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3 limitations to workplace mediation

Most employers see the damage that conflict does to productivity and recognise the value of mediation. Yet far more people and organisations are in favour of mediation than use it. Mediation is underutilised not because of any shortage of mediators but because of a shortage of cases. If you want to get the most out of mediation you need to embed conflict-positive skills in your employees as these skills are essential to providing the talent retention and employee engagement required to raise productivity.

There are three areas where organisations can unwittingly create limits to the success of  mediation: structural, case-specific, and perception.

 1          Structural limitations of mediation

  • Workplace mediation can be positioned too narrowly. Staff from HR or OD are trained to mediate but are not seen as impartial.
  • Different departments to react to conflict and disputes independently and inconsistently. Disputes involving people employed in different professions or sections can be covered by different procedures, and make cross-departmental disputes particularly difficult to resolve
  • A lack of cultural fit and little visible support from senior management mean that mediation is too often just another ‘initiative’ or ‘flavour of the month’,  started but not carried through.
  • The expertise to manage and resolve conflict remains inaccessible to others in the workplace who need it – staff, managers, change experts, diversity and equality staff.
  • People with a conflict at work find formal processes, the rights of complainants and the right to pursue a grievance, are given precedence and visibility. The very document they turn to will be named a ‘Grievance Procedure’ not a ‘Resolution Procedure’.
  • Being a trained mediator is CV enhancing but without a clear contract of expectations, employees trained to mediate feel unable to go on to mediate because of work pressures or unclear operational processes. A survey CMP carried out in 2010 showed that 25 per cent of in-house mediators had left their job within a year of training.

2          Case specific limitations

Mediation has not achieved its potential because, although the model works once parties are in the room together, it simply is not being ‘bought’ by parties.

  • People understand what mediation is but do not see that that it offers them anything of value.
  • Senior parties fear losing face and do not entirely trust the confidentiality of the mediation process.
  • People who feel hurt, unfairly attacked or victimised do not want to give up their angry or outraged feelings. Many people prefer to hand their dispute to someone else to process, and shy away from engaging in direct dialogue.
  • People want advice, recommendations and evaluations for their conflict.  They want people to help persuade others that they are right, they want vindication of their actions and positions; or they want emotional support. So the message from mediation – that it does not offer advice, support, an opinion or tell people who is right or wrong – is simply not what a party in a dispute finds attractive.

 3          Perceptual limitations

People see mediation as time consuming, compromising and ineffective, and the window for mediation is made too narrow.

  • Mediation is often called a tool to “nip conflict in the bud” but too soon in a dispute and people think mediation is too ‘big’ and complex a process. If Bill and Ben are not getting on, surely they will sort it out themselves, and mediation is not offered. Bill and Ben are left alone to sort it out, and the conflict escalates sufficiently to get an offer of mediation. By this time, Bill is off with stress and Ben has alienated the entire team.
  • Alternatively Bill lodges a bullying complaint under the Grievance procedure, and because there is a formal complaint mediation is not offered.  Even though both parties are by now sick of the fighting and psychologically ready to build bridges, that option isn’t given to them.
  • Managers may not have the ability to spot conflicts that would benefit from mediation, or lack the tools to encourage their staff to engage.
  • Many managers try to mediate conflicts, only to have their efforts backfire and worsen the situation as they go in with limited tools, techniques and understanding.
  • Parties who do go on to be referred to professional mediators will understandably say that they have ‘already given it a go’ and that mediation did not work.

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