I often hear leaders bemoan the fact that their employees are simply not willing to engage in mediation as an option for addressing difficult workplace dynamics. That the door is closed before it has even properly been opened.
The idea of mediation can be extremely anxiety-provoking – especially when past conversations have been difficult and when it feels there is little hope for the relationship. In my experience, people often don’t fully understand what they are saying “no” to, when the option of mediation comes up.
And sometimes, leadership unintentionally misrepresents what mediation is and is not.
Tip #1: Stay away from the word “mediation”.
I know this must sound odd coming from a mediator, but people often react defensively to the very word “mediation”, especially initially.
People make many assumptions about mediation, what it is and what it isn’t. Many of these notions are based on messages from the media that may or (more likely) may not accurately reflect the process that is being suggested to them.
Using different language helps move away from resistance based on preconceived ideas about the mediation process.
I prefer to use phrases like “supported conversation” or “facilitated dialogue” to describe the process. At its simplest core, what we do is “help people have difficult conversations”.
Using this kind of more informal language can help demystify mediation vs. spike people’s anxiety about what they think is being asked of them.
Tip #2: Let the professionals explain the process.
This needs to be underlined: Don’t concern yourself with “selling” the whole process to your employees at the front end.
Pushing parties to commit to participation in mediation, before they have even spoken with the mediator, is unnecessary and can be totally counterproductive.
Leave the details (including the benefits of mediation and what to expect) to the pro’s to explain first hand.
All you need to do, as the manager/HR, is seek their commitment to speak with the mediator to explore options.
Let the mediator help the parties walk through the pros and cons of their participation.
This is often the most effective way of building trust in the process and begins developing rapport between the parties and the mediator. It sets the tone for the whole process.
Also, mediator approaches can vary, sometimes significantly. You don’t want to unintentionally set up expectations with your staff that will have to be renegotiated with the mediator.
Tip #3: Don’t suggest that their participation is “totally voluntary”.
(Granted, not all mediators will agree on this point.)
From my perspective, the volitional quality of mediation exists on a continuum. And sometimes leaders need to provide a little bit of incentive as a reality check.
If a person is resistant, it may be helpful to stress that, from your perspective as the manager, “resolution” is not optional; that, one way or another, things needed to change.
If parties are not willing to participate in a supported conversation (with the help of a third-party), other options that edge toward the more formal/disciplinary in nature may need to be explored. This, of course, starts to make the idea of mediation feel significantly less “voluntary”.
It is important for the parties to understand that what the resolution process looks like is largely up to them. This is the choice aspect.
Mediation is one of the most collaborative, least punitive forms of intervention on the performance management/progressive discipline spectrum. AND it is also typically the most effective at resolving the root concerns of the primary parties involved.
Tip #4: Don’t see mediation as an opportunity to wash your hands of the situation.
While it’s understandable for you to breathe a sigh of relief after you hire independent professionals to help with a particularly thorny personnel challenge, resist the urge to totally back off and “leave it to the mediators to fix”.
First off, it’s not the mediator’s role to “fix things”. We are there to host a structured conversation that offers the opportunity for parties to address their problems themselves.
Also, your employees need to know – and experience directly – that you are supporting them and the mediation process actively! And that you are willing to look at your part and the role you played in managing (or not) the dynamics. Most of the time, in my experience, leaders recognize or have at least an embryonic awareness that they have some level of contribution to the dynamics even if that contribution is simply avoidance.
Again (this can’t really be overstated): The active engagement of leadership is absolutely fundamental to achieving sustainable resolution.
At the conclusion of the mediation process, we leave your organization and leave you, the leader, to pick up where we left off in supporting the parties to move forward in their relationship.
Your capacity to do this, in most cases, is the single, most important determining factor in successful, long-term outcomes.
At FS, we always seek to work with the “one level up” leaders responsible for the direct parties, partly for this reason. Also, because it is a key objective to support the whole system, not just the primary parties involved. Essentially, we’re seeking to work ourselves out of a role with that client. Perhaps not a very good business model so good thing there’s no shortage of conflict around! 🙂
Working closely with leaders throughout the process, as a team, is when we do our best work in mediation.
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