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Mediation - what does that look like in your organisation?


We employ adults, right? And they should be able to get along nicely, right? And resolve their differences on their own? Unfortunately not, at least not all the time.

For busy managers with targets to meet, a task list to work through, email sprouting like weeds, and other team members who need their attention, this is incredibly frustrating. Their team members aren’t kids, so why can’t they just behave like grown-ups and sort their stuff out?

For the people caught up in the disagreement, it’s more complex. They are so focused on their own needs that they see the other person as a threat. Their perspective dominates their thinking so much that they aren’t able to recognise that the other person’s perspective may be equally as valid – to them. They definitely aren’t attuned to the disruption they are causing to the team, workplace morale and overall productivity. If they have an awareness of the grief they cause their manager, they dismiss it by saying, ‘that’s why they are paid the big bucks.’

Like it or not, managers need to be proactive in dealing with conflict. As frustrating as it can be, the consequences of not being proactive can be much more damaging. It’s a bit like the death of a thousand cuts – except that each of the thousand cuts feels like having a limb chopped off!

The reality – most conflict situations are handled poorly by managers and that leads to ongoing issues. It may be due to time pressures, inexperience, lack of skill or knowledge, or simply not perceiving it as their role. Whatever the explanation, the outcome is the same.

In this article, we will consider three processes by which conflict situations can escalate to mediation – two that often have disastrous results, and one that will lead to significantly improved outcomes.

Option 1 – Trigger happy

Issue occurs … Escalation.

In this option, an issue occurs, and the manager immediately leaps in and initiates some form of escalation. This escalation could involve:

  •   Intervening and directing the parties to get together and sort the issue out – or facilitating a meeting with the parties and forcing an outcome
  •   Escalating the issue to a more senior manager or the People & Culture team
  •   Engaging a mediator to help the parties reach a resolution

Each of these escalations is valid – but not this soon. A key principle to guide you in dealing with workplace conflict– issues should be resolved at the lowest level of escalation possible. Any escalation, including intervention by the manager, can entrench the issue and polarise the parties. When as issue is escalated, the chances of a robust outcome being reached are reduced, and the quality of that outcome is compromised.

Unless there are genuine safety or legal issues that mean you should intervene immediately, give people the time to be the adults you want them to be. Be prepared to sit with uncomfortable for a while as they attempt to navigate their way through the issues. Conflict is a good thing. It is only bad when it is handled poorly, which you need to be alert for, and when it is suppressed.

Remember, as the manager, this is not your problem. It is their problem, and they need to own it. They need to take responsibility for resolving the issues. When you leap in and escalate, you deny them that opportunity and you transfer ownership of the issue away from the people who should be addressing it.

When you give people the opportunity to resolve their own issues, you are making the assumption that they are competent adults. By dealing with their own problems, they build confidence and capability to address future issues – which should occur frequently in a healthy team.

So, you’re off the hook! It’s all on them! Unfortunately, not. Sometimes people can’t – or don’t or wont – deal with issues without intervention, so let’s look at some more options for when that happens.

Option 2 – Gun shy

Issue occurs … ignore it…assume they will sort it out …issue becomes entrenched …escalate to People & Culture …issue drags on for months/ years …mediation.

Whether it’s through discomfort with conflict or the assumption that adults will sort their own stuff out, managers often fail to intervene when they should.

We are frequently asked to mediate issues that have been months and years in the making. In the last two years alone, we have worked on several mediation projects with a ten year plus history – and a trail of misery and destruction.

This usually starts out with a manager noticing an issue but letting it go. This is more than just giving the parties space to resolve the issue themselves as we suggested above. This is about actively trying to ignore the issue in the blind hope that it will sort itself out. Once it becomes apparent that it won’t go away, the issues have become bigger and the manager feels overwhelmed. If they do make some tentative attempts to intervene, they are met with defensiveness and hostility and so the manager backs off.

The issue drags on until someone makes a formal complaint or goes on stress leave, which usually triggers the involvement of People & Culture. Now the issue is complex, positions are entrenched, and parties of resentful – of each other, management, and the organisation. Even a skilful People & Culture team find themselves bumping up against barriers and limitations – and then they call in the professional external mediator.

