Dr Barbara Benoliel is the academic programme coordinator in Walden University’s Barbara Solomon School of Social Work and Human Services. Based in Toronto, Dr Benoliel is also a professional mediator and president of Preferred Solutions Conflict Resolution, where she specializes in conflict management systems and alternative dispute resolution in organizations.
Conflict will always exist in the workplace. It can have a positive effect, fueling individuals to come up with new ideas and new ways of working. But left unchecked, it can alienate members of the workforce, reducing their productivity and even leading to absenteeism.
While the human resource team will often step in as mediator when chronic and unresolved dispute has been formally brought to their attention, managers and business leaders also must play a key role in managing and preventing conflict.
Mediation is the process whereby a third party steps in to help reach an agreement or resolution which both parties, or individuals, are happy with. Everyone has probably experienced an informal version of mediation in the workplace. Think of a combative meeting you’ve attended, where there were opposing views in the room and somebody stepped in to try to clarify and reconcile the contradicting opinions. Or a situation where a colleague felt aggrieved by the actions of another, and both individuals were brought together to agree on a way forward that recognized each’s perspective and needs.
While ‘mandatory mediation’ sounds like an oxymoron, requiring employees to try mediation is not a bad idea. In many instances, addressing the conflict with a mediator and agreeing on a way forward stops the issue from festering and escalating further. If there is an underlying cause to the problem, clarifying job roles, providing further training or even reassigning people elsewhere within the company may be necessary.
Effective leadership can avoid these more drastic and often costly steps. Leaders manage a delicate balancing act when acting as a mediator of staff disputes. Whatever their thoughts on the situation, they must provide an impartial view and give both individuals the same chance to raise and resolve any issues. Entering the process with an agenda will be seen as manipulative and will cause employees to lose faith in the leader and the process, ultimately resulting in failure to quell the problem. While the leader is the final decision-maker, the most effective mediation happens when the two parties are empowered to reach a point of understanding together, with the mediator guiding them through the process rather than dictating.
Mediation from a leadership perspective works best when there is a common goal identified at the outset, and staff work together to come to agree how this can be achieved. As an example, asking both parties to focus on the problem, not the people, will get everyone working together again. Ask them a question or pose a challenge that they can explore and discuss together: ‘How can we accomplish this urgent task right now?’ or ‘What can we agree to today?’
Another valuable strategy is testing the durability of the proposed solution. One or both parties might begrudgingly agree to a solution just to get out of the mediation process. So check with them about how they see the new plan working, what timescales they think are achievable and at what point all parties should come back together to see if the new approach is working.
Understanding that a mediator’s role must be impartial is important, as is possessing an understanding of the power imbalances and power struggles taking place. Every dispute between two parties contains some element of power imbalance; no two parties have equal power. One might be in a more senior role, but another might be closer to the project in question. While leadership has the ultimate power in an organization, employees have the power of being disruptive and unproductive and they also have the power to quit their job.
Knowing when to continue with mediation and when to cut your losses is key. If a bad relationship between staff members is unsalvageable, mediation can be a waste of energy. Another important decision is whether mediation is worth the time and effort, or if the leader should just step in and provide a solution which both individuals are expected to adhere to—a strategy that works only some of the time.
Finally, mediation should not be used as a stepping stone to dismissal. While it might make the leader feel better because they tried to resolve the issue, it just prolongs the agony and negativity. It also undermines the role of mediation and impacts its chances of working in the future. Used correctly, mediation can lead to positive change within a business, but it must be positioned as a positive solution and given the best chance of working to achieve that goal.