By Darryl Landau and Michael Goldman
Nothing is as draining as having to manage dysfunctional conflict. It undermines teamwork and saps an organization’s resources. Managers spend on average over 25% of their time dealing with conflict. No wonder many managers wish to avoid it and push it away.
Since conflict can’t be avoided, as a manager what are your choices? Basically, there are five:
Which approach is best?
You already know the answer: it depends. You have to make a quick assessment or triage. Think of the level of escalation and risk. You will likely want your staff to deal with less serious matters themselves, with the most serious matters requiring your direct involvement. For many intermediate problems, you can mediate.
Mediation is facilitated dialogue between disputants; it is assisted negotiation by a ‘third party’. On the one hand, it is something all of us have done, as life puts us in the middle of family, friends and coworkers. On the other hand, to produce consistent results, a mediator needs to know a process and possess a set of skills for some very challenging and diverse situations.
One of the biggest challenges is being seen as unbiased and fair. That is especially hard for managers when the issue in dispute matters to them. In such cases, managers should think carefully about whether they can remain impartial. But being impartial is not the same as not having an opinion, and it may not be the same as expressing that opinion, if it is wanted and needed by the parties and it emerges from the facts and not from a preconceived bias. Disputing parties need to feel they are in a position to reject the mediator’s opinion, but when it’s your staff members …well, it’s hard to be impartial and sometimes exercising managerial authority feels easier to do. Effective mediation (like facilitation) isn’t easy – it takes time, skill and good judgment.
These are good reasons not to jump into mediation but rather encourage staff to resolve matters themselves where appropriate. But doing this could make it worse, so a little coaching goes a long way. Conflict coaching involves helping one or more disputants to resolve the matter themselves, collaboratively. A coach can help parties reflect on their assumptions, clarify their interests and choices, and learn some new skills. This is valuable support and empowering. True, there’s no guarantee the coachee will follow through on the learning, but it’s a growth opportunity nonetheless. You can check in with the parties sometime thereafter to smooth out any rough edges.
What Does a Good Mediation Process Look Like?
When coaching parties to resolve their own conflict isn’t working, we may have to intervene and mediate. Mediation by managers can be less formal than by an external professional. It can feel like a somewhat familiar meeting in the manager’s office.
Here is a 5-step mediation process from our Mediating Through Conflict Workshop that we’d like to propose:
Step 1: Set Up the Mediation: This typically occurs pre-mediation with the manager introducing the mediation process to the parties involved. The manager establishes the urgency that the conflict must be resolved immediately and meets with each party to identify their key issues and priorities for resolution. This step begins the process of feeling heard and understood by each party and starts building hope for resolution.
Step 2: Begin the Mediation: Usually the parties will be together for this meeting. Though they may already have been told what to expect, this is a chance to clarify the manager-as-mediator role, answer questions about the process, and reaffirm both parties consent to try it out. Conversational guidelines are agreed upon and the manager sets the tone for a constructive discussion.
Step 3: Present and Summarize Viewpoints: Normally the parties share their perspectives one at a time. In some cases, the manager may choose to present additional information that they are aware of (without divulging confidences) to ensure all of the facts are being presented. By the end of this stage, the parties feel mutually understood by the manager, the main issues to resolve are identified, and the parties have experienced the manager’s ability to create a safe and impartial structure for dialogue. Often solutions may arise during this step, but it’s wise for the manager to defer discussion of those until step 4.
Step 4: Problem Solving: This is the key stage. The manager leads an exploration of the issues through questions. Ideally, this exploration becomes less of a right-wrong argument, and more a deeper understanding of the shared problem. In this step, the manager ensures that the problem is properly understood by all, at which time the process can turn to problem-solving.
Step 5: Creating Closure: Presuming a mutually-acceptable solution emerges, the manager can ensure it is clear and practical by providing a clear and concise, written summary. By checking in with the parties at some point thereafter, they can coax smooth implementation and the restoration of a normal relationship.
Your interventions to resolve a difficult situation will be appreciated by your staff and/or senior management. Typically, when solutions are self-determined by disputing parties, they are more likely to adhere to and follow-through on those solutions. An effective mediation strategy therefore empowers parties to drive their own resolution.
 S Raines, Conflict Management for Managers: Resolving Workplace, Client and Policy Disputes, (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2013) pp xxii-xxiv.
Do you have a unique meeting challenge not covered by one of our blog posts? We’re always looking for different dilemmas to discuss in our articles!