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Going Beyond ADR: A Federal Sector Mission- and Work Life- Centered Approach to Building Collaboration and Democratic Values on the Job

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION. This article was published in Alternatives, Vol. 23, No. 9 (October 2005). Copyright © 2005 by the CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution, 575 Lexington Avenue, 21st floor, New York, New York 10022-3122.

Mediation–and its related values–has laid an important foundation for a collaborative workplace. Some mediation values–including creating a safe environment for a community’s members to express views openly, treating others with respect, and an openness to differing opinions–are important building blocks for changing organization culture. But dispute resolution and conflict management programs’ impact on agency function has, arguably, been minor. These programs need to enhance their contributions to the organization and to the individuals who work in them, by transitioning from a complaint-based approach to a broader work life- and mission-centered approach, including attention to day-to-day operations and relationships with external stakeholders.

By valuing employees’ and managers’ ability to make good decisions, program administrators can make a meaningful contribution to agency mission and to improving agencies’ quality of work life. Sharing control over program design and implementation poses risks–and provides endless opportunities.

This article will explore thoughts about moving beyond alternative dispute resolution and conflict management, and then will describe how one program enriched its organization by exploring this potential.

Federal agencies have dedicated significant resources over the past 15 years to establish ADR programs to address workplace conflict, with changes in civil rights law providing much of the impetus. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (see Pub. L. 101-336 (July 26, 1990), 104 Stat. 327 (codified at various sections of Titles 2, 3, 29, and 42 of the U.S. Code)), began changes that culminated with the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which amended Title VII protections. The 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed for the first time compensatory damages and punitive damages where intentional employment discrimination is found, making the EEO route appear more favorable to many seeking redress.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency charged with enforcing workplace civil rights, already faced a considerable backlog. (The EEOC was created in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the omnibus bill addressing not only discrimination in employment, but also discrimination in voting, public accommodations, and education as well. Pub. L. 88-352 (1964).) The commission expected the case load to increase with these expanded employee rights, and subsequently revised its federal EEO complaint processing regulations to require that agencies establish ADR options. See 29 CFR Part 1614 (as amended in 1999), which requires agencies to establish EEO-ADR programs, and also provides extended deadlines when ADR is used; see also EEOC Management Directive 110 (Nov. 1999).

These federal agency ADR programs, offering mediation exclusively for equal employment opportunity complaints, continue today.

In these programs, employees who seek dispute resolution assistance must see an EEO counselor and present a discrimination-related issue. The mediation request is passed on to management, which may or may not agree to mediate. In some agencies, management is required to mediate EEO claims upon employee request. Counselors do not screen cases, although they do offer information and guidance. Many federal agencies still offer mediation only for cases that involve discrimination allegations. As employees complaining of interpersonal conflicts or perceived unfairness of management decisions turn to EEO mediation, there is the danger of diluting the nature of the equal opportunity mission of eradicating discrimination in the workplace.

Of course, frequently the employee believes there is a legitimate discrimination issue. But, because mediation is the only option, these programs are limited in their ability to address deeper or more systemic aspects of how people perceive they are treated differently in the workplace.

Without intra-agency partnering, the EEO office’s “ownership” of discrimination issues may hamper agency efforts to explore alternative methods to improving practices and the work environment. The EEO office, along with counsel’s office, handles issues only after they have reached the height of escalation, keeping its ADR program isolated from the organization’s day-to-day life.

The Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1996 (Pub. L. 102-354 § 4(b), 104 Stat. 2736-37 (1990), as amended and permanently authorized in 1996, Pub. L. 104-320, codified at 5 U.S.C. § 571, et seq.) provided a broader framework for federal sector workplace ADR, supporting ADR use for “faster, less expensive and less contentious” dispute resolution, “leading to more creative, efficient and sensible outcomes.” There are a number of agencies that have established conflict management programs for a range of workplace issues, from interpersonal disputes to collective bargaining grievances. These programs offer more than one dispute resolution option–and, sometimes, a menu–such as mediation, anonymous hotlines, early neutral evaluation, and group facilitation. They present multiple access points for employees to avail themselves of these services. Focusing on early intervention and problem prevention, programs may provide coaching and training. A range of services, especially those oriented toward the whole workplace, are conducive to the program’s long-term engagement with internal stakeholders. This continuing workplace involvement offers the potential for broader organizational impact than EEO ADR programs have demonstrated.

