Can a breakdown in working relationships be salvaged? How mediation can be an effective first line of defence
In an ideal world, we would all easily cultivate and successfully maintain good professional relationships in the workplace, be it with co-workers, superiors or subordinates. Organizations would undoubtedly be highly productive entities with exemplary employees who were all harmonious, cooperative and collaborative with each other.
However, in reality workplace conflicts do and will arise and they cannot be ignored or discreetly tucked away somewhere in our naturally imperfect and human workplace. As difficult and “unlikeable” a task as dealing with a conflict may be, most managers will encounter this challenge at some point in their careers. Ignoring the issue can exacerbate the strained working relationship and at the risk of snowballing the conflict into a potentially resource-draining litigious claim, early intervention is highly recommended.
Paula Bruce, a Senior Workplace Relations Advisor at iHR Australia, was recently quoted in an article that advocated HR to step in early and address workplace conflicts before a working relationship gets beyond the point of salvaging.
A workplace dispute resolutions expert, Bruce says fight or flight are natural default behaviours in pressure situations. “These are reactive responses and conflict is then likely to escalate and spread to the broader team. Attitudes, emotions, values and behaviour spread through groups like wildfire. Facts have little strength in such a climate,” she says.
What can HR do to help?
Specifically, Bruce poses the question succinctly as “How can HR, as workplace resolvers, as professionals, help parties examine their own default responses, support them in conflict resolution and also lead by example?”
The article suggests that HR needs to step in as the ‘voice of reason’ – to put forth as an organisational requirement that both parties need to focus on finding a resolution to their issues; making them aware that refusal to do so may lead to more formal discussions.
“In mediation, the parties are in control. With the expertise and support of trained mediators, parties can reach agreements together that will enable them to transform their work relationship”, says Bruce.
In this instance, mediation is often an effective means to seek resolution of a tense or difficult workplace situation. It is often effective as the first line of defence to mending a workplace conflict before things get out of hand. In a workplace mediation, a trained, neutral mediator works with the conflicting parties to try to find a solution that is acceptable to both sides. Even though this can be frustrating, the parties to a dispute know that they will be heard and may be more willing to work through the conflict knowing that they will not be forced to accept an outcome with which they are not happy. The primary aim of a workplace mediation is to restore the employment relationship wherever possible, by working together to move forward past the conflict; not determine who was right or wrong in the past.
Bruce, who co-authored the research paper from 2010 “Challenges to mediation in Australian Workplaces” with Peter O’ Brien, identified through a study of 40 workplace disputes in NSW that beyond mediation, an effective workplace dispute resolution response also needs to include a variety of broader approaches to resolve workplace conflicts. According to Bruce, a broader approach would involve a conflict management system offering primary, secondary or tertiary interventions such as coaching, team reviews, skills for conflict competence and investigations.
“The more an individual develops awareness and applies skill as a primary response, the less likely secondary and tertiary interventions such as facilitation, mediation, investigation and compensation may be necessary,” says Bruce.
With qualifications in law, psychology, mediation and management, Bruce has worked extensively with commonwealth, state and local government, public and private hospitals, aged care providers and organizations such as airlines and hotel groups. Her past experience includes the development, management and delivery of a national workplace dispute resolution service for a large Employment Assistance Program (EAP). As an investigator, mediator, researcher, coach and trainer, Bruce also delivers training on Bullying and Harassment, Resilience, Mediation and models of collaborative issue resolution for teams, managers and HR personnel.