Developing Mediation Skills to Enhance Managerial and Leadership Proficiency
Mediation is leadership. Mark Gerzon, author of Leading Through Change: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, states:
[T]he professional role of the mediator applies to virtually every leadership terrain as well as our personal lives. Indeed, there are a growing number of signs pointing to the Mediator (with a capital M) as the emerging leadership archetype of the era [2006, p. 48].
This kind of leader transforms conflict from a force that can be destructive and divisive into one that is healing and connecting. Since we human beings urgently need to make conflict work for us rather than against us, those who can lead through conflict hold the key [p. 50].
In my previous article, “The Endless Opportunities for Professionals Who Mediate,” I noted multiple roles in which professionals and others can serve as mediators outside traditional contexts typically fulfilled by “professional mediators.” In this article, we expand this list exponentially by considering the vital role, as highlighted by Gerzon, that managers and leaders play in mediating conflicts in the work and world around them.
Managers. Managers must respond “in the moment” to address conflicts among team members, constituents, and others they serve rather than through more formal and often adversarial processes. Manager-guided early-intervention processes can help parties avoid or substantially reduce harm rather than require them to wait and submit such matters to formal review processes after harm has occurred. Nurse managers, for example, must engage in proactive mediation processes to address ethical challenges before and during treatment, which can better support positive health outcomes in contrast to more formal ethics consultations that are traditionally directed, authoritarian and utilized retrospectively (Schlairet, 2009). Similarly, managerial mediators help parties “reach and record a balanced, behaviorally specific, mutually acceptable agreement that defines each one’s future behavior with regard to the business problem caused by the conflict,” and not to impose discipline, assess guilt, or determine right and wrong (Dana, 2001, 58).
A study of managerial mediation competencies suggests that the skills third party neutrals utilize in traditional mediation contexts are like the skills managers must utilize to mediate employee conflicts, though managers have the added advantage of understanding the organizational context of the conflict (Pointras, 2015, p. 119). Managers aren’t neutrals in a pure sense because they often have a vested interest in the outcome, and mediation participants, who are direct reports to the mediator manager, can’t be said to be “voluntarily” engaging in mediation in the traditional sense. Such concerns can be minimized by the manager’s “reverent power,” meaning they have earned the respect of team members to mediate their conflicts equitably (p. 121). A manager who engenders trust will pursue outcomes for employees in conflict beyond the scope of a traditional mediator’s focus on satisfying parties’ personal interests and guide them toward outcomes and to modify behaviors that meet broader organizational interests (Swonk, 2022).
Common, readily transferable mediator techniques to help managers resolve workplace conflicts include listening for understanding; reframing statements to acknowledge emotions, restate issues, and seek clarification; elevating the definition of the problem by combining opposing positions into statements of issues that are common to all parties; and facilitating specific, clear, and mutually acceptable agreements (Gerardi, 2004, pp. 187-92). Effective managerial mediation also depends on creating a “psychologically safe” place for employees to express concerns (Shields, 2020). Managerial mediation is especially welcome when there is an organizational culture that values collaboration and workplace harmony (Pointras, 2015, p. 121).
Organizational Leaders. Organizational leaders must also develop mediation skills, though less to mediate day-to-day disputes and more to guide organizational members towards a collective vision and influence, motivate, and enable them to contribute to organizational success. Christopher Moore, author of The Mediation Process, provides an example of a C-suite administrative/managerial mediator helping two senior-level department heads resolve a conflict and who does not “have a firm personal or ‘organizational’ opinion about how the problems should be resolved” and is “not constrained by any organizational or legal requirements that would define the parameters of the solution [2014, p. 33].” While she may have authority to impose a decision, her goal is “to provide procedural – and if necessary, substantive – advice” and “provide a framework for an acceptable agreement” from which the department heads can discuss and develop “a mutually acceptable solution to their differences [p.33].”
Though not mediators per se, mediation is what leaders do when facilitating collaborative decision-making. In The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems, Stephen R. Covey offers the paradigm, “I seek You Out,” by which individuals engage in “3rd Alternative thinking” and are “deliberately seeking out conflicting views instead of avoiding or defending against them [2011, p. 40].” This requires “empathic listening” by which a person “seeks to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other” rather than think “about [their] own rebuttals and responses while the other person talks [p. 49].” Empathic listening is an essential leadership tool for making “robust decisions.”
Business punishes leaders who don’t make robust decisions, and robust decisions depend on a thorough understanding of the viewpoints of customers, suppliers, team members, other departments, innovators, investors – in short, of all stakeholders [p. 55].
Robust decisions also require that uncertainty be removed as much as possible, which can only occur when leaders “hear people out (p. 55).”
Leaders with a mediator mindset take a broad, holistic perspective on managing interpersonal and organizational conflicts. Gerzon’s “capital M” mediator leader is one who:
Strives to act on behalf of the whole, not just a part
Thinks systemically and is committed to ongoing learning
Builds trust by building bridges across the dividing lines [and]
Seeks innovation and opportunity in order to transform conflict [2006, p. 50).
Among the qualities they must possess is “presence” which involves “applying all our mental, emotional, and spiritual resources to witnessing ourselves and the conflict of which we are now a part (p. 97).” They must use “inquiry” skills which entails “asking questions that elicit essential information about the conflict that is vital to understanding how to transform it (p. 119).” And they must engage in “dialogue” processes which involve “communicating in order to catalyze the human capacity for bridging and innovation (p. 167).” Mediator development for leaders must extend beyond structured, formalized settings and contemplate the actual processes leaders will use and environments in which they will function to support conflict resolution between and among multiple constituents.
From these and many other examples, we get a much different and deeper sense about what mediation is, does, and can do for leaders, managers and other professionals compared to the experiences of “professional mediators” serving in more traditional contexts. In the final article for this series, I offer considerations for training and developing this unique group.
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