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November 01, 2007

Managerial Mediation and Arbitration

I will always be indebted to Dan Dana for introducing the concept of the manager as the mediator to me. It formed the basis of his powerful training – with the same name- that helped shift the managerial paradigm for thousands of managers who have benefited from his training. Dan was the pioneer who blazed the trail.  In this short practice note I want to consolidate and reiterate his fundamental insights, and of course add my two cents!

A review of the history of conflict management in the workplace suggests that the way in which decisions that impact the employment relationship have been made, have shifted from a focus on the power dynamics, to who has the legal or contractual right and finally to what is in everyone’s best interest. Yet there is a way, like the evolution of our triune brain, in which each iteration has built on the other. So to talk about a purely interest based approach does not make sense, as the rights and power dynamics are always being considered, if not consciously, then unconsciously.

In fact, Managerial Mediation represents an approach to addressing workplace conflict that is supportive of interest based relationships, yet also addresses rights and power. It allows managers to bring employees together with the stated purpose of reaching an understanding based on what is important to them (their interests) within the bounds of the law, contract, and policy (their rights), without the manager having to impose the decision him or herself. It does so within the context of the existing power differentials that do exist between the employer and the employee, between the supervisor and the employee and even between two peers (their social power).

Managerial Arbitration also has the potential to address power, rights and interests. It is an approach where the manager brings employees together, listens to their ‘stories” and makes a decision for them based their status in the organization (their social power), their rights (by virtue of applicable company contract, policy, and law) and finally, but to a lesser extent, their and the managers own interests.

The vital difference that makes the mutual decision of the employees’ superior to that of a decision imposed by a wise manager is that there is buy in through commitment to their own decision. In addition, when we create a forum where the perception of right and wrong will be inferred from a decision, as is the case with arbitration, the communication that takes place is more likely to be adversarial and combative. By contrast, when managers facilitate two employees trying to work something out, as with mediation, the communication is open, there is more opportunity for reflective listening, and of course creative problem solving.

Finally, and this to me represents the new frontier, organizations are showing a willingness to address the emotional impact of their decisions. They are recognizing that when decisions are based on power, rights and interests alone, they settle the issues, but don’t necessarily resolve or reconcile them. If Managerial Arbitration was spread thin in its attempt to address interests, then it is really found wanting when emotional impact is considered. Managerial arbitrators of right and wrong, who adjudicate and impose decisions in the way they manage do not typically take into account an employees feelings.

By contrast, the manager as mediator is able to facilitate an approach that is informed by it all-the power dynamics, the rights at stake, the interests at the heart of it all, and significantly the way everyone feels about it. When they are successful, the employees address their challenges in ways that generate creative solutions that last.

It is worth remembering that if managerial mediation doesn’t work out-whether through a lack of skills, time or even willingness, the manager can always revert to the more directive managerial arbitration route and impose a decision.

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