“Integrated systems” attempt to go one step further. Ideally, they provide a “support structure” to coordinate the various conflict management options and the offices offering them, integrating the system into the mainstream of the agency’s functions. See David B. Lipsky, Ronald B. Seeber, and Richard D. Fincher, “Emerging Systems for Managing Workplace Conflict,” at 17 (Jossey-Bass 2003). A basic premise of this approach is that the system’s core values be in alignment with the organization’s core values, particularly with those of human resources. Ibid. at 325. It is not clear, however, to what extent this integration and alignment actually has been accomplished in organizations claiming to have integrated systems. Ibid. at 18.

Notwithstanding the contributions of EEO dispute resolution and conflict management approaches to federal agencies, their benefit may be limited by their conflict focus and “list-of-processes” service orientation. Tied as they are to problems in human interactions, dispute resolution and conflict management programs often are regarded by key agency players as peripheral to the agency’s mission. A common view of the program’s role is “making problems go away.” The program’s credibility with key players depends on partnerships within the organization and education about the value of program’s contribution. To be integrated into the mainstream of the organization’s life, the program needs to embrace and make connections between agency mission and quality of work life.

Dispute resolution values–such as creating a safe environment to express views openly, treating others with respect, and empathy with others–are basic to a comfortable work environment. Without a clear vision for introducing these values outside the dispute context, progress made in a mediation may not go much farther than the individuals involved. It is difficult to imagine that individuals can make deep and lasting changes in attitudes and behaviors after spending a few hours together in a mediation session. Without reinforcement of progress made in a session, improvements in relationships may not be sustained. This continuity and broader application of certain mediation values to the workplace can give new meaning to conflict management.

The progression from the first EEO ADR programs to the more recent conflict management programs has led the conflict resolution field to a new crossroads. Indeed, programs can affect workplace culture by extending the humanistic values fostered in mediation.

Other values may need to be reexamined. Confidentiality is a central mediation value. In a work life approach, administrators and practitioners need to continue to honor confidentiality in the many situations where it is appropriate. But a values-driven program that is concerned with information sharing, and safety to express opinions and ideas that are different from the norm, also requires the fostering of transparency. Additionally, program credibility depends on programmatic transparency.

For another example, voluntariness has been a basic principle of workplace mediation. But when a supervisor is unwilling to discuss conflict issues with a subordinate, there is a tension between the supervisor’s voluntary participation and the employees’ right to have his or her voice heard. There are other complications–such as when the agency is named as the party, and not the supervisor–that fall outside the scope of this article.

This article will outline opportunities offered by shifting to a values-driven work life- and mission-centered approach.


A mission-centered approach expands beyond employees’ individual complaints; it operates around internal stakeholders’ daily activities carrying out agency mission. Mission-related work broadens the focus and expands beyond the four walls of the workplace. Program initiatives can promote partnering with interdependent federal agencies and the public, and can encourage more effective ways to manage relationships with enforcement targets.

Employees’ motivation to carry out agency mission by working hard, sharing information and cooperating with co-workers is influenced by their view of how they are treated by the organization and its leadership. Richard C. Reuben, “Democracy and Dispute Resolution: Systems Design and the New Workplace,” 10 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 11, 39 (2005). This view may be based more on the perceived fairness of management actions, such as decision-making, than on the substance of the decisions themselves. Tom R. Tyler, “Social Justice: Outcome & Procedure,” 35(2) International Journal of Psychology 119-120 (2000). When employees feel that management values their opinions and trusts their abilities, they feel safe to try new ways of doing things and they perform “above and beyond.” Michelle L. Reina and Dennis S. Reina, “Trust & Betrayal in the Workplace” (Berret-Koehler Publishers 1999). Employees’ quality of life thus has a strong influence on the quality of their contribution to agency mission.

Through involvement with individual agency offices, administrators can foster offices’ independence to address their own day-to-day operations and work environment concerns. The administrator needs to provide the tools and continuing guidance to support participatory decision-making, with particular attention to developing managers’ collaborative skills. Through this process, employees and managers should come to value each others’ contributions and feel motivated to support one another. Reuben, at 36.

Sufficient numbers of skilled staff need to be available to conduct this work and provide continuity. A work life- and mission-centered approach requires a balance of control by the large organization–for example, by establishing a programmatic framework–with offices’ freedom to adapt program components to their own needs and culture.

