Conflict coaching can be vital for mediating disputes in the workplace, says HKIAC’s Jody Sin
Lam’s story started in the offices of Song Qi Toys, a successful company with global outlets. He was a middle-ranking merchandising manager with over 10 years of experience and he loved his job. Despite his unwavering commitment to his work, he had not been promoted since joining the company.
He found that his supervisors never took appraisals seriously and merely ran through procedures. Only people with support from other supervisors had prospects of promotion.
Lam was particularly aggrieved when a colleague that he considered incompetent was promoted to his pay grade. When a supervisor position became open, both Lam and this colleague were shortlisted by management. Unfortunately, Lam was not offered the position.
One day in the office, Lam saw that his colleague intended to take some toy samples home for her son. Lam thought that this should be reported. As such, he opened her desk drawer and took photos of the toys before handing them to the head of department.
Lam never considered that this attempt to undermine his colleague’s credibility would become a problem for him, but their boss condemned his actions as well as the new supervisor’s. Both were issued written warnings. Ironically, Lam’s actions received the same punishment as the person that he reported.
He was highly upset by the incident, and was later clinically diagnosed with several psychiatric conditions. Lam then went on long-term sick leave.
Although HR managers explained the reasons for the written warning, Lam did not accept it. He took his complaints to top management and the firm’s headquarters in Europe. He also laid complaints against Song Qi with a number of government departments. Before Lam took the matter to court, management proposed that they resolve the dispute using an independent mediator. Lam accepted the invitation.
In preparation for mediation, the mediator engaged Lam in conflict coaching.
What is conflict coaching?
Conflict coaching is a one-on-one process, in which a trained mediator assists people to gain the competence and confidence to handle interpersonal conflicts.
The coach began by identifying Lam’s goals for the mediation. Lam’s top priority was getting the written warning cancelled. Secondly, he wanted compensation for all medical expenses. He also wanted the company to improve their appraisal system.
The mediator then helped Lam deconstruct the case. Lam was able to identify the trigger for conflict in the incident. While the written warning was the trigger, Lam also felt that his identity as a loyal and honest employee was undermined, and that he was the victim in the incident.
The mediator then asked Lam to consider the company’s perspective, and managed to show him the error of his ways through careful inquiry. This part of the process was invaluable, as Lam was able to reflect on his contribution to the conflict, reduce his defensiveness and appreciate the company’s perspective.
The mediation session
In the mediation, the company emphasised the importance of disciplining illegal acts in the workplace to avoid setting a bad precedent. They also stood by their decision to promote Lam’s colleague.
Lam expressed his grievances and explained how his health was affected. He also expressed his dissatisfaction with the company’s performance appraisal system. The company acknowledged those perspectives and agreed to ensure improvement.
Key to the success of the mediation were the pre-mediation sessions with both parties — particularly Lam’s conflict coaching.
The parties finally reached a settlement, in which Lam could have his written warning cancelled after fulfilling certain performance milestones within 12 months of returning to work.
Lam did not wish to work under his colleague, and requested relocation to other divisions in the company. The company agreed, and Lam was compensated for his medical expenses. In return, Lam agreed to keep all settlement terms confidential and withdraw all complaints made to government departments and external bodies.
While this dispute was finally resolved through the mediation process, settlement would have been impossible had Lam not undergone conflict coaching. The coaching enabled him to develop empathy for management.
This example demonstrates the benefits of adopting conflict coaching during pre-mediation.
Hong Kong HR professionals can only benefit from knowing more about the conflict coaching process and adopting it as one of the methods for resolving disputes in the workplace.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Conflict coaching can be vital for mediation.