Workplace disputes – the role of the mediator – Changeboard

In its recent consultation on workplace disputes, the government found that: “significant growth in mediation of workplace disputes has the potential to lead to a major and dramatic shift in the culture of employment relations.”*

The government has recently launched two regional mediation pilots for SMEs, which involve training up a number of mediators from SMEs in the pilot.

Candid two-way communication

Until recently, communication in the workplace was a one-way affair: people did what they were told by their superiors and kept their thoughts and feelings to themselves. But over the last 30 years or so, the tide has turned. Candid, two-way communication is acknowledged as far more productive, satisfying and respectful to all concerned.

But the ability to engage in this kind of adult-to-adult conversation is not a given. It takes courage to speak out honestly to one’s superiors and it requires trust to abdicate one’s decision-making power to one’s ‘subordinates’. It requires deep self-awareness to express one’s emotions honestly without laying blame.

It is not just courage, trust and self-awareness that are required: it takes skill. To succeed in the organisations of tomorrow, we need to acquire a new and highly sophisticated set of communication skills.

Advanced communication skills

These skills cannot be picked up overnight. They need to be studied, practiced and grasped, in the mind, the heart and in the belly. This raises a question for the aspiring leader: what is the surest way to acquire the advanced communication skills that will mark me out for leadership?

One way is through mediation training. Mediation is a form of conflict management that is grounded in the principles of two-way communication. Its purpose is to give the disputing parties the opportunity to speak to one another openly and honestly irrespective of their level in the hierarchy and to take shared responsibility for the outcome. An impartial mediator facilitates the conversation, but under no circumstance will they make a judgement or give an opinion. The expression of emotion is entirely welcome, so long as both parties are comfortable with it.

Communication essentials for success

The role of mediator requires the kind of advanced communication skills that leaders of tomorrow will need. These skills include:

  • Listening: deep listening to what a person says, and reflecting back without attempting to colour what the speaker has said
  • Impartiality: suspending judgment in order to give people freedom to express themselves honestly and without fear of criticism
  • Delegation of decision-making power: fiercely resisting the urge to make suggestions or offer advice, thus encouraging the parties to take back responsibility for themselves
  • Dealing with emotions: acknowledging and exploring emotions, without a desire to ‘make it better’ or ‘make it go away’.

*Resolving Workplace Disputes – Government Response to Consultation, November 2011, p13.

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