Workplace Mediation

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The company will need to remain unnamed as also the people involved. For now, let’s just call them Mridu and Urmi. Both were driven, both were ambitious. Mridu was a level senior to Urmi and was 3 years older in the company than Urmi who had been brought in for skillsets that were expected to complement the team and strengthen it. However, from early in the relationship, it was apparent that they were unable to get along. Soon the clashes started becoming noticeable and began to affect others. Urmi who had been asked to report to Mridu, very soon made a representation for a change in reporting, including re-assignment to another business. The Project Director did not want to lose her, so after internal discussions, it was decided that Urmi would report directly to the Project Director. Mridu then objected very strenuously and took a strong stand against this re-structuring. Her dispute, however, was not with Urmi, but with the Project Director, accusing him of taking the easy way out, without addressing the core issues, and peripherally blaming HR for agreeing to the changed reporting structure. Without articulating it directly, Mridu implied that the Project Director felt threatened by her competence and wanted to show that she was unable to manage a strong personality in her team, thus jeopardizing Mridu’s expected promotion. The Project Director, when he learned of this, was very upset, as he believed that he had always treated Mridu fairly in the past 3 years that she had reported to him, and had given her a number of good opportunities to show her capabilities. So he took a very hard stand. Privately, though, he also accepted that she was a very strong resource to have, and the company should not lose her or allow her to become de-motivated. Similarly, the Head of the SBU made it clear that good resources needed to be kept motivated, but found that no one was really keen on getting involved to resolve the issues, as Mridu, although popular and known to be very competent, was considered a “toughie” and difficult to handle when she took a stand while the Project Director was also not easy to manage when he felt slighted. All the elements of a typical workplace dispute – personality clashes, misconceived perceptions, responses designed to protect each one’s position, dependence on past experiences, giving importance to positions, standing on principles, and finally misdirected communications. Paraphrasing Ury (“The Third Side”), Latent Tensions led to Overt Conflict, which led to a Power Struggle which could have led to Destructive Conflict. All this created a situation where not too many people, both HR and other managers, wanted to get involved, fearing that doing so would impact their own relationships with one or other of the protagonists, or a failure to effect a positive resolution would be deemed a failure”.

None of what I’ve described here is unique. Situations like this play out in all organizations. Differences, dispute and conflict are a norm in all human relationships. They may be covert, where undercurrents are felt are not seen and the effect can be unexpected and dramatic, or it may be overt – with negative acts of omission and commission. In either case, it definitely does reduce efficiency and productivity substantially. It is enervating and fosters deep rooted and long-lasting lack of cohesion. Depending on how widespread unresolved conflicts are, it can also substantially reduce competitive edge.

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In 2015, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), UK, reported that four out of every ten employees had experienced interpersonal conflict within the last 12 months. Over ten years, research by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) revealed that the cost to the UK economy of unresolved conflict was £33bn a year, due partly to an aversion to tackling conflict. CPP Inc.–publishers of the Myers-Briggs Type Assessment and the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument–commissioned a study on workplace conflict. They found that 25 percent of employees said that conflict led to sickness or absence from work. Equally alarming, nearly 10 percent reported that workplace conflict led to project failure, and more than one-third said that conflict resulted in someone leaving the company, either through firing or quitting. Those negatives translate into real financial losses for businesses.

In India, a similar survey has yet to be conducted. Its safe to assume, with the Indian and UK economies being almost the same size, and adjusting for the relative weight of the organized sector in the UK being larger than in India, that the cost to the Indian economy of unresolved conflict is to the magnitude of tens of thousands of million rupees – thousands of crores of rupees. The loss per organization, is by extension, substantial, more so in those sectors that are heavily people dependant.

Let’s do a little maths here. Let’s assume that the mean CtC of all employees of a company is Rs 30 lacs annually. Let’s further assume an arbitrary 10% loss of productivity due to conflicts between two individuals. If we assume a median revenue productivity multiple of 8 times total CtC, across the company, the loss of revenue caused by conflict between two individuals is Rs 48 lacs. For an organization of 1000 people, with conflict taking place across just 25% of the employees, the loss of revenue would be to the tune of Rs 120 crores, or 5% of the revenue of Rs 2,400 cr, based on this model. And, this is a simplistic one, with low assumptions and not factoring in cascading effects of highly paid managers of teams and so on. Nor does it factor in bottom line effects. So, conflicts at the workplace, cost organizations, significantly, although never captured in any expenditure statement.