Conflict management programs are fairly reliant on external “neutrals”–including the administrator–to provide dispute resolution services. But “indigenous” workplace interveners, such as trusted co-workers or supervisors, have always played an important role in workplace life. Programs need to provide the support and training to ensure their effectiveness. There will always be a place for externals, but by shifting decision-making to internal problem-solvers, administrators demonstrate their confidence in staff abilities.

Based as they are on complaints and “cases” handled, program effectiveness usually is judged by numbers of case settlements, dollars saved, and employee satisfaction with the process. More useful data would measure the program’s impact on agency mission – such as the achievement of agency goals, large and small–and changes in employee satisfaction with the work environment, rather than employee satisfaction with the program. Using such data, administrators can refine their programs to be most useful to the agency and the people who work in it.

There are a number of options for structuring program design and implementation. This article proposes blending large organization design and support with local organization adaptation. Creative work by local offices can influence large organizational change. Organic program development allows for incremental implementation, with modification along the way. The program may start with one initiative, such as an employee satisfaction or climate survey, and then build on it, based on user feedback and organization needs. This article will discuss a Federal Aviation Administration program that began with a single project established by the division headquarters office, embellished by a regional office and ultimately designed and carried out by local offices.


Every three years, the FAA conducts an Employee Attitude Survey, referred to below as an EAS, to measure employee satisfaction in a range of work life areas, such as recognition, trust, communication and conflict management. See the related Federal Aviation Model Work Environment statement at . The most recent survey results for each office were released in the spring of 2004. The rest of this article describes how one regional office developed a project, based on each its office’s survey results to foster positive values and to enhance mission-related operations.

Here is the outgoing message on one FAA employee’s voicemail: “Thank you for what you do to protect the safety of our airspace.” Aviation safety is the FAA’s clear mission. The FAA is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The FAA Flight Standards Division field offices are responsible for surveillance, oversight, inspections and investigations to promote operational safety and for certification of pilots and air operators. See .

These functions are carried out by Flight Standards inspectors who are pilots, mechanics and avionics specialists; they are technical people who love aviation. There are 500 inspectors in 18 Eastern Region offices, supported by administrative staff. Related to the Employee Attitude Survey, the Flight Standards Division of the FAA launched a project to engage offices in a collective effort to raise satisfaction levels.

This author began in the Flight Standards Eastern Region position at that time. My mediation background was a useful starting point. I soon found, however, that I needed to move beyond it, adjusting my values and work approach. The sole assignment when I started was to lead the survey project, with a long-term goal of raising satisfaction levels. All of our programmatic implementations have emerged–incrementally and organically–from that beginning.

The Flight Standards national office established a labor-management initiative as the framework for field office engagement on the Employee Attitude Survey. The office directed field offices to hold feedback sessions to discuss their office’s results. By this gesture, agency leadership demonstrated that it valued employee feedback and trusted employees enough to support a democratic process. Through a participatory process, each office was to select a survey issue and develop an action plan to improve employee satisfaction in that area. We asked each Eastern Region field office to form a survey committee with not only labor and management representatives, but also at least one representative from each of three sections: operations, which includes pilot oversight, airworthiness, and administration. I was available to assist in action plan development, but each office was free to determine the substance of its own work.

Some managers and employees doubted the exercise’s value. Others were heartened that the EAS results were taken seriously. Some offices asked for assistance with facilitating feedback sessions, selecting issues, and developing their action plans. Some later invited me to conduct progress-checking “How Goes It?” sessions–either to jump-start a lagging project, or to help the employees move on to a new project when a first one was completed. Other offices preferred to work on their own.

An initial goal for framing the project was to draw a connection between the quality-of-work life issues raised by the survey–the “touchy-feelies”–and agency mission. My credibility lived–or died–based on two critical factors. One was for me to demonstrate that I valued the offices’ wisdom and knowledge to make their own determinations. A corollary to this was that I was eager for the opportunity to learn about Flight Standards activities, which my office visits allowed me to do.

The other credibility factor was ensuring that my work and interactions were always linked to aviation safety, the driving force of the employees’ work lives. It might be said that my role was “neutral” in its identification as an advocate for the organization. But that was not the critical factor in gaining the trust of the people I worked with. They needed to see that I understood what was important to them and would assist them in achieving it. Bernard S. Mayer, “Beyond Neutrality,” 29-31 (Jossey-Bass 2004).