The mediator spends more time just doing background on the issues than they would normally spend on an entire mediation process. In this situation, even the most experienced mediator will usually identify that a mediocre outcome is the best case – something that people can live with and that allows them to work together but where relationships are rarely healed and trust remains damaged

Option 3 – mediation

Issue occurs …monitor…coach…facilitate…escalate…mediate.

The ideal approach to interpersonal issues in the workplace relies upon a manager who:

  •   Has, or is willing to develop, some core leadership skills around developing people and leading teams
  •   Develops the confidence to deal with challenging issues
  •   Embraces conflict as a normal and healthy dynamic when people are working together
  •   Is willing to sit with uncomfortable
  •   Has clear expectations of the people they manage and is willing to support them as they work towards those expectations

The foundation for this approach is in the manager’s, and the team’s, attitude to conflict. When you put two people together, it is simply not possible for them to agree on everything. It is inevitable that they will have different opinions, ideas, priorities, and values. As teams grow larger, these differences are multiplied – and amplified.

This only becomes a problem when:

  •   Teams – or their leader – are afraid of conflict and suppress it, leading to tension which is significantly more damaging
  •   Teams – or their leader – don’t have the willingness and skills to work through conflict effectively

The answer is to have explicit team understandings about conflict that encourage people to share their differences and provide guidance on dealing with it effectively and non-destructively.

With that foundation, the manager has a strong platform for the ideal response to interpersonal issues

  1. Monitor

    Don’t ignore the issue but do give the parties space to resolve it themselves. Observe to ensure they are making progress, disagreements are not becoming personal or destructive, and that the parties are OK. Don’t overreact when things feel uncomfortable. When it becomes clear that they aren’t progressing or that irredeemable damage is becoming a prospect, move to the next stage

  2. Coach

    Talk individually to the parties. Remind them of your expectations that disagreeing about things should be encouraged as part of healthy adult discussions, but that it should be done in a way that is consistent with the team’s values. Ask them what support they need from you. Guide them to identify strategies to resolve the issue. Coach them about the conversation they will have with the other party. Don’t take ownership of the issue – leave that with them. This is their problem, and you are very willing to support and guide them as they resolve it

  3. Facilitate

    If the issue can’t be resolved by the parties talking alone, it is time for you to step it up. Arrange a meeting that you will facilitate as their manager. Again, don’t take ownership of the problem. Your role is not to find solutions – it is to create a safe space where they can explore the issue with you as their guide. You are there to make sure they listen to each other, intervene if it becomes personal or unpleasant and to nudge them towards outcomes when they lose their way. Ask questions and let them search for answers

  4. Escalate

    As a manager, you almost certainly aren’t a professional mediator so there is a limit to what should be expected of you. If the parties refuse to participate appropriately in the facilitated discussion, or if it doesn’t produce successful outcomes, it is probably time to get some additional help. If you have the confidence, you could attempt a follow up meeting once the parties have had time to reflect – perhaps with some coaching from you in the interim. If not, a more senior manager or the People & Culture team (both of whom you have probably consulted earlier, for advice and to keep them in the loop) are your next step.  Once you take this step, your role will likely become more about providing background information and briefing – so make sure you have been keeping good records

  5. Mediation

    While this is the fifth step, it may be reached quickly, in as little as a few weeks in some cases. Professional workplace mediation is the ideal approach when it becomes clear that the issue is unlikely to be resolved internally with a positive outcome. If mediation occurs as soon as it is legitimately indicated, exceptional outcomes can be achieved including restored workplace relationships and a genuine ‘moving on.’ The formality of the external framework and the skills of the professional mediator often get buy-in to both the process and the outcomes that can’t be achieved through the internal steps.

Think of this sequence as a series of filters in a funnel. All the interpersonal issues in your workplace go in the top of the funnel. Many of them never progress to the next filter as they are resolved by the parties themselves. It is only the more challenging issues that make it all the way through the filtering process to professional mediation.

One of the things that differentiates a manager from a leader is their willingness to embrace the filters that are their responsibility.

Need further support? Check out our Managing Poor Performance eBook on our website.