Organizational Behavior , Management

What Makes Third Parties Intervene in a Conflict?

The motivation of mediators is not solely altruistic.

July 21, 2015

| by Louise Lee

A dove lands on barbed wire during a protest outside the presidential palace in Manila in 2008

Even the possibility that someone might intervene tends to increase cooperation among warring parties. | Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

When two people, groups, or warring factions disagree, third parties can often diffuse a highly charged situation. By rewarding cooperation and punishing competition, they change the rules of the game, thereby promoting peaceful conflict resolution. One question, though, is figuring out how to influence a third party to step in between the feuding sides and introduce incentives to cooperate.

Third-party interveners, says Stanford GSB professor Nir Halevy, do not act solely out of concern for disputants or altruistic motives. Rather, his research shows, third parties are far more likely to intervene in a conflict if they perceive that they are likely to gain from doing so.

In research conducted with visiting scholar Eliran Halali, Halevy found that third parties, much like disputants, respond to incentives. “You have to convince them they can gain from intervening,” says Halevy. A third party might believe, for example, that the benefits resulting from convincing two parties to cooperate will produce benefits for himself. These benefits can be material or social, in the form of increased status and reputation.

In organizations, a supervisor who persuades two squabbling subordinates to cooperate benefits from their ability to refocus again on their work, thereby improving her department’s productivity. In this sense, Halevy says, intervention is a two-way street: Interveners affect the disputants’ behavior and outcomes, and the disputants’ response in turn affects whether or not interveners gain or lose from the intervention.

For instance, if the two squabbling subordinates respond to the supervisor’s intervention by cooperating, she gains from having successfully resolved a conflict at work. But if they keep on disagreeing even after she intervenes, the time and effort invested in the intervention are lost; the supervisor’s reputation might suffer; and the harmful dispute remains unresolved.

While this research used controlled experiments to investigate basic psychological processes related to dispute resolution, Halevy and Halali hope to extend their work to real-world ethno-political conflicts, such as in the current conflicts in Middle East.

Halevy and Halali designed an economic game to test the behavior of disputants and third parties while systematically varying their incentives. In one of the studies, they assigned 506 participants to the roles of disputants or third parties. “Some of the third parties could only gain from intervening. “Other third parties could only lose from intervening. In another condition, third parties could either gain or lose from intervening. Finally, in the fourth condition, third parties received fixed payoffs, regardless of whether or not they intervened.

The incentive structure had a large effect on intervention rates. Among those who could only gain from promoting cooperation, more than 80% intervened. Among those who could only lose from promoting cooperation, less than 8% intervened. These findings highlight “the critical role self-interest plays in third-party intervention decisions,” says Halevy.

You have to convince them they can gain from intervening.
Nir Halevy

In another experiment, the researchers asked 206 employees to write about an incident in which they personally witnessed a conflict at work between two colleagues and chose whether or not to intervene. Participants reported the perceived costs (for example, fear of losing their job) and the possible benefits (increased status in the eyes of co-workers) of intervening. Consistent with the role of self-interest, results showed that employees who did not intervene in others’ conflicts perceived the costs to be greater and the benefits to be smaller, compared with those who did intervene.

Sometimes warring parties don’t ask for a third-party intervener. Yet even the possibility that someone might intervene tends to increase cooperation between disputants. Halevy and Halali found that the mere possibility of intervention is sufficient to increase cooperation in interpersonal and intergroup conflicts. Thus, leaders and managers can positively influence interactions between followers and workers by indicating their willingness to step in and use their resources to promote cooperative behavior. Another experiment found that the higher the chance of an intervention, the more likely the disputants are to cooperate.

The research suggests that an organization seeking to address disputes with third-party interventions should remove barriers to third parties by lowering the costs and increasing the benefits to them. Incentives for interveners don’t have to be monetary but can be intangible, such as status within the company.

“If we confer status to those who intervene and move people from competition to cooperation, that’s a resource people care about and is considered a reward,” Halevy says. “An organization as a whole can create incentives for people to act as game changers or peacemakers,” he says. “Third parties intervene when they can change ‘lose-lose’ to ‘win-win-win.’ We need to convince third parties that they can also win.”

Nir Halevy is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Fletcher Jones Faculty Scholar for 2014-2015. Eliran Halali is a Fulbright Scholar visiting Stanford GSB from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Selfish Third Parties Act as Peacemakers by Transforming Conflicts and Promoting Cooperation” was published in May in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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