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Mediation in the Workplace

Totem-in-the-middleUnfortunately, it’s not just world leaders who need to know this…

From time to time there may be disharmony and discord within your team.  Managing at these times can be taxing, to say the least. But with a few techniques and practical tools for handling conflict, you will be equipped to confidently deal with these difficult situations and find a positive outcome.

Research suggests that managers spend around 25% of their time managing and handling conflict in their teams. Conflict isn’t always necessarily a negative thing – it can often mean that people are passionate about their work and it can encourage creative thinking. Conflict can, however, mean that teams become ‘stuck’ when an impasse is reached, so finding ways to resolve conflict is important.

You might be asked to mediate when a conflict has reached that impasse, or you might find it helpful in your own conflicts to have the tools and tips to address it effectively.  So let’s take a quick look at some the theories and models that might help.

Academic researcher and mediation expert Joseph Stulberg*, identified a pattern common to all controversies. He termed them the Five Ps of Conflict Management:

Perceptions: Our negative perceptions of conflict impact our approach in resolving conflict as we strive to eliminate the source of these negative feelings.

Problems: Anyone can be involved in a conflict, and the amount of time, money, and equipment needed for resolution will vary according to its complexity.

Processes: There are different ways to go about resolving disputes: Suppress the conflict, give in, fight, litigate, mediate, etc.

Principles: We determine the priorities of all resolution processes on the basis of an analysis of our fundamental values regarding efficiency, participation, fairness, compliance, etc.

Practices: Power, self-interest, and unique situations are all factors relating to why people resolve disputes the way they do.

With this in mind, mediation is essentially a dialogue or negotiation which involves a third party. Mediation should be a voluntary process for all. Unlike a judge, the mediator cannot unilaterally force parties to resolve their differences and enforce a decision.

Totem Gummi Bears

HR expert and academic Glenn Varney* suggests that to resolve differences between individuals it can be valuable bringing the parties together and, with the assistance of a third party, asking the following questions:

  • What is the problem, as you perceive it?
  • What does the other person do that contributes to the problem?
  • What do you want or need from the other person?
  • What do you do that contributes to the problem?
  • What first step can you take to resolve the problem?

Many people use the talking stick idea here.  This means when one person holds the talking stick, everyone else listens.  Interruptions are simply not allowed.  You don’t of course need an actual stick for this, you can just set the ground rules at the start of the meeting.

Varney emphasises that the context is important – each individual should be questioned while the other listens then asks questions for further clarifications. They should be allowed to express their feelings and get hostility out of their systems at this stage, but key to this is that both must be willing to admit partial responsibility for the problem.

It’s also critical that the first objective is for each person to understand the other’s perspective and not to get across their own view.  As Stephen Covey puts it – “seek first to understand, then to be understood”

Both individuals then discuss a mutual definition and understanding of the problem. Agreement should be reached on what steps will be taken to resolve the problem and should be put in writing in order to prevent later misunderstandings.

This requires good listening, low defensiveness, and an ability to stay in a problem-solving mode. The key to Varney’s process is exposing the different positions as early as possible.  Which is where the facilitator or mediator can help in pulling out what’s really going on.

If you’re looking for tips on encouraging good debate and positive conflict, you might find our simple approach to Six Thinking Hats useful.

 

*Stulberg, J. B. (1987). Taking charge / managing conflict. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

*Varney, G. H. (1989). Building productive teams: An action guide and resource book. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass, Inc.