Guest Contributor to the TIGERS Den, MICHAEL D. LANG, J.D.
Two weeks ago you assigned a project to Anne and Hank; it is due in 4 days. They will be evaluated on the overall project, without considering their individual contributions. Anne comes to you with the following complaint about Hank:
She completed her portion (the power point slides) last week; Hank hasn’t done a thing (the financial reports). Anne has repeatedly reminded Hank about the deadline. Their pieces need to be combined into a single presentation. Hank’s response to these frequent reminders ranges from ignoring Anne to shutting his office door in her face.
Every day as a manager you confront conflicts such as the one involving Hank and Anne. How do you handle these disputes in an efficient, timely, effective and responsible manner? Some managers faced with Anne’s complaints would confront Hank, insisting he work more cooperatively with Anne, then send him on his way. Other managers might employ humor to diffuse the situation and remind Hank the importance of team work. Still others might use threats or similar inducements.
While those approaches may work, they each directly involve the manager in resolving a problem that should have been handled by her employees. The specific problem is settled; the next one lies just ahead.
Nothing changes; the cycle continues. Employees have not learned to take responsibility, to behave responsibly and work cooperatively. They rely on the manager to intervene, to be the authority figure. Managers grow increasingly frustrated and exhausted by the effort to keep their subordinates in line.
Of course as a manager you are obliged to address conflicts between two or more of their employees because:
(a) they can become a distraction for those involved as well as implicating other employees,
(b) adversely affect the work environment and cooperation among employees, and
(c) ultimately impact productivity.
What if employees were expected to resolve their own disputes? What if instead of consistently taking on the burden of problem solving, you were able to help your subordinates manage and resolve their own disputes?
Many successful managers are using mediation skills to help their employees manage and resolve their own disputes. In this approach, the manager steps out of the role of decision-maker. Instead, the manager as mediator helps those involved in the dispute to:
(a) identify the problem,
(b) talk about its impact,
(c) consider ways of resolving the dispute, and
(d) choosing a solution that is likely to work for all involved.
You already have the basic skills required—effective communication, listening attentively, thinking creatively, managing successfully. So, how would you use these skills in a different approach to conflicts?
The following 10 steps offer a general guide for the manager as mediator.
Be sure this is not a problem you generated by, for example, giving mixed messages, creating unclear work assignments, or inadvertently creating a unhelpful competitive situation. If you have contributed to the problem, you can correct the situation.
2. Do nothing.
Sometimes, paying attention gives the problem greater credibility and significance. If you elect to take a hands-off approach, you must monitor the situation to be sure the problem in fact loses steam or resolves itself. Ignoring a genuine problem that goes underground will likely emerge as a more troubling situation in the future.
3. Decide how you want to respond.
Are you are willing to help the employees sort this out? Should you act on your own? Should the situation be referred to someone else (e.g. HR or EAP or your supervisor)?
4. Build consent.
Determine whether they are willing to participate in a problem-solving process.
5. Don’t fix it.
Don’t try to solve the problem for them. Be patient, be attentive, let them struggle, and keep them focused on the task.
6. Suspend your judgment—don’t take sides.
Keep yourself as neutral as possible to put the responsibility for resolving the conflict on the shoulders of those involved. Resist the urge to agree with one side of the issue.
7. Guide the process
Ask them to identify the problem—they will each see it differently. Solving problems requires a common definition. Help them clarify their views and agree on the problem.
8. Recognize frustration and don’t take short cuts.
They may get frustrated as they try to work out an acceptable solution. You may as well. When they seem “stuck,” avoid the temptation to settle the dispute for them. Instead, use brainstorming or similar techniques to encourage them to be more expansive and creative. If you give them the chance, they can resolve their dispute.
9. Establish accountability.
Remember: they are adults—they got into this mess, they can sort it out
10. Establish the worse case scenario.
Ask them to consider the consequences if they can’t solve their problem.
There are three important drawbacks to take into consideration.
- You may not like their decision. Without directing a solution or simply telling them they are wrong, let them know your concerns—why their solution might not work, or require resources that aren’t available, or create additional or unforeseen problems. Help them consider alternatives (see #8).
- The role of mediator may seem awkward. You might get frustrated with them and with the time required. You may be tempted to jump in and settle things. It’s awkward for them too; they may have difficulty accepting responsibility or expect you to make a decision, or they may try to find a solution they think will please you (and thus get them recognized for being cooperative).
- Mediation can take time. You know from experience a directive from you will solve the problem promptly and without the hassle of getting everyone together and managing a thoughtful conversation. If the single goal is settling the dispute, direct action may be the ideal approach. However, if you want to encourage your subordinates to take responsibility and to learn to work together, you need to help them learn these new behaviors. Invest now for future gains.
Mediation is not a magic fix for over-burdened managers who want some way to settle grievances that takes less time. It’s not a process that is right for every situation. The benefits of mediation, however, include:
- When those involved in the dispute find their own answers, they are more likely to honor the solutions. They work and they last.
- This approach gives employees confidence that they can successfully address future disagreements.
- Ultimately, the results of this approach help managers ensure a productive, efficient and effective work group.
Copyright Michael Lang 2015
Michael Lang has been a mediator, trainer, and conflict management consultant for more than 35 years in the areas of workplace, organizational, divorce and family, congregational and public policy disputes.
He has consulted with and provided conflict management trainings to businesses, government agencies, not-for-profit organizations and university faculties. As well, he designed and helped implement a comprehensive workplace mediation program for the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
As an educator for the past 20 years, Professor Lang has developed and presented mediation skills and practice training courses, for beginning and advanced students, on behalf of court systems, government agencies, mediation centers, and professional associations. He has been a featured speaker at professional meetings throughout Canada, the U.S., the UK, Australia, Ireland and Trinidad and Tobago.
He has held a number of academic positions including serving as founding Director of the Master of Arts Program in Conflict Resolution at Antioch University; Professor and Special Advisor for Program and Faculty Development in the Master of Science in Dispute Resolution Program at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC; and Professor of Conflict Resolution at Sullivan University. Professor Lang has been a visiting faculty member at Carleton University in Ottawa, Hamline Law School and University of St. Thomas, at University of the West Indies, Woodbury College, Duquesne University and the Justice Institute of British Columbia.
Active in many professional activities, he has served on the boards of directors and as an officer of local, regional, state and national professional organizations in the field of conflict resolution. He is a former president of the Academy of Family Mediators and served for five years as a member of its board of directors.
Professor Lang served as Editor-in-Chief of Mediation Quarterly (now Conflict Resolution Quarterly) from 1995-2001, and as a member of its editorial board from 1988-2007. He has authored numerous articles on mediation practice and is co-author of The Making of a Mediator: Developing Artistry in Practice, published in 2000 by Jossey Bass Publishers.
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