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Trouble at the Top – why C-suite don’t use mediation

settlement agreements

The C-suite, the Board, senior management – call it what you will, those at the top of an organisation as a prone to conflict as the rest of us.  But even more than the staff base, senior management are reluctant to use mediation.

The 4 main reasons the C-suite avoid mediation

  1. They are experts at hiding their feelings, particularly feelings of vulnerability, stress or anxiety. So they go on enduring a negative conflict for a very long time indeed.
  2. Being those who have reached the top, they are more likely to be alpha-people, convinced of their own rightness and infallibility, confident in themselves and their views and reactions to others. The idea that they might find mediation useful smacks of being inadequate, and is shaming.
  3. They are unlikely to turn to others for support and advice – others who might see their situation objectively and suggest mediation.
  4. C-suite executives believe they don’t have time to mediate. Taking a whole day out of their week seems completely out of the question.

Yet conflict in the Board room is extremely damaging when it turns negative. Robust, open challenge, and diverse views, are positive, creative and extremely valuable. Most of the time, in most board rooms, this is what they experience. But when conflict escalates to a fight, when people feel their sense of self is under threat, and when factions emerge not only in the board room but right down the organisation as managers and staff line up behind ‘their’ senior manager, the entire organisation is in real trouble. Because when bad, or no, decisions are made, this can have a catastrophic impact on the direction of the organisation longer term, with a loss in shareholder value, staff engagement, or client satisfaction.

How to engage senior management as parties to mediation

My first tip is simple – don’t call it mediation! Mediation is what the ‘little people’ do; what the C-suite does is have a ‘facilitated meeting’ or a ‘three-way coaching session’. Equally, don’t expect to run a traditional ‘mediation’ with individual meetings followed by a joint meeting, on the same day. Be prepared for a resolution process that is slower and has more stages along the way – with two or three shorter one-to-one sessions, before a joint meeting which will often extend for longer than a working day, when it finally does take place. The C-suite cases I’ve worked on have invariably lasted way beyond 17.00 as when they finally do get talking, these are parties who are sensible enough to want to use the opportunity to iron out every difference. Often you will find yourself sitting by as they agree new strategy and vision – the conflict long since resolved and replaced by creative, decisive dialogue.

Another piece of advice to get the senior manager to the mediation table is to appeal to their sense of competence, rather than failure. So for example, rather than saying ‘clearly we are unable to agree on X, I suggest we bring in a mediator to help us’, you say ‘we’ve both put a great deal of energy and hard work into working on our differences, would now be the right time to bring in a facilitator to help agree the details?’.

These are ‘alpha’ people who will consider the situation of conflict they find themselves in, a uniquely challenging and complex, so you absolutely need to ensure that the mediator has the visible trappings of experience and gravitas. No senior manager in my experience will be open and honest with someone who they think isn’t their peer, albeit in a different sphere.