At its best, workplace mediation can be a very effective and even a transformative process, which assists parties who have been engaged in conflict to resolve the issues that have arisen in their working relationship.
With the assistance of a mediator, the participants are empowered to resolve the dispute themselves on their own terms, in a confidential environment. Even if the participants are unable to resolve the dispute through the mediation process, the process provides them with the opportunity to gain a better understanding of each other’s concerns and perspectives and an improved understanding of the reasons behind the conflict that has arisen.
6 tips for workplace mediation success
From an organisational perspective, here are our top tips for how, when instructing a mediator, you can assist the mediation process and increase the likelihood of the conflict being resolved successfully:
1. Understand the mediation process and whether mediation is the appropriate tool for the particular situation
Although mediation has many benefits, it’s not always the best approach for all matters. Before you suggest mediation to your staff, it’s essential that you have a strong understanding of what mediation involves and whether it’s the best intervention to apply to the particular issues that have arisen in your workplace. An accredited mediator will be able to discuss this with you and assist you in determining the best approach to take.
Sometimes, another tool like a facilitated discussion may be more suited to the particular issues – for example, when the parties need more guidance and assistance from the facilitator and where your organisation would like specific feedback and input into the process. In other matters, conflict coaching may be more effective and appropriate.
2. Ensure the parties are genuinely committed to exploring resolution of the issues
Once you’ve ascertained that mediation appears to be the best approach, speak to the parties separately and explain the process to them and why you consider it to be worth exploring. In our experience, mediation will only be successful where there is a genuine willingness on behalf of both parties to engage in the process with the aim of resolving the issue. If a party is unwilling to listen, compromise or seek to understand the other party’s position, there may be little value in pursuing this option.
Once you are confident that the parties are open to mediation, it is then the role of the mediator to more fully explain the process, confidentially explore resolution and the issues concerning the parties and more fully assess whether mediation is appropriate in the circumstances.
3. Give the mediator a neutral briefing on the background and facts and don’t seek to impose an outcome on the parties
Mediators are independent and impartial and their role is not to make decisions about whether one of the parties to the conflict is at fault, or to attempt to steer the parties to a particular pre-ordained resolution. The parties need to be confident that the mediator has not been given a skewed briefing about the issues or that they have pre-conceived ideas about either of the parties.
If your organisation is seeking to obtain a certain outcome beyond the resolution of the dispute and the parties reaching an agreement about their future engagement, you should really consider whether mediation is in fact, the best tool at this time. For example, if you have the view that the issues really relate to poor performance or inadequate management and this is what you seek to have addressed, then mediation is unlikely to be the right tool for the situation.
Also be aware, that if the situation between the parties is one that you have been dealing with for some time, then your perspective may be somewhat jaded. Allow the mediator to explore the issues with the parties without attempting to pass your assessment on to them.
4. Be patient and realistic!
Some workplace disputes and conflict appear to arise from a one-off interaction; however, in many instances, there are much more complex and long-standing issues which have contributed the breakdown of a working relationship. In these circumstances, it is not realistic to expect that a couple of hours with a mediator will fix the problem.
While in some circumstances mediation can achieve very positive outcomes if arranged quickly, it can have the opposite effect if parties feel rushed and not yet ready to resolve the issues. Where conflict is deeply entrenched and there are many issues to address, it is often worthwhile allowing for mediation to take place over several sessions and for follow-up to occur with the mediator some time later. It is also beneficial for the parties to speak to the mediator privately several days in advance of the mediation, so that they can reflect on the issues that they wish to focus on in the mediation and the outcomes they would be happy to agree to.
5. Support the parties after the workplace mediation
When we conduct mediations, the parties are told from the outset that although it is a confidential process, if they reach an agreement through mediation, a copy of this will be provided to the organisation. Rather than filing this away and treating the matter as finalised, we strongly recommend that you periodically check in on the parties to see whether their relationship is proceeding on the terms and in the spirit that was agreed at the time of the mediation.
We’ve previously been called in to investigate complaints between staff who have been through a mediation process but who felt that the other party did not act in accordance with the agreements reached, which has then led to increased levels of conflict and bad faith in their relationships. If the organisation had regularly monitored how things were going in the working relationship or even provided for follow-up sessions with the mediator, then the issues could likely have been contained and addressed earlier.
6. Be open to feedback from the parties after the workplace mediation
Mediation often allows for discussions between the parties that they may never have otherwise had and affords them the opportunity to communicate in a different way and in a new forum. In a number of the mediations that we’ve conducted, it has become apparent that while there are undoubtedly interpersonal issues between the parties, the parties agree that causes for their conflict appear to emanate from external factors.
Sometimes this may be due to a lack of clarity around their roles and responsibilities, which has caused confusion and hostility, or alternatively, there are systems of work or resourcing that have negatively interfered with the particular working relationship. Other times, it becomes evident that responsibility for the problems partially resides with a manager, who has either allowed matters to escalate through the inconsistent application of policies or lack of intervention in relation to inappropriate behaviour.
What’s been beneficial here is that as part of agreed outcomes of the mediation, the parties request that the mediator raise these issues with the organisation, so that they may be addressed more systemically. Some very valuable feedback and insights can be gained this way, so be open to listening to this!