Originally published in the ACResolutions Journal, December 2018.
1) Opportunities to mediate in the workplace are sky-rocketing!
The career opportunities for mediators have changed. While it is still difficult to find a job as a mediator, opportunities have expanded in a variety of areas. Once one expands the definition of mediator, it is mind-boggling how many opportunities there are in the workplace for someone with mediator skills. In order to understand where opportunities are now, and what skills are needed to be a workplace mediator, let us take a look at how we got here.
1900s: The leading approach to workplace disputes was Scientific Management. Workplaces were factories and assembly lines, where workers needed to be a cog in a machine. The motto for dispute resolution? “ You ain’t got no problem except for the one I tell you you got.” Employees were ROBOTS (with no needs).
1920s: Thanks to the Hawthorne Experiments, managers realized that employees performed better when they were paid attention to. This began a period of Idealized Bureaucracy, where workplaces were still bureaucratic factories, but beginning to have an idealized understanding of human needs. This began with the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Employees were HUMANS (with basic needs).
1950s: This began an era of Early Human Resources. The predominant approach to resolving disputes was that employees were not just paid attention to, but actually listened to. Human Resource departments began to create employee groups that could develop their own policies and be involved in the company. Employees had a say in how problems were solved. Employees were ASSETS that like to be listened to (have needs and care about the company).
1970s: The HR movement continued to develop into a time of Human Resource Policies. Now employees were not just listened to, but also protected. Vastly different from the Scientific Management era of the 1900s, employees felt safe to complain. The 1970s began with many protections for employees, such as hour, child, and migrant protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act, OSHA (1970), Retirement Act (ERISA 1974), the Whistleblower Protection Act (1989), the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), and FMLA (1993) allowing them to voice their concerns and identify areas of improvement. Employees KNOW what is wrong and they have ideas about how to fix it. (self-interests are satisfied, employees are protected to address disputes).
2000s to now: There have been many approaches to resolving disputes in the last few decades, but one of the most prevailing theories is Systems Theory. The last 100 years asked what was wrong, how can it be improved, there are protections for saying what was wrong; it is logical that now people are beginning to point out what was wrong and expecting to be able to fix it. Issues and disputes are being addressed throughout organizations, leading to the concept that organizations are complex systems. There might not be one person at fault, but a systemic issue or policy that needs to be improved. Systems Theory also means that there are multiple ways to resolve a dispute. Disputes might be resolved through HR, as in the last 50 years, or they might be resolved through employee negotiation, third-party mediation, or employee-led changes. As employees became more empowered, they also became more self-sufficient. This led to an assumption that each individual has the power to resolve a dispute, with the potential for employees to become less dependent on each other for resolving disputes. Employees are part of a large SYSTEM (their self-interest is satisfied, their need to belong and change is satisfied, they are ready to accomplish change).
2) What can mediators do to prepare themselves for this work?
Understanding the history of workplace DR processes, helps us to understand what disputes are common in the workplace today. The three most common disputes are:
• Poor communication,
• lack of clarity, and
• working in groups.
Communication: Many employees are becoming more isolated in their responsibilities, as they sit in front of a computer for the majority of their interaction. Employees still have the same agathokakological needs (meaning they are comprised of both self-interest and a need to help others). Employees need to have both their self needs and their extrinsic needs met to be satisfied in the workplace. Their self-interest is protected through the last 100 years of workplace culture change and legislation: fair pay, fair hours, safe workplace, right to assemble, and a guaranteed retirement. The need to help, or extrinsic interests, could be satisfied previously by engaging in the workplace, bringing constructive change to the company. This need is being satisfied more and more now through social media. Liking a friend’s post on Facebook or giving $5 to a GoFundMe charity brings the same feeling of satisfaction (instantaneously, just in a smaller amount and for a shorter time) as volunteering at a local charity. This means that employees feel less of a drive to contribute to their organization or be a part of a team, since their extrinsic charitable desires are satisfied through social media. This extreme self-reliance and individualism has led to a decrease in normal social communication and the ability to engage in interactive, collaborative problem-solving. Unfortunately, this poor communication is often misinterpreted as mean communication, which can inadvertently lead to disputes.
Clarity: Another byproduct of increasingly complex systems is that employees are expected to be aware of many parts of the company. To accomplish a project, an employee might need to work with R&D, IT, be familiar with multiple software programs, and be in touch with vendors and the sales team. Employees throughout the country are reporting that they are expected to know more and do more in the same amount of time. These changing responsibilities are still being defined, which leads to ill-defined roles and responsibilities. This often results in task overlap or tasks overlooked. Another possible cause of the lack of clarity is that managers are often placed in their position based on their task skill (“he is the best programmer so he manages the programming team”), instead of their leadership skills. This lack of leadership and ability to make tough decisions can result in office confusion.
