We were recently directed to an article by Lisa Dunbar by New Directions Consulting (Vermont and New York) entitled “Conflict Management – the Manager as Mediator”. It holds an important message for any organization that emphasizes the benefit of team building. What we like is the discussion on the need for our managers to recognize their potential role in conflict resolution. We’ve dealt with several organizations that have experienced inter-departmental conflict that was allowed to grow simply because the manager sent all complaints to HR.
How does a department get to this point – where managers know when to step into their role as mediator? The article points out three areas of potential:
- First and probably most typical, is any informal problem solving or group/team discussion where conflict surfaces
- Customer interaction where the customer is upset (internal or external)
- Staff member to staff member conflict where they are unable to reach resolution themselves
We would like to add one more area: conflicts involving employee and manager. At first it would seem counterintuitive. Mediators, the role held by managers, by definition must be unbiased. It seems a stretch to expect this from a manager who has been drawn in to a conflict situation. However, we see the manager’s role easily moving to one as mediator/facilitator in these types of situations.
Allow us a brief example. Manager A is dealing with a belligerent employee that has taken the opportunity at reviews to complain about how he/she is being treated in respect to other employees (requested time off, work load, advancement opportunities). Does the manager have the skills to remain neutral in this situation? Probably not, but the manager certainly would have the ability to facilitate communication that is open and on track.
By having a structured process in place, managers do have the tools to identify and deal with conflict before they reach the critical stage. Dunbar’s article identifies the need for a clear process to guide managers. Elements include: preparation, examine all points of view, uncover what is really important to employee as well as manager, brainstorm / search for options and finally commitment by both manager and employee to a plan that includes follow-up.
Not all managers have the talents necessary to objectively look at both sides and treat the complaining partner with respect. But, our suggestion is that all managers, regardless of personality or attitude would benefit by structural training.
The important message is that managers need to be given tools through training and staff development to function in a mediator role. Have a structure in place that includes training and reinforcement. The stakes for business efficiency are too high to be held ransom to conflict gone unchecked.