Whenever an attempt to reach a conclusion to a dispute that could not be solved locally involves informal or formal intervention by a third party, all parties involved should be able to recognize that they’ve entered into a new phase of their disagreement. A complete impasse may have been reached between the differing parties, and the consequences of not achieving a satisfactory outcome may have broadened to include the organization’s reputation and potential finan- cial penalty.
Managers, grievance investigators and other intermediaries involved in the earlier life of a dispute may no longer be on the centre stage, but the same inter- ests that they have for finding a resolution to the dispute will continue, if not inten-sified. At the same time, battle lines will have been drawn between the parties who are in disagreement.
Perceptions of their innocence or right to feel aggrieved may have become entrenched, although by this stage other factors are likely to be at play in influ- encing each party’s thinking. Overt game playing will be all the more likely now that the stakes for each party are higher; indeed, the will to ‘win’ may exceed a rounded sense of the current reality.
Disputes that arise with a lack of clarity on what is right or wrong may well perpetuate after a grievance process and subsequent appeal. Where such disputes progress to mediation, it’s possible that the party bringing the complaint will no longer be the originally aggrieved but the ‘accused’, such as an individual who has been disciplined but who believes that he or she has been wronged by the process and is now anxious to clear his or her name. In such cases, the organiza- tion rather than a particular individual may now have become the subject of complaint. Even if it’s believed that there is no prospect that the organization might be exposed to potential litigation over the matter, a duty of care remains for the individual who remains aggrieved. Indeed, in extreme cases, someone who feels falsely disciplined may succumb to mental ill-health. In any case, an individual’s motivation, physical health and psychological contract1 are likely to be adversely affected, and this cannot be satisfactory from a manager’s perspec- tive.
From an organization’s point of view, the stakes are now much higher for find- ing a resolution quickly, especially given the clear commitment of time and resource diverted to it in an attempt to achieve this end. Employees may be more relaxed about the time and cost of the process, but their quest for ‘justice’, recompense or clearing their name is likely to remain as steadfast as ever.
Given the potential for the dispute to escalate into the public domain, a wider range of stakeholders may now have an interest in the outcome of the DR proc- ess. These may include more senior managers than those who’ve been previ- ously aware of the disagreement, potentially involving board-level interest. Depending on the profile of the dispute, further interests may include those with responsibility for the organization’s public relations, press management and publicity, and commercial advisers. Trade union representatives, colleagues of the originator, and other supporters and advocates may also contribute their views, each offering the potential to influence the thinking of the main actors involved.
It now becomes critical to ensure that individuals’ objectives and expectations are clear, and that each person is committed to helping the process work. Engage- ment is now crucially important to get right: without a common will to move forward and a readiness not to obstruct a fair exchange of views, mediation is doomed to fail. At the same time, with the range of stakeholder interests now likely to be energized and the potentially complex and hidden motivations of the main players, any intermediary charged with the task of resolving the conflict must undertake a robust stakeholder analysis.
Achieving clarity of expectations may take time. Either party may be reluctant to participate in the process in spite of recognizing this as being a logical next step, whilst in some cases it may become apparent that it’s wise for them not to do so. We should turn our attention to understanding what stakeholder perspec- tives are and to the crucial task of engagement.
Copyright material (c) Clive Johnson and Jackie Keddy 2010. Excerpted from “Managing Conflict at Work: Understanding and Resolving Conflict for Productive Working Relationships”, published by Kogan Page $39.95. Reproduced here with permission.
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