Written by Marc Reid, HR Consultant and

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Conflict is an inevitable part of the workplace environment. Of course, negative conflict is bad for business – the CBI quoted an annual cost to UK business of £33bn – but not all conflict is bad. Innovation is stimulated by people challenging ideas and existing ways of working, diversity of opinion helps generate more considered decision making and an open environment where employees are encouraged to challenge stimulates morale and employee engagement.

But what do we do when conflict ‘turns bad’? Unfortunately typical reactions to conflict are ‘Fight’ or ‘Flight’ – in other words, confront the situation aggressively or avoid dealing with it at all. Far from resolving it, often these responses can lead to a worsening of the conflict. Resolution will only come through the organisation being able to ‘Face’ the conflict and deal with it in a calm way with a planned approach.

What steps can be taken to resolve the conflict?

Clearly the best way for conflict to be resolved is for those involved in it to sort it out for themselves. This is indeed what will happen in most cases with individuals airing their differences and finding a way to work it through. Where they are not able to do this, either because it has not worked or they do not feel comfortable confronting the other person, the relevant Line Manager should take the lead. But not all managers are willing to do this or have the skills that are needed to help the situation and in some cases the dispute may involve the manager themselves. In such instances, involving a neutral third party such as HR or an external mediator is the best solution. Larger organisations may have employees trained in mediation skills but where more independence is needed, or where such resources are not available, external mediation is a cost effective solution.

What is mediation?

There are many definitions of mediation but essentially it is a flexible, confidential process enabling people to resolve disagreements and find their own solutions facilitated by an impartial mediator. Some of the key features are:

Confidential – All discussions remain confidential; no content is disclosed outside of the mediation.
Voluntary – Mediation can only take place if agreed to by all participants.
Participants work together to reach agreement – The mediator facilitates discussion and idea generation between participants who take responsibility for the agreement reached.
Fast and flexible – Mediation can resolve issues before they escalate. It can be arranged quickly and the whole process can be completed in a few days.

When can you use mediation?

Mediation can be used for a wide variety of workplace issues – but not all. It works particularly well in situations such as:

– Communication issues
– Personality clashes
– Unresolved / ongoing grievances
– Perceived discrimination / harassment
– Differences in working style
– Inappropriate use of power / status
– Rebuilding relationships after formal process

However, where a clear right / wrong decision is needed or where one party has no interest in reaching agreement mediation is unlikely to be suitable.

How does mediation work?

Whilst there is a framework for mediation, a good mediator will adapt that framework to suit the situation and people involved. Typically there will be some preparation where the situation is referred to the mediator who seeks agreement to mediation from the parties. The mediation session itself can last up to a day and will involve both joint and private meetings between the mediator and the parties, moving towards a written agreement on how the situation is to be resolved. The mediator will then normally follow up after a number of weeks with the parties to check that the agreement is working.

Mediation has a very high success rate in the workplace – well over 80% of cases reach agreement. There are a number of reasons why the success rate is so high:

– Enables exploration of the issues and concerns of all participants, identifying what really matters
– Allows those involved to understand the feelings of those they are in conflict with
– Encourages communication and separates the people from the issues
– Helps overcome blockages using joint problem solving enabling those involved to find a solution that feels fair and is win / win
– Rebuilds relationships and helps participants develop the skills to resolve workplace difficulties for themselves in future

So why consider using mediation?

Conflict between employees can be very damaging for organisations – it takes up time, causes stress, can damage employee engagement and the organisation’s reputation and costs money. The key to avoiding these damaging consequences is to address conflict, and to address it earlier rather than later. Mediation can be used as a flexible and cost effective tool to deal with conflict. It enables the organisation and its employees the opportunity to understand the issues, find solutions and move on so that all the focus can be on what really matters ie delivering the key business priorities.

1st November 2018