Yet, conflicts are the norm in any kind of human initiatives and interactions. Continuous and long-term interactions amongst people of different temperaments, communication styles, backgrounds and perspectives will lead to dispute. And, dispute is necessary for us to optimize our efficiencies. To compete in today’s VUCA world, informed participation, decentralized authority and expanded responsibility are essential. These however, lead to both a dilution of traditional hierarchies and an increase in freedom of action, thought and articulation. Which, in turn lead to greater reasons for conflict in thought, communications and actions. Furthermore, as organizations grow leaner, as feudalistic and paternalistic norms continue to give way to more democratic ones, disputes and conflicts will continue to increase. Whether overt or covert, conflict is a norm in any human endeavor that requires collaborative effort. Balancing conflicting individual styles and expectations with independent and dynamic thought and ownership of the organization is essential. Also, with the means to collaborate increasingly rapidly, the causes for conflict increase exponentially. Dealing with co-workers, linked teams, peers, superiors, management, employers, or any other connected stakeholder, as adversaries, is sub-optimal, when the need is for all to collaborate and work in as much harmony as possible. Dynamic, forward looking organizations need to constantly seek ways to create workplaces that are, at the same time more collaborative and yet, less confrontational.

The key, as we are all used to hearing, is effectively managing conflicts at work.

Resolving conflicts at work at, an early stage, can result in enhancing efficiency and productivity of employees, and reduce costs and attrition. Workplace conflicts occur for the same reasons that cause most disputes – clash of personalities, mismatches in perceptions, protection responses, past experiences, positioning, and points of principle. Mismatches in styles of communicating and also, cross-cultural differences, add to these complexities. Often, a few small issues combine to cause ego-based barriers that then become difficult for people to surmount without help.

But, managing such issues and working out ways to resolve them in the long term is not as easy as it seems. Very often line managers, including HR professionals, avoid attempting to manage conflict. Most of us, by default do not like confrontational situations, especially emotionally charged ones. They are physically and mentally draining, even for those not directly involved. And, the cost of managerial time that could be more productively used elsewhere is enormous. Various studies by institutions of repute indicate that managers spend between 20%-40% of their time managing conflict, yet most intensely dislike doing so.

This is where a trained and experienced Mediation Neutral can help in resolving inevitable conflicts and disputes at the workplace and channel such issues into productive and efficient outcomes.

Mediation is a well-established process to reduce and resolve conflict situations, across varied spheres of human endeavor and is now gaining popularity, rapidly, as a significant way to optimally reduce and resolve conflict at the workplace. Its popularity as a medium of resolving disputes of any nature is growing universally across all segments of human interaction, be it family matters, property, commercial disputes, succession matters, workplace and IR related disputes and so on. It uses a flexible approach, is confidential in nature, is not a zero-sum game, and can be used to find creative and mutually agreeable workarounds to otherwise seemingly intractable conflict. As these workarounds and solutions are discovered, explored, defined and agreed by the disputing parties themselves, they find easy acceptance and prove to be long lasting in nature. For these same reasons, they also tend to create a climate of trust and acceptance which works wonders in the long run.

As a process, mediation requires an independent, impartial, and respected third party (the Mediation Neutral) who assists in the settlement of the difference or dispute, through enabling the mutual understanding of different viewpoints, and then helps the parties to identify mutually acceptable and workable ways to manage and resolve the disputes. He/she also works to get the parties to agree to abide by a mutually defined solution.

An experienced Mediation Neutral uses different methods and styles – transformational, facilitative and evaluative mainly – and a wide variety of tools and skills to help achieve concord. A Neutral does not take sides or make decisions and has no formal, devolved, or similar powers, to enforce acceptance and adherence to any agreed resolution. Most disputes are caused by the inability or failure of both parties to communicate or understand the needs, expectations, insecurities or perceptions of each other. As a result, a binary state of “Who is right and who is wrong” is entered, and resolution is not forthcoming, or is based on a weak foundation. A good Mediation Neutral will seek to create a climate that allows open communications between the conflicting parties, and/or with the Neutral herself/himself. This leads to an understanding of the reasons for the positions they have taken with each other. The Neutral then will try and help each side understand the other’s views and use that understanding to help each to find workarounds to the issue. The mediator encourages both to look at the dispute through different lenses, in a practical, unemotional, mutually respectful manner. Once each party starts understanding and then gains insights of the situation from the other’s perspective it enhances the possibility of resolution and, importantly, working harmoniously together later. We are not talking here about an informal, unstructured process of pure discussion, but a structured, multi-stage process designed to get results. There are universally understood and accepted stages in the Mediation process, yet, it leaves the Mediation Neutral with sufficient freedom and flexibility to guide the process to a satisfying conclusion. A good Neutral is one who is able to help each side establish open communication with not just the Neutral himself/herself, but with each other. He/she will need to have a strong understanding of emotional intelligence, communication styles and should be able to read between the lines. A good mediator will be able to take all the initial anger and rants and raves and be able to sift the important messages from the distractors.

At the workplace, mediation seeks to help people proactively resolve their differences in a non-threatening way, using a neutral mediator with no organizational ax to grind. Unlike an intervention by a peer or a superior, workplace mediation is non-threatening, and is often seen as more balanced. In many cases it allows employees (both at peer levels as well as with inter-se reporting relationships) resolve an issue without escalating the matter, or filing a “formal complaint” thus causing a greater rift. Furthermore, it provides employees (at all levels) the medium of a private and confidential, yet neutral, forum in which differences between disputing parties can be discussed and resolved. It allows them to feel that they are being heard as well as giving them an opportunity to gain insight and understanding into the perspective. Mediation as a means to manage workplace disputes, by its very nature, is also very effective when there is a perceived “power or influence imbalance” between the individuals in conflict.

