Mediation skills can work magic on professional conflicts in academia, says HKIAC’s Leung Hing-fung
A number of years ago, two professors working in the same department at a university came into conflict. They accused each other of working only for their own benefit without contributing to the department.
One of them was a prolific academic writer, and always locked himself up in the office to work on publishing papers. Let’s call him Prof X. The other was involved in international exchange activities, and therefore rarely in Hong Kong — let’s call him Prof Y. The former had a strong publication record, while the latter was good at networking, academically and politically, and had a prominent international profile.
During departmental research assessment sessions, Prof X would confront Prof Y about his poor research output, which he considered a burden for the department.
But, when it came to welcoming international visitors or receiving accreditation from professional bodies, Prof Y was called up as a departmental representative.
Over time, their grudge escalated and one of their arguments was stopped on the verge of a fight. The head of department — we’ll call him Prof Z — intervened.
Instead of calling both professors in for a meeting, Prof Z separated them and met with them individually. Prof Z knew that, at that time, neither professor was willing to enter a dialogue.
Prof Z also knew that Prof X was more impulsive, and so he met with Prof X first. A few days later, he met with Prof Y.
Both professors had a lot of grievances to air and Prof Z spent the first part of the meetings as an active listener.
He found that both professors felt they had not been treated fairly, as both viewed the other as being too focused on a specific area and incapable in other areas. Both felt that the other should have a higher teaching load.
After listening to all grievances, Prof Z explained the departmental policies relevant to all members of staff, including: the requirements of research funding bodies, the accreditation requirements of professional bodies, the requests for exchange activities from all over the world, and the teaching load required of all staff.
He explained that, in fact, the teaching loads of the two professors were almost equal.
In the meetings, Prof Z did not attempt to convince either professor of the other’s importance, strengths, or value in the department. Nor did he pass any judgment on the issues between the two professors. When leaving the meeting room, neither professor said anything to Prof Z.
Thereafter, there was no further conflict between the two professors. The disagreement between them was completely resolved as a result of their better understanding of the departmental situation, their knowledge that they were both of value to the department, and Prof Z’s explanation that they had not been unfairly treated.
Prof Z made good use of his mediation skills, using active listening skills to identify the needs and concerns of the two professors. He referred only to factual information during the mediation, rather than expressing any personal views, and used this information to reassure the professors of their position.
A senior in Prof Z’s position without education or training in facilitative mediation may have attempted to persuade the two professors to accept the other’s value and position, and the dispute would likely not be resolved.
It should be noted that, in a workplace conflict such as this, there is no expectation that any settlement agreement will be reached. Instead, communication via an appropriate channel of relevant information is most important. The third party called into assist, in this case Prof Z, should ideally be a person that is respected and trusted by the disputing parties.
Mediation has become increasingly popular in Hong Kong as a means to settle disputes without resorting to litigation, especially since Practice Direction 31 came into force in 2010. This legal reform requires courts to encourage parties to use an alternative dispute resolution procedure where appropriate. However, mediation is also a valuable method in its own right for resolving conflicts, particularly those that take place at work.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Mediation works wonders on academic feuds.