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Managers as Mediators

Among the key challenges facing those in positions of leadership is the responsibility of facilitating the resolution of conflicts that arise within the workplace. This challenge is not taken lightly, as it stresses some of the most important working relationships that exist.

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Among the key challenges facing those in positions of leadership is the responsibility of facilitating the resolution of conflicts that arise within the workplace. This challenge is not taken lightly, as it stresses some of the most important working relationships that exist: staff members with coworkers who they often manage and support; staff members with other upper-level management staff, who all navigate the bureaucracy of their overlapping roles and responsibilities; staff members with each other, in competition for the same or scarce resources needed to support their work; and so on. It is to those who oversee such relationships that the task of conflict management frequently falls.

Operating as a mediator requires one to be objective, impartial, and sufficiently removed from the issues of the dispute to facilitate empowered discussion among those involved. This is especially challenging for leaders, because they frequently are stakeholders in the issues and have extensive personal relationships with the parties. While it may be appropriate in some circumstances to utilize external resources for mediating disputes, this article will identify ways in which chairs, supervisors, and managers can play such a role.

Keep in mind the following basic mediation process as a guide to conducting a session with your staff:

  • Prenegotiation should precede any face-to-face meeting between the parties involved. Spend some time with each person individually, clarifying concerns and desired outcomes from the mediation process. Be sure everyone understands that your role in this situation is to facilitate their discussion and not to decide the matter or counsel them. Also, clarify the limits of the process.

  • Make an opening statement affirming the points you made in prenegotiation. You are here to facilitate their discussion, and they have the power and opportunity to resolve their differences. This is a safe and confidential space for discussion. Establish ground rules together that will support the creation of this type of space. The opening statement sets the tone for the conversation to follow.

  • Understand the conflict involves allowing each person "airtime" to articulate concerns and initial positions in the dispute. Practice active listening in order to model the types of behaviors expected in this setting. In turn, ask the parties involved to listen to one another.

  • The problem-solving stage of the process requires a focus on the underlying needs, interests, and concerns that have been threatened by the conflict. Stay patient. Be flexible in your thinking about the definition of the problems facing the involved parties, and support their exploration of new ways to consider their situation. Focus on the importance of maintaining dignity in the face of the challenges of impasse (a point in conflicts where progress seems to halt); if you remain calm and confident in their capacity to do good work, they are likely to be successful.

  • Build agreements that are meaningful and practical, truly addressing the concerns at the heart of the conflict. Patiently explore all aspects of the problem; it is too easy for people to assume that the problem was "only a misunderstanding" and seek an early conclusion to the meeting. Help them develop a process for implementing and evaluating their agreement over time using the goodwill of this discussion as a foundation for an enduring solution.

  • Close the process with a sense of respect and clarity. Establish a time for checking in with each person in the coming weeks, not allowing any residual problems (or new ones) to fester. This follow-through can be critical to long-term success. Schedule a time to meet with them together, if only to affirm the success of the agreement they have reached; such a discussion may offer an opportunity to discuss other issues in a constructive manner.

Be sure to clearly separate your involvement as a mediator from your involvement as a supervisor in a reporting relationship. As supervisor, you are required to evaluate staff performance, to engage in appropriate discipline, to make determinations of roles and responsibilities, and to complete other tasks that may conflict with your intention to serve as an impartial mediator.