Groups: A final byproduct of employees being self-sufficient is difficulty in working in groups. Many employees report that they could do the job faster and better on their own, so why are they forced to work in groups? Similar to the first dispute, since many employees are often isolated, they have lost many of the skills required to work effectively in groups. They are comfortable with short periods of social chit-chat, but are less comfortable with long periods of negotiation and problem-solving.
This chart summarizes the main cause of disputes reported by organizations in a 2013 survey conducted by Fowler Mediation.
How can a mediator prepare him/herself to have a successful career in resolving these disputes?
The majority of disputes faced by employees stem from poor communication, lack of clarity, and lack of group skills. So how can a workplace mediator prepare him/herself to help employees with these issues?
1) Communication: The best way to prepare to mediate in the workplace is to spend time in a variety of different workplaces. Coffee shops, temp agencies, roof installers, and computer assembly lines all have one thing in common: they all have to talk to their team. Every workplace has a different approach for addressing disputes and watching these with intentionality will allow the blooming mediator to observe what works well. Create your own list, which you can post on your website or list in a marketing/training/facilitation deliverables brochure. A few examples to get you started:
a. Create an office “garbage-can,” an acceptable place or method for discussing concerns
b. Have management set an example of healthy communication: Criticize privately and praise publicly. When an issue is raised, bring in those involved to discuss it together. Set clear times when items can be discussed and when management needs to be uninterrupted and encourage employees to follow the same pattern. When items are being discussed, push aside distractions and focus on the listener. Set a clear follow-up plan, and make sure to follow through.
c. Have employees develop their own job descriptions/role definitions/task clarifications, communication policies, and meeting standards that encourage open discussion.
d. Address disputes immediately.
e. Don’t allow gossip.
f. But really, don’t allow gossip.
g. To reinforce the no-gossip rule, develop office prizes for employees who spread kindness and squash negativity. It feels odd at first, but employees often come to appreciate the slow changes they feel in an office environment.
2) Clarity: For those mediators that work with HR departments, encourage a yearly review where employees draft their job descriptions. Ask employees to meet with each other to review any overlap or areas that need more attention. Then submit these descriptions to HR and management for review and clarification.
Another approach for defining roles is to ask employees, especially in the first year or at the beginning of any new project, to send an email to their manager summarizing their role expectations, and cc’ing others involved. “Dear manager, just to review, for the ABC project, I will be contacting XYZ to get the vendor proposals, and then handing the proposal to the sales team, right?” This of course takes more time initially, but saves so much time in the long run.
3) Groups: There is increasing pressure on groups: get more work done, share more information, get along better, with less time. Mediators that work with organizations can help in this process by facilitating meetings, then eventually conducting trainings so that employees can effectively facilitate their own meetings. Basic facilitation guidelines:
a. Draft a basic meeting agenda including Who needs to be there and what is expected of them, When the meeting will start and finish, What are the action items from previous meetings to be addressed and what are the new items, and How will these items be reviewed/followed-up on.
b. Save this as a basic agenda template that can be updated before each meeting.
c. Distribute the agenda at least one week before the meeting.
d. Before the meeting, identify a note-taker.
e. At the beginning of the meeting, spend a few minutes having fun. Maybe a silly ice-breaker, maybe take turns bringing snacks, have a monthly auction or trivia session. Five minutes of relationship-building at the beginning of the meeting is worth the time for smoother negotiations during the next hour. This is imperative so that people feel comfortable expressing dissenting ideas, and willing to accept new ideas. Activities that are enjoyed will be repeated, so take a few minutes to make meetings enjoyable.
f. During the meeting, facilitate by making notes and soliciting feedback from everyone in the room. Review previous action items, identify new items and who will be responsible for them by what date.
g. Normalize disagreements. Continue to congratulate employees on voicing new ideas, listening to new ideas, and point out how many ideas would not have been discovered if the group had not come together.
h. As conflicts arise, point out the opportunity when there are multiple values at play. What is a solution that can incorporate more values, thereby improving the product, increasing the quality, or appealing to a wider audience?
i. The facilitator should be focused on gathering information, not inputting information. Aka during the meeting “Put your self on the shelf.”
j. After the meeting, ask the note taker to send a follow-up of what was discussed and what are the next steps.
k. Get in the habit of quick meetings—for instance a weekly update 30-minute meeting, with perhaps a longer monthly 60-minute planning meeting.
