Lessons of a mediator

It’s not easy knowing when to mediate and, once you are in there, achieving a successful and sustainable mediation outcome.  Like any other craft there are some tricks and techniques to help you along the way.  Here are some key lessons learnt through our mediation practice that you may find valuable when tackling your next workplace mediation.

  • Ensure your mediation outcomes are clear, measurable and achievable.  Vague agreement must be avoided.  Agreements between the parties should be concrete and pinned down with detail so there is a clear understanding about what changes are necessary to restore a productive working relationship.  Don’t allow the ‘I’m going to be nicer’ commitment to wash – it is not a real and sustainable mediation outcome.  Your Mediation Action Plan might look similar to a performance plan – what is the action, who else needs to know about it, how do we measure it, what could impacts it and when do we know we have succeeded.
  • In a mediation, identify any environmental or systemic change required to re-adjust the workplace in order to prevent the conflict from re-occurring.  Take the opportunity to go beyond the human cause and consider process, system or organisational factors.  Actions to eliminate them will most likely belong to someone outside the immediate mediation, so refer them on.
  • Harness the frontline leader in the mediation process.  Gaining an understanding of the conflict or relationship from the frontline leader allows the mediator to have a fuller picture of the conflict prior to commencing the mediation.  Also, click-in again before the end of the process.  With the parties permission, providing the leader with greater detail about the agreements made in the Mediation Action Plan will assist the leader to support the parties in implementing their agreements and taking their ongoing responsibility in managing the relationship.  Imparting any insights you have gained into the parties, their interaction and their conflict, will assist the leader in their development in managing workplace conflict -who knows, they might have been a contributing factor!
  • Don’t initiate mediation if a party is not ready.  By this I mean, when a party is too angry to focus on discussing the issue and being open to the other parties perceptions.  For a meaningful discussion to occur and a change to take affect, the parties need to be open to seeing the conflict through another’s eyes and engaging with the other person in a constructive way.  A situation like this might require you to encourage the party to utilise the EAP first or you may commence with a shuttle mediation until the parties have clearly identified their interests and  needs and have moved to be forward focused.
  • Similarly, don’t commence mediation if a party is too focused on wanting to know they are right, that is, wanting vindication.  Mediation does not involve confirming that someone has done the right or wrong thing in a conflict.  It requires an open mind to appreciate or respect, not necessarily agree with, each others perceptions and move forward together with concessions.
  • Don’t embark on the mediation if a party does not have the nous to have an open and confronting discussion.  It sounds harsh but it takes a degree of communication skill to participate in mediation.  To sit in front of someone who you feel less than comfortable with and talk about how you perceive their interactions and what you intended with yours, is difficult and confronting.  You have a role in developing their communication skills to allow them to participate in the mediation.
  • Stop the mediation process if a party disengages.  If a party has lost the willingness to arrive at a mediated outcome, don’t continue as you will waste your time and everyone else’s and you could risk further damage to the relationship between the parties.

The best and smartest practice is not to be in the spot where you need to mediate.  How can you do this ?

  • Build communication skills of your employees.  When people communicate well, they can resolve their own disputes.
  • Minimise conflict by reducing behaviours that are potentially damaging.  Train employees in expected standards of behaviour.  This might be part of your generic EEO, Corporate Values training program or a program focused on behaviours.
  • Use your existing resources to support employees in conflict.  Employee Assistance Programs can help employees identify issues at the early part of a conflict, establish expectations and assist employees in understanding their interactions.
  • Use a conflict coach to provide more intensive support to an employee.  This may assist the employee to understand the issues in conflict and gain some insight into the conflict.
  • Support your front-line leaders in identifying and managing conflict.  They are in the best spot to act early.  They can recognise when a conflict sparks, they know the people involved and will have the best feel for the next step.  Train your frontline leaders to in managing down conflict early and responding to grievances through Grievance Handling training.
  • Give your frontline leaders the skills to be a coach to their team members.  Allow them the opportunity to foster a strong relationship with their team.
  • Institute post incident/experience learning opportunities between frontline leaders as a measure to consolidate learnings between leaders and identify any systemic change required in the business.
  • Dont allow your bullying policy to be a “how to” guide for bullying.  Ensure it emphasises desired conduct and outcomes, is underpinned with your organisational Values and establishes a framework that allows you some involvement in influencing the path for resolution of a conflict (eg an initial triage step).  Also ensure that mediation is an early step in the process not the one that is post complaint or just before an external avenue such as the ADB or FWA.

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