The project’s democratic nature provided a context for working with internal stakeholders on developing a collaborative approach to their work and their interactions. One aspect of this effort was working on developing collaborative values during office facilitations and team meetings, with ground rules and expectations consistently discussed before every gathering. Some topics were: the responsibilities of consensus; the value of everyone’s voice being heard; being direct and diplomatic, and paying equal attention to getting their needs met as meeting others’ needs. Rather than confidential survey committee meetings, we emphasized transparency.

During Employee Attitude Survey committee meetings, representatives shared their section members’ concerns with the committee and then conveyed information about the committee’s work back to their section. Another opportunity to develop collaborative values was by reinforcing representatives’ responsibility to their “constituents,” through their role on the committee and within their teams. Working collectively on the quality of the work environment and on the mission, and seeing that others shared their concerns, fostered a sense of community. Gifford Pinchot, “Creating Organizations with Many Leaders,” at 27, in “The Leader of the Future,” Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith, and Richard Beckhard, Editors (Jossey-Bass 1996).

Committee members carried out their representative roles and helped develop action plans based on their offices’ expressed needs. The inspectors’ work is heavily dependent on sharing information with one another, but the nature of their field work is independent. Through engaging inspectors in the survey project, we fostered inspectors’ interest in and ability to support their team and the organization.

Information-sharing, cooperation and team work were addressed–implicitly or explicitly–by a number of the plans. Some projects were simple time-saving efforts, such as a Web site to standardize correspondence. A system to track certifications combined time-saving with information-sharing by making data available to relevant staff.

Other items presented a blend of employee involvement and organizational change. In one case, employees collaborated with management in planning their office closing. Other offices focused more on interpersonal and team work approaches. Some held regular section meetings for the first time; one office organized its survey committee as a permanent “Search for Solutions Discussion Group,” which has carried out many improvements in office efficiency. These projects were designed and implemented collaboratively by people affected by their outcomes.

Within the survey project’s “community-based” or “group as guru” approach (see Richard Tanner Pascale and Jerry Sternin, “Your Company’s Secret Change Agents,” Harvard Business Review, online version at 2 (May 2005)), internal stakeholders enhanced operations through innovations that only could have been formulated by those in the trenches. These innovations were not only accepted and integrated within their place of origin, but–as we later saw–would be valued by other offices. The freedom afforded to stakeholders motivated them to participate and take pride in this work life- and mission-centered project. The survey-driven action plans were creative and successful. We compiled an “Innovative Actions Resource Book” so that offices could learn from each other’s practices. This collection validates leadership’s trust in the dedication and expertise of the people in the field. These innovations are now streaming up as the larger organization incorporates and institutionalizes those with the most promise for enhancing the region’s performance.

In a number of offices, committee members became collaborative troubleshooters and problem solvers. These committees emerged as a form of community leadership, alongside management and the union. Local direction of the survey project laid the groundwork for continuing collective responsibility for quality of work life. We reshaped the committees by transforming them into “Organizational Work Life and Mission Committees”–or OWL–as they completed their survey projects. This organic shift provided continuity and a vehicle to foster collaborative values. Formalizing a structure for the continuing stakeholder participation through the OWL committees was another step toward making this culture change an integral part of office practice. We created an OWL charter, based on stakeholders’ input. The charter explains the committees’ scope of effort:

  • Select and address an office-selected performance challenge.

  • Address quality-of-work life issues, such as recognition, communication, conflict management, and trust, as outlined in the Employee Attitude Survey.

There are a number of groupings that are affected by these responsibilities: the committee, the section teams, the management team, and the office as a whole. Through collectively meeting a performance challenge, group members have the opportunity to value each other’s contributions and to relinquish some control to the group by supporting ideas other than their own. Working together to overcome obstacles is a trust-building exercise that leads to group members’ confidence in each other’s capabilities (see Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, “The Wisdom of Teams,” 18 (HarperBusiness 2003)), and faith that they are there for each other. This in turn leads to employees’ willingness to follow the “golden rule” and to make personal sacrifices for “the greater good”–outlooks that are essential for caring, high-functioning workplaces.