If you would like to begin working as a facilitator, create a few sample meeting agendas with facilitation guidelines and post these on your website. Then let companies in the area know that you are working on your skills as a facilitator and you can help make their meetings more effective. Larger organizations, courthouses, religious groups, community-service groups, government offices, and non-profits are all examples of offices that have hired external facilitators. Working as a facilitator is a great way for offices to get to know you and for you to get to know them. Familiarizing yourself with their culture and common disputes often makes you an obvious choice to mediate future disputes. As you advance your skills as a facilitator, consider becoming a trainer and passing on those skills. Ideally, train someone in every department as a facilitator. Then they can either be the facilitator for their department, or they can be loaned out to facilitate meetings for other departments.
3) What can you do today for a successful commercial or employment career?
1) How can you help offices improve their Communication:
a. Mediate, mediate, mediate! Every opportunity you have—family, community, non-profit—mediate! Learn how people communicate, when they become defensive, how to move past impasse, and how to encourage creative-solving.
b. Study offices that are known for effective communication policies. Many larger organizations such as HP, Microsoft, and Google have had the time and the staff to study what works well. Learn from them! Most of them have employee handbooks or standards publicly available on an about us page. Review them and create your own guidebook of suggested standards. Perhaps even place an excerpt of this on your website to demonstrate to employees what you can offer. Remember though when working with offices to improve policies do not promise something that you cannot deliver. You can develop an agreement where you agree or employees agree to suggest new policies to HR or management, but do not promise to enact a new policy unless the decision-makers are in the room.
c. There is also some amazing technology for improving communication. Spend time studying the latest platforms for videoconferencing (zoom, Duo, Facetime, hangouts, etc.). This will allow you to suggest the correct platform for your clients, and also to meet with them online yourself when it is convenient. Also look into instant messaging applications—these are crucial for traveling, work-from-home and shared time employees to stay in touch. There are also a variety of shared task and document builder softwares that are free and easy. Make yourself an information resource for your employees, and be familiar with at least three different current options for their communication needs. Present the benefits of each to help them decide.
2) To help offices improve clarity:
a. Work in HR departments and study online manuals to understand typical office set-up
b. Before going into a mediation, find out the title of who you are going to be working with. Search similar job titles so that you can find out a standard job description, and use this as an objective standard when helpful.
c. If there is a union available, ask to meet with the union steward or representative. They often know the expectations of each role better than the employees, and they can be a great resource to help bring clarity to disgruntled offices.
3) In order to help offices Work in Groups
a. Facilitate whenever possible. Family meetings, community discussions, volunteer projects all benefit from facilitators—so volunteer your skills! This will help you immensely when you are hired to facilitate your own meetings.
b. Develop a set of standards from your volunteer experience: Everyone speaks. Only one person speaks at a time. After someone speaks, let another person summarize what was said. Once you develop a set of skills that you find to be effective, post these on your website and explain these guidelines in your marketing package.
c. Become trained as a coach. There might be an outlier in a group that is disrupting the harmony of a well-intentioned group. A few hours of intentional coaching with this employee often helps to get the group back on track. The goal of this coaching session should be finding out what the employee is hoping to get out of these meetings, and then helping them develop the skills to get there.
4) Where to get opportunities
One of the results of Systemic Dispute Resolution is that there is a complex system of options. Become familiar with the benefits of each of these options, volunteer, intern, or even get a part-time job in these areas when possible: Ombuds, Coaching, court assistant, culture and climate assessor, consultant, facilitator, grievance reporter/researcher, and employee relations.
5) “Why would I hire a workplace mediator?”
At the recent ACR conference, a panel tackled the question of what they will be looking for in a mediator over the next 20 years. This list could translate well into skills you can develop or deliverables you can work toward with a group:
• Identify what’s happening in a protracted departmental or employee conflict
• Name existing trends, suggest options to address those trends
• Meet with stakeholders (faculty, HR) to acknowledge concerns
• Identify root issue, diagnose and address with management
• Develop action items and check-ins to promote accountability for individual and organization representative
• Skills training to prevent conflict
• Skills assessments to put the right employee in the right job and identify who could be trained as a staff facilitator
• Provide mediation agreement follow-ups, schedule check-ins at 4 weeks and 8 weeks
• Able to work with a “hotel” culture, mobile/ODR, familiarity with Zoom
• Work with individuals who do not enjoy working in groups/confident with shuttle diplomacy
• Create a checklist for employee involvement
• Able to provide multiple ADR options or find other people you can refer them to
Dispute resolution options are becoming increasingly complex. Employees are becoming increasingly empowered, while work is becoming increasingly isolated. To help employees deal with current disputes, prepare yourself by volunteering at many different types of organizations, familiarize yourself with technologies to help employees connect, develop your own marketing package (facilitation template, training package, coaching goals, meeting guidelines, communication standards, sample mediated agreement, employee handbook, and effective communication policies) and place excerpts from it on your website or send this to prospective employers. To be effective in an increasingly complex and empowered workforce, prepare yourself by developing an increasing set of skills and empowering your clients with communication, clarification, and group skills.
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