Workplace mediation, to resolve conflicts at the workplace, follows the same processes and rules that any other form of mediation would. Ideally, in situations where workplace conflicts need to be managed, the mediation neutral should have a reasonable understanding of, and background in, such corporate environments, although this is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a good workplace mediator.

Also, mediating disputes at the workplace – Workplace Mediation – as is the case with most types of mediation, is most effective when facilitated by an unrelated 3rd party. Often, one or both parties cannot trust another company employee to be neutral or to maintain confidentiality, both of which are essential to a successful mediation. An unbiased, non-judgemental, non-threatening, non-directive external mediator, with no organizational ax to grind, with no direct or indirect influence on the career of either party, and with a professional reputation to maintain of a supportive, facilitative and effective mediator, would be the most optimal choice in any such situation. It is important to note here that a Mediation Neutral cannot impose a solution. She/he does not hold any such authority and cannot direct or order a decision and so a resolution is only arrived at if both parties agree to it. Knowing that no result can be imposed from above greatly reduces the tension and defensiveness of all parties – and it also reduces the likelihood that someone will cling to an extreme position. Also, if mediation does not produce an agreement, either side is free to escalate the matter in whatever way they deem fit.

Its important to note what mediation is not. It is not a counseling session. Nor is it a substitute for POSH matters, although early mediation efforts may help in avoiding escalating matters to the level of a formal a sexual harassment complaint. Instituting a mediation process does not mean forgoing an investigation where warranted. Also, it is not

An increasingly large number of forward-looking organizations, especially those which are people intensive and largely people dependant, are adopting workplace mediation as a standard procedure to resolve conflicts.

So, what benefits do we see with this form of managing workplace discord?

One is it allows greater empowerment and recognition, as it allows employees to make their own decisions and manage discordant situations, without feeling that they are being told what to do, as is usually the case. This very act of being in control of what impacts them and playing an active part in the management and resolution of a dispute allows a sense of completion and control and also ownership of both the process as well as the outcome. The fact that they are being heard, seriously, and have the opportunity to listen to the other side in a controlled, yet non- threatening setting, heightens the chances of amicable resolution. In fact, even the opportunity that most experienced mediators provide, of allowing each side to vent their anger or other strong emotions, often acts as a catharsis, if then properly managed and channeled subsequently.

Mediation can commence quickly and can be completed within a short period of time maybe a day or two. In contrast, a formal complaint filed with an internal forum, ombudsman, regulator or the judicial system may take months and years to resolve. The confidentiality that the process guarantees also ensures that people who do not otherwise want to stand out for complaints, are encouraged to use this as a process to make their workplaces more comfortable and congenial. Its also cost effective, not only financially, but also in terms of human capital and time. Resolutions of dispute that are arrived at through mediation are usually robust and durable as they are not imposed, but are agreed on by the parties concerned. And, as it becomes a widespread process and accepted method to bridge differences, mediation results in a more mature organization, with greater efficiency and productivity, lowering of emotion based aggression and reactions. And, finally, a more harmonious workplace leads to greater efficiency and productivity.

Implementing an effective workplace mediation program requires the organization to promote mediation in its workplace as a formal policy, as a recognized and suggested method of resolving differences and disputes.

For this to be effectively done, mediation should be incorporated into your organization’s personnel policies. For example, mediation could be made part of an internal complaint review process and an appropriate authority or the HR Department can be given authority to offer mediation at any point in the complaint review process. However, it works best if employees can be given the option of voluntarily asking for mediation if they feel they need to settle disputes between themselves, or even with their managers.

Many case studies show that once the process has been actively ‘sold’ to employees and managers, with overt support from the top management, mediation becomes a significantly successful method of resolving issues. As a corollary it adds to increased productivity and reduction in workplace frictions, as well as enhancing organizational maturity. In the true-to-life story narrated at the start of this article, a neutral mediator was able to help resolve issues fairly soon, with a sense of relief and comfort palpable on all sides. The gains the company achieved through creating greater harmony amongst three high impact professionals were clearly visible in a remarkably short time span.

Mediation of workplace disputes is now widely accepted as being a significant way towards building a balanced, safe and productive workplace. It helps achieve a very satisfactory, timely and cost-effective resolution of disputes. It is also helpful in creating a collaborative and mature workplace culture.

While not yet a well-established practice in India, workplace mediation is finding increasing acceptance in economies such as the UK, the USA, Japan and Australia, to name a few, as a powerful method to increase productivity, efficiency, employee satisfaction and organizational maturity.

Perhaps its time for Indian organizations to seriously consider this as a strong employee engagement and retention tool.  


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