Mediating Conflict

In a Nutshell
        Frank walks into Debra's office, plops down in a chair and says, "I think you need to talk to Ray.  He almost cost us the Pinnacle account.  I e-mailed him Tuesday morning asking for a project schedule for the proposal they've been asking for and he didn't reply.  So I went to his office Wednesday, but he was headed to a meeting and told me he'd contact me later that day, which he never did.  I had to call Pinnacle Thursday morning and ask them for another extension for the proposal.  They were irate.  I don't want to be the one taking the heat from clients because Ray's not getting his work done."
        Debra thinks she knows what the root cause of the conflict between Frank and Ray is.  With a few pointed questions to each of these two employees, she can probably determine whether she really needs to counsel Ray as Frank suggests.  However, Debra's not going to be the one who resolves this conflict--Frank and Ray are.  Debra is going to mediate.  She wants these employees to practice handling conflict more effectively, and to take ownership of the solution to the problem.

In This Issue

Mediation's Advantages
        Whether they realize it or not, managers like Debra have many options for managing conflict between two employees.  Mediation is one of them.  Mediators create a process through which the disputants find a resolution themselves.  However, with her authority, Debra also has the option of playing an inquisitor role to address the issue.  With a sense of what the problem is, inquisitors ask for the information they think they need in order to reach a reasonable resolution, and then they impose it on the disputants.  Inquisitors are expedient.  But they put fairness, accuracy and the disputants' morale at risk.  Managers can also arbitrate conflict between their subordinates.  Arbitrators are more thorough than inquisitors because they let the disputants present the information that they believe should be considered.  After hearing both sides, the arbitrator provides a resolution and enforces it.  Managers can also use clever hybrids of mediation and arbitration (see the June 15, 2002, LeaderLetter).
        Debra will mediate this particular conflict because (a) she has the time to invest in it, (b) she wants Frank and Ray to be satisfied with her intervention to deal with the conflict, and (c) she wants them to buy into the resolution.  Mediators bring disputants together and facilitate a collaborative problem-solving processes.  Compared to arbitration and inquisition, mediation is empowering for disputants.  Disputants have more latitude for raising their concerns and, when successful, mediation results in a resolution that both parties have consented to.

Mediation's Goals
        When mediating conflict, the primary goal of all parties involved should be solving the business-related problem.  Disputants must fight the temptation to deflect blame and assign it to the other party.  There should be a focus on the future, and on how best to improve performance.  Going forward, Frank and Ray need to know what the appropriate degree of Ray's responsiveness to Frank's requests for project schedules is.  Maybe Ray was wrong for not being responsive enough, or maybe Frank was wrong for making unreasonable demands on Ray's time.  However, it's more important at this stage to focus on how they should expect each other to collaborate on crafting proposals and on similar tasks in the future.
        An important secondary goal is to re-establish civil, constructive communication between the parties.  The bitter feelings commonly associated with conflict often cause communication to stop, to work through indirect channels (e.g., gossip) or to become confrontational.  Mediators require the parties to discuss business issues in a constructive manner.
        A tertiary goal is to restore harmony and rebuild trust in the relationship.  When the conflict is particularly bitter, the mediation process can't completely achieve this goal--at least not in the short-term.  However, mediation can help the disputants empathize with each other, and with a better understanding of the other party's motives trust can be improved.  We often imagine that the people who create difficulties for us have evil motives that they don't really have.  Sometimes the mediation process is able to break down those misunderstandings and invalidate incorrect assumptions.  Frank, for instance, didn't know that Ray had been working on higher priority projects and that the projects previously done for Pinnacle haven't been very profitable.  Effective mediation can bring that out.

The Mediation Process
        When mediating conflict, preface the discussion by defining winning and losing.  If the disputants enter into a mediation process with the goal of deflecting blame and assigning it to the other party, the dialogue is unlikely to be completely honest.  In the context of mediation, "winning" means having a creative, collaborative problem-solving process.  "Losing" is failing to have that process for any reason.  In particular, disputants have to avoid the following:
                *  being argumentative or person-focused rather than business-focused
                *  withholding information
                *  insisting on their original position
        With that preface, the first step of the mediation process is coming up with a clear definition of the business-related problem associated with the conflict.  This is a very important step that is worthy of a significant time investment.  Most conflict stems from differences in (a) definitions of a problem, (b) beliefs about the facts and priorities surrounding the problem, and (c) opinions on the best solution.  Pursuing the definition of the business-related problem at the heart of a conflict does provide an opportunity for the disputants to slip into counterproductive arguing.  But on the other hand, it also creates a dialogue that can create greater understanding and significant progress toward a resolution if the parties adhere to the principles of constructive communication.  It's the mediator's role to ensure that constructive communication is being used.  If the parties can't agree on the facts surrounding a dispute, it might be wise to postpone further discussion and do some fact-finding.
        Having defined the problem, it's time to engage in creative, collaborative problem solving.  The parties should brainstorm together to try to find alternatives.  Sometimes disputants become fixated on their position (in other words, what they originally said they want the resolution to be) and on rejecting the other party's position.  To use the mediation opportunity constructively, the parties need to set aside those positions and search creatively for the proverbial "win-win" solution.  If no progress is being made toward identifying creative solutions, the mediator can postpone further discussion in order to give the problem time to "incubate" in the disputants' minds.
        Once an acceptable solution to the problem is identified, the disputants should agree on how to implement it.  All disputants should be committed to the solution, and all parties deserve credit if the solution is in fact successful.
        In many conflict situations a useful final step is having a discussion of how trust and working relationships have been damaged by the conflict and how they can be repaired.  Repairing trust can be a complex and slow process, but apologies and reparations for any harm done are at the core of the process.

In Summary . . .
        Mediation can be very time-intensive, so it's not the best way for managers to deal with all employee conflicts.  However, effective mediation can be very empowering for employees, and it can help them develop stronger relationships and better conflict management skills.  In many instances, managerial mediation is well worth the time invested.

        McShane, S. L. & Von Glinow, M. A.  (2000).  Organizational behavior, (9th ed.)  New York: Irwin McGraw-Hill.
        Ross, W. H. & Conlon, D. E.  (2000).  Hybrid forms of third-party dispute resolution: Theoretical implications of combining mediation and arbitration. Academy of Management Review, 25(2): 416-427.
        Sheppard, B. H.  (1983).  Managers as inquisitors: Lessons from the law.  In Negotiating in organizations, M. H. Bazerman & R. J. Lewicki (eds.), pp. 193-213.  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
        Whetten, D. A., & Cameron, K. S.  (2002).  Developing management skills, (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Photo Credit
        AP Photo/PA, Nick Potts:  e-mailed to me from Yahoo! News;

About the Newsletter and Subscriptions
        LeaderLetter is written by Dr. Scott Williams, Department of Management, Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.  It is a supplement to my MBA 751 - Managing People in Organizations class.  It is intended to reinforce the course concepts and maintain communication among my former MBA 751 students, but anyone is welcome to subscribe.  In addition, subscribers are welcome to forward this newsletter to anyone who they believe would have an interest in it.  To subscribe, simply send an e-mail message to me requesting subscription.  Of course, subscriptions to the newsletter are free.  To unsubscribe, e-mail a reply indicating that you would like to unsubscribe.

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