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How self-mediation resolved an office conflict

Published on Saturday, 12 Jul 2014
Cindy Fong
Brian Ng

The background
Most people spend at least a third of their lives in the workplace. Whether we like it or not, we have to return to the same place every day and communicate with the same people while trying to get our work done. Sometimes, dealing with colleagues can be a serious headache. Interpersonal relationships that go wrong at work can be disruptive and even lead to a loss of business. 

When faced with a conflict, you fight for your right, ignore the problem, or simply go to HR department to complain. You will feel very exhausted to handle these conflicts. But have you ever thought of an alternative way of dealing with workplace disputes gracefully?

The case
Samantha was a junior event planner at an event management and PR firm. Young and talented, she had handled nearly 20 events since in the nine months since she joined and was one of the most popular newcomers in the industry. 

A new administrative manager, Mavis, later came on board. Mavis used to work as a personal secretary in a private company, serving its human resources director who managed a team of eight staff. Mavis acted relatively low-key and didn’t say much in the office. Nobody in the company, except Samantha, knew that Mavis was a close friend of her boss. 

Mavis’s first assignment was to lead the team at an international conference to be held three months later. As project manager, she was responsible for planning the whole event and assigning the various tasks. 

In the first meeting, Mavis did not discuss the project much before assigning tasks to the team members. Samantha was given some simple, yet tedious, clerical work to do. She wasn’t happy with the arrangement, but hoped she’d be able to take up a more important role later.

As the project proceeded, nothing much changed for Samantha and she was assigned more clerical work. She considered herself very good at communicating with vendors, but Mavis assigned Mandy, a fresh graduate who was on board for one month, to handle all the communication work.

During project meetings, Samantha tried to raise some ideas, but was stopped by Mavis. She felt disrespected and frustrated. Worse still, she heard Mavis had been complaining about her behind her back. Samantha, a rising star before Mavis joined, was suddenly seen as an underperformer. 

She thought about quitting, but loved her job too much. She decided to try self-mediation, which she had learnt about in a seminar. She invited Mavis to a private meeting and persuaded her to agree to some ground rules.

First, the meeting would not be about finding fault. Both parties would focus on finding a mutually acceptable resolution. Second, there would be no power plays, such as raised voices, aggressive body language or emotional outbursts. Power plays will further damage relationships and hurt feelings. 

Third, there would be no leaving the meeting until it was over. Walking away would leave the conflict unresolved and issues unaddressed. The meeting would be conducted respectfully and with an open mind. Any arguing or finger-pointing would break the atmosphere and not facilitate a solution.

At the meeting, Samantha started to share how she felt about her assigned roles, but Mavis interjected to complain about her poor performance and uncooperative attitude, accusing her of challenging her decisions in front of other team members. 

Samantha nearly broke into tears, but took a deep breath and reminded Mavis of the ground rules. Whenever possible, she would acknowledge Mavis’s point of view in a positive manner and thank her for her contribution. The discussion continued more smoothly. 

Knowing Mavis was new to the company, Samantha shared her experience in previous projects. Mavis accepted her suggestions and agreed to assign her tasks that fitted her skill set. 

The Conclusion
Increasingly highly competitive work environments are leading to increased conflicts between colleagues. Failing to address these can have serious consequences, including poor employee attitudes, low morale, low productivity and excessive turnover. 
Samantha and Mavis used self-mediation to resolve their problem. They not only succeeded, but strengthened cooperation among the team, and improved their friendship. 
Samantha and Mavis decided to use self-mediation to resolve any future disputes. How about you?


Cindy Fong and Brian Ng are members of the General Mediation Interest Group under the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre’s Hong Kong Mediation Council

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