The ability to negotiate, influence and resolve disagreements are all key skills for today’s business leaders – particularly in today’s turbulent times when they are faced with a never-ending stream of highly complex, multi-faceted problems.
Leaders often spend many years at business schools, universities or on management training programmes learning how to manage these intricate strategic and business challenges, and the interpersonal, cultural and behavioural nuances that come with them.
What amazes me, however, is that mediation is rarely advocated or practised as a core leadership skill – and that managers can go through an entire MBA programme without learning how to manage conflict at work.
I am certain that if leaders learned and used mediation skills – such as diplomacy, empathy and active listening – on a regular basis, they could resolve complex problems in a far more effective, constructive way that delivers better outcomes for their people and brilliant outcomes for their organisations.
Mediation delivers value to the organisation
Successful mediators can build empathy, develop connections, and resolve often entrenched problems through dialogue. They can break down a problem and transform it from dysfunctional and destructive into constructive and functional. In this sense, mediation is the holy grail of leadership.
The skill of mediation adds value to the organisation. When people are locked in conflict – sick and unhappy, with quarrels and disagreements spilling over into the public space – it is the antithesis of a high-performing organisation with strong brand values. A 2020 CIPD report discussed how lowered productivity, lost time, increased stress, and a decrease in the ability of workers to reach organisational goals are all consequences of workplace conflict. By creating happier, healthier, more harmonious environments, where people can perform to a higher standard both individually and collectively, a leader can directly drive shareholder and stakeholder value.
Our society is painted with a vast and vivid array of colours: the picture is bright with intersecting cultures, beliefs and values.
If you are able to bring people with divergent viewpoints together and unlock their innovation and creativity, you will unlock a competitive advantage in your business.
The best leaders are skilled at taking the adversity out of diversity – and are more likely to win the talent war as a result. This is particularly important at a time when organisations are facing serious skills shortages, and we are in the midst of ‘the great resignation’. A recent Randstad survey, for example, showed a quarter of employees were actively looking to switch jobs in the next six months. The organisations that get this wrong will be the ones who fail, whilst the ones that get it right will be the successful enterprises of the future, where the smart money and top talent will head.
Why isn’t mediation seen as essential?
Unfortunately tackling conflict (of which mediation is a key part) is not viewed as a strategic priority by most firms, even though the cost to UK businesses is estimated to be over £28 billion. Whilst leaders can see the enormous damage that disputes cause to their business – a reduction in productivity, loss of skilled employees, litigation costs, reputational impact, and human costs to name just some – these are rarely aggregated or evaluated at a strategic level. As such, conflict does not become a strategic priority for the board, nor is it considered a strategic issue across the organisation. I would go as far as to say that I have seen better strategies for ordering paperclips than I have for managing conflict. Failure to create a strategic narrative around conflict resolution means that mediation is used as a fire extinguisher to put out a conflagration rather than acting as a tool to prevent the fire in the first place.
This failure to treat conflict as a strategic priority perpetuates a reliance on outdated and adversarial processes such as grievance, disciplinary and performance systems to resolve conflicts. These toxic processes rarely resolve an issue, rather they stick a band-aid over the problem and give the appearance that something is being done when, in fact, they are making matters far worse. Unlike mediation, these processes divide the parties and entrench positions. They offer an illusion of fairness and a mirage of justice – conveniently masking the issue. No one wins from these retributive processes (that is unless you are a lawyer).
The top leaders place mediation upstream
Having worked with many organisations for over thirty years to integrate conflict resolution and mediation programmes, I believe three simple factors are required:
- Senior leaders who recognise that conflict is a strategic issue and who are minded to do something about resolving it more constructively.
- HR and people professionals who recognise that their policies and procedures are more effective when mediation is fully integrated into them.
- Line managers and supervisors who possess the confidence and the competence to promote adult-to-adult dialogue and compassionate issue resolution.
Mediation is so simple. It is about bringing people together to engage in a powerful dialogue and to identify and agree on a mutually acceptable outcome. One doesn’t need a PhD in psychology, to be a latter-day saint or to be a UN envoy, to help people to disagree well.
When I am training leaders and managers to be mediators, many ask me how they can help people move away from dysfunctional disagreement. The answer is simple: ask people how they are feeling; listen without judging; be kind and compassionate and focus on the needs of the parties rather than their adopted positions. If you see that an employee is unhappy, try putting yourself in their shoes and let them know that you understand. Even the smallest dose of empathy creates the most amazing connection between people.
As a leader, it takes courage to reject retribution in favour of compassion. However, developing and practising mediation skills regularly within the workplace isn’t just ethically and morally the right thing to do – it is good business and good for business. Spending time investing in your own mediation skills will make you a better leader and help lay the foundations of a company culture which puts people, purpose, and values first.
About the author: David Liddle is CEO of culture change consultancy The TCM Group, author of Transformational Culture and president of think tank The Institute of Organisational Dynamics.