Workplace mediators require diverse and varied multi-disciplinary skills to effectively resolve complex workplace conflict. Some of the skills of a workplace mediator are unique to workplace mediation, and are required over and above standard mediation training. Family mediation has some overlaps – such as ongoing relationships, and breakdowns of trust. There are also distinct differences between the goals of a family and a workplace mediator. This paper identifies 5 key skills for an expert workplace mediator to resolve high-level, complex, and sensitive workplace conflicts.
Many workplace conflicts involve leadership challenges. In the majority of workplace conflicts at least one party in the mediation process is a leader or manager, supervisor, team leader, or coordinator. Even when one of the parties in the mediation is not a manager, often management or leadership style is involved at some point during the mediation process.
There are numerous definitions of leadership. One definition is:
“a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”[i]
Effective leadership or enlisting the support of others requires many skills. Adaptability and flexibility are essential to a leader’s success. It is important that leaders are aware of their own natural style, as well as the other styles they have available to them, so they can adapt to the situation and people they are leading.
A workplace mediator needs to intimately understand leadership so that they can help managers and executives increase their self-awareness and adaptability when they find themselves in challenging or crisis situations.
Communication under pins all conflict in the form of mis-communication, lack of communication, lack of / or mis-understanding of what was said, lack of / or ineffective learning, and crossed purposes.
Differences in communication style can also lead to conflict through frustrations and mis-understandings of intent and purpose.
Communication “is a process by which two or more people exchange ideas, facts, feelings or impressions in ways that each gains a common understanding of the message. In essence, it is the act of getting a sender and a receiver tuned together for a particular message or series of messages.”[ii]
There are a number of different communication models. They can help people understand how their style may be different from another persons’ style, and what actions they can take to communicate more effectively in future. Communication models can also help whole teams and organisations celebrate diversity, while ensuring high-level effective communication.
Understanding communication style differences provides the workplace mediator with the insight into what is occurring in the team and what can be done to improve the working relationships and team dynamics.
3. COACHING ABILITY
Coaching is a process where a coach works individually with a client to determine the current situation, set goals for the future, and plan ways to meet these goals. Most importantly of all the coach ensures people take action and make changes.
The ability to coach is a very useful skill for a workplace mediator. It can be used to prepare parties for workplace mediation, or instead of mediation. Coaching is extremely effective in assisting people to shift from narrow thinking to more broad, and open perspective-taking. Broadening people’s mindset and perspective helps them to re-consider their initial assumptions, thoughts, and feelings about the situation.
In workplace mediation many disputes require more than simply delivering a workplace mediation process. Workplace mediators can provide coaching when assisting in complex, high-level, and long duration conflicts. Coaching can also assist when grievances, bullying claims or Workers’ Compensation claims have been lodged.
There are many different coaching models available for workplace mediators to use. The goal with coaching during mediation is to increase self and other awareness of those involved in the conflict, and to increase the likelihood of sustained behavioural change. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of effective and durable outcomes as a result of the mediation process.
4. DEVELOPING AN OTHER-FOCUS
Other-focused thinking, feeling, and behaving is important in conflict resolution regardless of the kind of dispute and the people involved. A successful mediation process requires some level of other-focus. In its most simplistic form, other-focus is perspective-taking. As our skills develop we may display more complex forms of other-focus such as cognitive, emotional, or behavioural empathy, or compassion.
In ongoing relationship disputes such as workplace and family other-focused skills are required by the people involved at some level to ensure resolutions are sustainable long term. The goal is to resolve the present conflict and ensure the relationships are healed to some degree so an ongoing relationship is maintained – such as a professional working relationship.
One of the tasks of a workplace mediator is to encourage the people involved in the conflict to develop some level of other-focus for a successful outcome. The level of other-focus of the people involved, depends on the skills, attitudes and willingness of those involved.
5. REBUILDING TRUST
The ability to help people to rebuild trust is an essential skill of a workplace mediator. Most workplace conflicts involved ongoing relationship where parties are part of a team or work closely together, and rebuilding trust is a necessity.
Interpersonal trust is complex. It involves at least three aspects:
1) Belief that the other party will act benevolently;
2) Vulnerability that the other person may not fulfill the expectation; and
3) Dependency as the outcomes are influenced by the actions of another.”[iii]
Trust is multi-dimensional[iv] and context dependent.[v] There are a number of different kinds of trust – Cognition (reputation), Affect (values), Knowledge (reliability), Absolute (unconditional) and Relative (comparison).[vi]
When a workplace mediator understands the different forms of trust and has the ability to assist people rebuild trust, they increase the likelihood that resolutions will be workable and sustainable. Workplace mediators can facilitate the trust building process through facilitating conversations about how the parties will begin rebuilding their trust through a mutual understanding of what is required, and how to ensure that the key steps are carried out.
The key to high performance workplace mediation is for the workplace mediator to be ever-focused on their own skill development in these five key areas (amongst many others). With each new skill they are better equipped to ensure effective and sustainable resolutions to high-level, complex workplace disputes.
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[i]Chemers, M. (1997). An integrative theory of leadership. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
[ii] Yukl, G. (1998). Leadership in organizations. (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs:
[iii] Leagans, J. Paul (1961). The Communication Process in Rural Development.
[iv] Whitener, Ellen, Brodt, Susan, Korsgaard, Audrey and Werner, Jon (1998) Managers as Initiators of Trust: An Exchange Relationship Framework for Understanding Managerial Trustworthy Behaviour. Academy of Management Review, 23 (3), pp. 513-530.
[v] Jones, Gareth, & George, Jennifer, (1998). The experience and evolution of trust: Implications for cooperation and teamwork. Academy of Management Review, 23 (3), 531-546; Lewicki, Roy, and Bunker, Barbara Benedict. (1996). ‘Developing and Maintaining Trust in Work Relationships.’ In Trust in Organizations, Frontiers of Theory and Research, edited by Roderick. M. Kramer, and Tom. R. Tyler, 114–39.Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage; McAllister, Daniel (1995). Affect- and cognition-based trust as foundations for interpersonal cooperation in organizations. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 24-59; Shapiro, Debra, Sheppard, Blair, and Cheraskin, Lisa. (1992). Business on a Handshake. Negotiation Journal, October: 365–377.
[vi] Bhattacharya, R., Devinney, T. M., & Pillutla, M. M. (1998). A formal model of trust based on outcomes. Academy of Management Review, 23 (3), 459-472
[vii] McAllister, D., (1997). The second face of trust: Reflections on the dark side of interpersonal trust in organizations. In R.J. Lewicki, R.J. Bies, & B.H. Sheppard (Eds.), Research on negotiation in organizations (Vol. 6, pp. 87-111). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press; Lewicki above n 13; Bhattacharya, Rajeev, Devinney, Timothy, & Pillutla, Madan, above n 13.