Using mediation to deal with conflict at work

Blog posts

15 Jul 2014

Andrea BroughtonAndrea Broughton

Conflict in the workplace is a fact of working life at some point for most people. Dealing with conflict and in particular stopping it from escalating, ultimately to an employment tribunal, is a difficult task and yet an essential one, as conflict can cause a significant amount of disruption and upheaval for both those involved and their colleagues.

Mediation, which is a form of alternative dispute resolution, can play a significant role in helping to defuse a conflict situation: using a trained and neutral party to engage with those involved in a conflict can make real progress towards resolving it. It's not about forcing either party to accept a compromise they're not happy with, or imposing a solution, but more about bringing both sides together to find a way forward. Acas notes on its website that "the overriding aim of workplace mediation is to restore and maintain the employment relationship wherever possible. This means the focus is on working together to go forward, not determining who was right or wrong in the past".

One of the potential weakness of mediation, but also one of its strengths, is that it doesn't guarantee an outcome - it's not the same as arbitration, where a binding decision is made. With mediation, the mediator works with the parties to try to find a solution, but there is no guarantee that the issue will be resolved. While this can be frustrating, it can, however, take the pressure off: it may mean that the parties to a dispute may be more willing to engage in the process if they are reassured that they won't be forced to accept an outcome that they're not happy with.

IES recently carried out an evaluation of Acas' internal workplace mediation training service, which trains individuals to achieve a formal qualification in mediation. Among other things, we looked at the barriers to successful mediation, and the key drivers and facilitators of mediation. Among the main barriers were a perceived lack of impartiality in the mediator, which led to a lack of trust, unrealistic expectations about what mediation can and can't achieve, a lack of a proper structure around mediation and other organisational issues such as a lack of support for the process.

Key facilitators for successful mediation included a willingness from both parties to engage in the process and have an open mind, and the skills and competences of the mediator, particularly in terms of listening skills and objectivity. The presence of an established organisational framework for mediation was also seen as important.

If you want to introduce mediation as a way of helping to solve workplace conflict in your organisation, the key messages here centre on making sure that there is a structure in place to support it, people know about it, and that there are enough trained mediators to do the job. Make sure as well that expectations aren't too high - if people expect a magic bullet, they're likely to be disappointed, as there may not be a definitive outcome. It might also be a good idea to revise expectations of what constitutes a success - sometimes getting people together in the same room and thus improving their relationship a little can be a major step forward, even though this may not lead to a resolution at that point in time.

Although mediation is a relatively new form of dispute resolution in the UK, it is gaining momentum as more and more organisations come to see its benefits. The skills that trained mediators acquire can also have a positive impact on their wider role in the organisation and their life overall: skills such as listening, reframing issues, empathy and other soft skills can all be transferred to other types of situations, both in the workplace and at home.

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