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mediation: an improved approach to conflict management

By Shari Barnes

Larry won't speak to Trish because she takes credit for his ideas. Helen and Claire compete for office space. Clay monopolizes the word processing clerks, leaving Robert to fend for himself. Lindsey nurses a grudge because the boss promoted Sara. The Help Wanted sign at McDonald's looks inviting. Or you might try mediation.

Progressive companies use mediation to avoid wrongful termination lawsuits, employment discrimination cases and hours spent with attorneys in deposition. Federal legislation encourages various forms of alternative dispute resolution, and mediation has proven the most successful of these methods. Savvy managers use mediation technique to solve employee relations issues before they reach the I quit or You're fired stage. Why wait until battle lines are drawn and the dueling pistols come out?

Acknowledge your biases and put them aside... don't bring your own baggage into mediation.

You sympathize with Larry. He's a single father raising twin daughters by himself. Your mother raised four children under similar circumstances, and you know it's tough. Trish is manipulative and opportunistic, and she's not your favorite employee. OK, now you've confessed those feelings. Put them aside. They have no place in mediation

Step out of the boss/supervisor/manager role.

Helen and Claire are masters of the "my office is bigger than yours" game. A department without walls doesn't make territorial issues go away. Borders change when one employee is off on vacation, and it appears that Helen even grabs space when Claire's at lunch. You wish they'd use this creative ingenuity for work-related projects.

Resist the authority trip. A mediator doesn't function as parent, counselor, judge, arbitrator, or manager. Helen and Claire won't talk, brainstorm or negotiate if you assume a power position in mediation.

Try to balance power between participants

Clay and Robert both receive assistance from the word processing pool. Clay is classified above Robert, and he uses the informal pecking order to commandeer a disproportionate share of secretarial help.

Tim Hicks understands the realities of authority and status issues. "Dealing with power balance in mediation is not requires practice," says the Sepastopol, California owner of CONNEXUS Conflict Management. Hicks recommends a four-part system to equalize hierarchy problems. (1) Acknowledge the imbalance. (2) Create agreements about what it means and what it doesn't mean. (3) How do the parties see the significance of the different roles? (4) Accept that you can't get rid of power issues altogether.

Remember that your opinion isn't the issue.

Sara was promoted six months ago, and Lindsey can't let go of it. You feel the decision was appropriate and Lindsey should stop pouting. Frankly, you're tired of her attitude and would be happy if she quit.

Mediators can't help forming opinions, but they should resist stating them. You may want to say, "Lindsey, it's obvious Sara got the promotion because she's a team player with excellent performance reviews. You didn't even get a merit raise because your absenteeism is excessive and you can't get along with your team members." These observations are not appropriate to your role. As the mediation discussion progresses, Sara will probably figure this out for herself. If not, Lindsey will tell her.

Empower the adversaries

Larry and Trish need to understand they have the ability to work out their own problems. You can facilitate the process, but you're not in a position to advocate for either or both of them.

Tim Griffin, Northern Illinois University Ombudsman, helps people feel comfortable with problem resolution by enabling them from the beginning. "Validation is the threshold of empowerment," says Griffin. "When I affirm their concerns, it gives them power."

Griffin also believes that information is essential. "I tell them about the policies, procedures and laws that apply to their situation so they know what internal and external tools and avenues they have."

Refrain from imposing solutions on the disputants.

It's clear to you that Helen and Claire could take down half their book cases if they'd share resources. Or you could play heavy-handed boss and tell them they each get a 10 x 10 space and aren't allowed to expand an inch. Be patient. The chances for lasting resolution increase when employees are encouraged to figure it out themselves.

Don't allow Helen and Claire to ambush you into the judge or parent role. Managers have the right to demand resolution to employee disputes, and occasionally you're required to make discretionary decisions for the organization's benefit. Before you taken an arbitrary action, try's superior to management by edict.

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Sharon (Shari) Eurich Barnes is Director of Employee Relations for Texas Christian University. Complementing her human resource career, Ms. Barnes writes for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Working Mother, Women as Managers and Management Review. She also conducts private and court-ordered mediations.

In addition to hosting Books in Review on cable television, Ms. Barnes speaks on employment issues for professional associations and conferences.

Ms. Barnes received her Bachelor's degree from California Baptist University and Master's degree from Texas Christian University. Among other affiliations, she is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, American Society for Training and Development, American Association of University Women, Fort Worth Human Resource Association Board of Directors (past), College and University Personnel Association, Fort Worth Mayor's Committee for Disabled Persons, and Tarrant County Association of Mediators Board of Directors. Ms. Barnes has also been named to Who's Who Among American Women.

Comments and questions about this article: Shari Barnes.

The opinions expressed in articles by this author do not necessarily represent the opinions of MindData. These articles are provided as a means of informing you of current events and opinions that impact employers and the workplace.

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