Employees are motivated when the workplace provides opportunities for them to meet their ego and self-actualization needs, as discussed in the works of Abraham Maslow, such by as stretching their abilities, taking on challenging and high-profile work, and by being recognized and appreciated. Anne Bruce and James S. Pepitone, “Motivating Employees” (McGraw–Hill 1999). The OWL work, within the various groups, contributes to the quality of work life for individuals and the group, and to the agency mission through the productivity found in a model work environment.

Charged by the national Fight Standards office with developing three regional action plans based on Employee Attitude Survey data, we specifically addressed recognition in the first plan. I worked with one office survey committee on a project exploring recognition approaches within the office. The committee conducted a survey on preferred recognition modes. The committee carried out a number of activities to demonstrate appreciation between management and employees and among co-workers. One of its initiatives was a “Pay It Forward” award. This popular co-worker appreciation award–which the office selected–is a desk clock with a map of the world on its face and an inscription–written by the committee and approved by office staff–that moves to a selected employee’s desk each month. The second regional action plan involved providing “effective feedback” training to managers and supervisors. Developing and presenting this training also educated me about job performance and related issues in the field offices. The course itself, in addition to teaching basics such as feedback steps, emphasized influencing employees’ motivation by listening to their input, creating opportunities for them to collaborate, giving them some decision-making power and making links between their work and agency mission. Ibid.

After the feedback training, we developed a brief refresher activity and surveyed each employee whose management team was trained. This survey included relevant questions from the Employee Attitude Survey in order to measure improvement resulting from the training. Another survey objective was to learn whether the feedback and coaching that employees receive meets their needs, and to determine whether the training had an impact on improvements.

Collected surveys reflect marked improvements in employee perceptions about such areas as clarity of job expectations, supervisor coaching, and whether employees perceived that feedback was an accurate reflection of their performance. We engaged each management team in a discussion, based on survey data, about areas of success and skills needing development. These activities were all based on one initial piece of Employee Attitude Survey data indicating that employees wanted more effective job performance feedback. The actions reflect continuing efforts to meet agency, office and individual needs.

The final regional action plan–a coaching program–is yet another example of organic program development. The program was established as a result of survey data on leadership development, and it has continued to evolve. The initial vision was a conflict coaching program for employees and managers. Based on program participants’ feedback, we redefined the program simply as “coaching.”

For a session with a management official in the coaching program, we brought in the other half of the person’s management team. Based on the benefits of this session, the coaching program was expanded to offer regular management team coaching at every office visit–or upon request.

We also began to offer 30-minute speed coaching sessions during my office visits, which provides short-term consulting and exposes potential users to the process of exploring options. Speed coaching has provided a discreet way for individuals to request meeting with me during office visits without calling unwanted attention to themselves, and gives the consultation a positive spin. Survey data reflected large numbers of skilled employees set to retire in the coming years; our managers are aging out. Coaching presents an important opportunity to foster professional skills and values, including collaboration, essential to our current and aspiring leadership.

The program’s growth has repeatedly validated the worth of flexibility and openness to stakeholders’ voice in the program development process.

The offices evaluated the success of their Employee Attitude Survey action plans through employee surveys on each office’s specific topic of choice, as well as the three regional topic areas. This provided an important starting point for discussions with stakeholders about the program’s effect on the quality of work life. The data revealed areas and offices to which the FAA needed to shift program focus. We are exploring ways to measure operational tasks–for example, those dependent on information–sharing–to see how the program can assist offices in accomplishing work goals.

Building on mediation values and applying them broadly in the workplace, our new work life and mission program has engaged in an exciting endeavor. If FAA headquarters or the regional office had established restrictive directions for offices in improving their quality of work life and operational functions, we would have sacrificed the relevancy, innovation and pride that grew from this project. The regional program’s mindful collaboration and restrained guidance provided internal stakeholders the opportunity to contribute in unique ways that were not–and likely could not have been–envisioned by standardized design. Balancing regional involvement with office self-direction, our program benefited from trusting the wisdom of stakeholders to plan and carry out new directions for their own offices.


Judith Cohen

Judy Cohen, a mediator and trainer, specializes in workplace conflict management, focussing on conflict prevention, as well as dispute resolution.  Her mediation practice includes extensive experience with discrimination cases, discipline and discharge, and interpersonal relations. She is a widely published, nationally known expert in Americans with Disabilities Act, with disability-related… MORE >

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