Coaching and mediation can help solve conflicts at work
I once worked as mediator between two entrepreneurs who were setting up a creative business as partners. One partner was there to provide business direction and the other creative inspiration. Although they had known each other for years as friends, they were not prepared for the challenges and conflicts that arose when they tried to run a start-up together.
As entrepreneurs, the partners were battling against other companies in the field, the uncertainty of a start-up environment and their own lack of communication skills. Each challenge that they faced led to different views about the best solution. Without a clear way of making decisions or communicating with each other, their relationship deteriorated. The first casualty was communication. They stopped exchanging information and, when things started to get difficult, they called in the mediator.
I worked with them to facilitate their communication. A key part of the conflict was the change in their relationship from friends who were excited about a business opportunity to business partners. Helping them to understand that they needed to clarify the boundaries of this new relationship was crucial to resolving their issues.
The ADR Spectrum
Facilitation is one of a spectrum of processes used in conflict resolution that are known as alternative dispute resolution, or increasingly, appropriate dispute resolution. At one end of the ADR spectrum, are processes such as conflict coaching and mediation, in which the client has total control over the resolution that is reached, while at the other end, the power to resolve the dispute is given to a third party, through procedures such as arbitration and litigation. Each process has different benefits and drawbacks and the most important first step in resolving a dispute is to fit the process to the fight.
Although facilitation worked in this case, the partners could also have benefited from conflict coaching. This would have given them skills and options to deal better with the tensions that naturally arise when two people are trying to set up a business together.
In another case, I worked as a conflict coach with a senior education employee who had unwittingly created a series of feuds around him. He was convinced that his approach was correct and that the management above him and the staff below him were failing to see how he was making the right decisions. He felt that people were challenging him deliberately to make his life more difficult. The more isolated he became; the more he felt that he was doing the right thing.
In reality, his colleagues and managers were struggling to find ways of interacting with him. He always thought that his solution was the right one, and he was unable to communicate with his colleagues in a constructive manner. The frustrations on both sides were leading to conflict and inefficiencies. His colleagues tried to work around him, rather than with him. This made everyone less effective.
I worked with this senior educationalist as a conflict coach to help him gain insight into what was happening around him. We worked on understanding his colleagues’ reactions and how he could be better prepared to work with them constructively. Knowledge and skills empowered him to change his behaviour at work.
A solution could also have been reached through a mediation exercise involving representatives from the school. Although mediation usually results in a legally binding contract, it can also be used to record an informal arrangement. The mediation process allows all parties to share their perspectives, which facilitates understanding on all sides.
The key to resolving any dispute is an understanding of the context that has created the conditions for conflict. In an employment dispute, it is the relationship between the parties that needs to be put in context.
What are the needs of the business and the individuals involved? Is the dispute an internal one? Is there a long-standing relationship that could carry forward into the future? Is a formal legal outcome required? Asking such questions is a great start to fitting the process to the fight.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Coaching can help solve conflicts at work.