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Reaching the eye of the storm – a reflection on Workplace Mediation”

By Dawn Stainer, Director of Lakeland Mediation Solutions

This article was commissioned by the Centre for Mediation and first published by them and Lancashire Law School

Team dysfunction and the fragmentation of workplace relationships can be damaging to morale and productivity. This dysfunction can corrode if not dealt with, leading to financial and social cost. Workplace mediation is a discreet, structured process whereby an independent third party facilitates communication between parties in dispute, where relationships have broken down. The ultimate aim is for the parties to work together to create sustainable solutions that are mutually acceptable to ensure a more successful and positive working relationship. The objective of mediation is an outcome favourable for the individuals involved and their organisation.

We recently mediated a long standing, complex and challenging team dispute where mediation principles were used in facilitation of resolution. On reflection there were a number of successful elements of the workplace mediation process itself that contributed to the remarkable ground shift.

Pre Mediation meeting and follow up – a wrap around approach

A key indicator of a successful workplace mediation occurs before the mediation itself begins. Our process is underpinned by Pre Mediation Meetings where skilled mediators assess whether the process is appropriate for the dispute. Meetings are employee-led and a confidential space is offered for ‘venting,’ with uninterrupted attention given in order for each party to be heard. Parties can air their perceptions of stormy relationships and identify their overriding issues without fear of reprisals from colleagues and managers. Clarification of the issues will occur and creates the basis of the agenda to be used for heads of agreement – at a key moment during this meeting; the mediators will then set the tone for conduct and approach in the mediation itself.  This is the point at which the atmosphere morphs from one of conflict to one of solution with a future focus. Without this approach to managing high emotions, the past may well prevent forward momentum within the mediation. A checking system can be used immediately prior to the mediation taking place for individual opening statements to help reframe and maintain a positive outlook as well as give reassurance for the mediation day.

This wrap-around process is completed by the aftercare that we offer. Follow up occurs on an agreed date where mediators reinforce agreements that were made and check on progress offering further support if needed. The parties are reassured and mediation principles can be revisited if required. Parties are therefore supported from the outset until after they have implemented the agreements made on the day. This supported process is more likely to be successful and sustainable.

The power of self reflection

For workplace mediation to be successful, skilled mediators must remove layers of ‘niggles’ to allow the rediscovery of self. Team cohesion that exists can get forgotten amongst conflict in the workplace. Holding a mirror to oneself allows reflection; it cultivates openness and a willingness to share which furthers change, and sets the stage for moving forward. Disclosure of feelings can deepen an appreciation of common ground and the positions of others. The concept of walking in ‘others’ shoes,’ is powerful and can enhance positive communication between parties in conflict.

The impact of positivity

Long term, for the parties, what will be important is not why the breakdown in workplace relationships has occurred, but focus on the solutions open to them. Mediators encourage the parties to acknowledge that although the past cannot be erased, the focus is now on agreement and the future. Positive communication is modelled and this encourages parties to communicate early, in all ways, and be open and honest. The mediator sets the positive tone in the mediation using the opening statements that parties had been encouraged to write following the pre mediation meetings. The summarised points allow focused and positive discussion enabling the mediator to work constructively on each point. A key skill employed by mediators is described in in ‘Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In’  Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton 3rd Edition 2011. They introduced the idea of separating the person from the problem. Depersonalisation prevents finger pointing therefore mitigates conflict, allowing discussion of difficult topics and reaching of positive creative solutions.

It is important to recognise that the positive process of mediation can have a wider impact not just for the team, but also the organisation, as a whole, if consent is given for upward sharing. It is clear that workplace mediation offers possibilities of conflict resolution and positive reform of group dynamics. In my opinion it can be a hidden gem for those responsible for organisational strategies, HR departments and managers who are responsible for grievances. It is a solution to workplace conflict and should be considered for a variety of reasons, including complex matters.

The message to take forward is simple. Workplace Mediation works.