing to participate in a dialog, not a debate.

After brief introductions around the circle to help the facilitator know each per- son’s role in the organization and their expectations/hopes for the process, I (facili- tator) spoke briefly about how most people found teamwork to be more challeng- ing than expected and how important teamwork is for organizations to achieve suc- cess. I asked the group what groups have to do well in order to become a true team. They produced a list that included:

  • Trust one another
  • Communicate frequently & skillfully
  • Be respectful
  • Support each other
  • Have clearly defined roles
  • Help each other
  • Share a mission and goals

As facilitator I then explained how most people reach adulthood having learned lit- tle about how to build and maintain successful relationships and having learned be- fore reaching school age how to participate in conflict. One of the great challenges of teamwork is how often people in groups have conflicts with each other.

The last step before starting the restorative circle process was a brief explanation of the three roles that everyone learns to play in conflict situations (Persecutor, Res- cuer and Victim). The group also learned that each person has a favorite (default) role that he/she uses to initiate conflict with others or to respond to invitations from others to join in a conflict. Even though we do play all three roles (sometimes in a single conflict situation), we most often will play the one that we developed as our favorite during childhood. All 3 roles invite and create Win-Lose outcomes. (To learn more about conflict request my Handling Conflict With Skill article!) The group was asked, “How many of you are aware that you have had conflicts with others in this room?” Everyone raised a hand!

I then announced that it was time to talk about some past conflicts and how the conflict had harmed you, others and the organization. The group was reminded about the guidelines and was shown the “talking piece” (a red felt-tip marker). Only the person holding the talking piece was allowed to talk. The group was asked to be specific about what was said or done to initiate the conflict and to ac- knowledge how they had contributed to the conflict. You have conflict only when you choose to participate!

Immediately, one person asked for the “talking piece” and described an incident, how he had felt about another manager’s words and actions, how he still had bad feelings about the incident, and that he was reluctant to communicate with the oth- er person. The other manager requested the “talking piece”. I (facilitator) asked the second person to restate briefly what he had heard the first manager say before talking about his own role in the conflict. The second person apologized for his words and actions, explained his intent, and expressed his desire to work more ef- fectively with the first person. The first person asked for the “talking piece”, ac- cepted the apology and echoed his desire to have a cooperative relationship.

This process continued with almost everyone in the group talking about past con- flicts, the harms caused, which included a wide range of negative emotions plus continuing communication problems and other tangible costs. People learned a lot about how their own words and actions had contributed to some serious obstacles to teamwork. They learned about misinterpretations of situations, conversations and email messages. They learned about the intent of others and their wants and needs. They also learned some important things about one another that had never

been openly discussed before, including some very personal and emotional revela- tions.

There was a visible and tangible bonding improvement that occurred during the process. Several people commented later in the day how pleased they were that we were doing this because they felt much better about others in the group and felt great relief to get things out in the open.

The final stage of the process was to summarize about six important issues that surfaced repeatedly in the various conflicts and that all agreed needed to be ad- dressed to figure out how to make some needed changes. The group engaged in a “brainstorming” process to generate ideas about how to make changes in organiza- tional procedures and structure and changes in relationships to prevent or reduce future conflicts and problems. Several pages of flip-chart paper were required to record all of the ideas generated in this process. The pages were given to the in- coming company president for follow-up evaluation discussions and implementa- tion.

At the conclusion of the meeting (4:15 pm), the team members were in good spirits with a high level of energy and enthusiasm about the process and the many im- provement ideas that resulted.

The incoming president expressed his appreciation for the process and his agree- ment with the outgoing president that it was a helpful and valuable process to help move the organization in a positive direction.


Very few organizations and teams ever engage in this type of process. Most have recurring conflicts that are never discussed much less analyzed to identify causes and to make decisions about what to change to improve teamwork. It is quite common for negative emotions to be saved and harms to be ignored.

The result is damaged relationships and negative perceptions that remain in place, which act as filters through which current interactions are interpreted. This increas- es the probability that situations will result in conflicts and the conflicts often in- crease in frequency and severity. Teamwork is disrupted; productivity is affected negatively, and costs increase.

The cost of some training and a facilitated restorative process is slight when com- pared to the costs of ignoring the lack of teamwork. The return on investment of taking positive action can be impressive!


Sam R. Lloyd is founder and president of SuccessSystems, Inc. in Boulder, CO. His company provided training, coaching and mediation services for all types of organizations from 1977-2013. He is the author of numerous articles and eight books including Developing Positive Assertiveness, Coaching Skills for Leaders, Accountability: Managing for Maximum Results and Respectful Relationships: The Positive Approach To End Conflict & Harassment. His most recent book is a Kindle E-Book: The Supervisor’s Handbook: What To Do & How To Do It! Sam continues to provide training and coaching upon request. You can contact Sam at (303) 998-0248 .

You can learn more about his books at https://www.ama- Some of his paperback books are available as used books on Amazon (very cheap).

Most of his books can be purchased directly from the publish- er at 

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