How to navigate the role of ‘accidental mediator’

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Article provided by Robyn Marsh at The TCM Group, an award-winning provider of mediation, investigation, transformational culture change and leadership development services

Workplace conflict is inevitable.

Spats between colleagues can bubble up over everything from seating arrangements and the temperature of the office to who is leading on projects and how resources are allocated. When disputes like these occur, it can cause massive disruptions in teams.  Colleagues take sides, bad feeling festers, and productivity inevitably suffers. Organisations typically have formal processes to address conflict, but no one wants to see disputes escalate to the point where employees or their managers feel the need to go knocking on HR’s door with a view to invoking a disciplinary or grievance procedure. So, what can you do if you find yourself in the role of bystander, standing on the side lines of combatting colleagues? Is there anything you can do to support your colleagues and help them resolve their issues before it all goes too far?

If you find yourself in the role of an ‘accidental mediator’, it’s useful to understand why clashes occur. In the workplace, it’s often down to three broad issues: cultural differences, personality clashes and differing work styles.

Differing views

Our society is painted with a vast and vivid array of colours: the picture is bright with intersecting cultures, beliefs and values. It’s what makes us both individual and collective. But when the strokes clash and the colours are muddled, the painting loses its original meaning. In the modern workplace, people are increasingly vocal about everything from social justice to environmental issues and are not afraid to voice quite firmly held views. One member of staff may be “anti-vax” for example, while another is staunchly “pro-vaccination”. Or colleagues may be split over the environmental implications of the work they are doing and what the right course of action for the company should be. It doesn’t take much for healthy debate to descend into a dysfunctional dispute which interferes with people’s ability to work collaboratively.   

Personality clashes

Workplaces are made up of many people and the personalities that come with them. If a new manager comes on the scene and tries to keep a tighter rein on a team that has been used to working independently, bad feeling will inevitably arise, and people can soon become disengaged and dissatisfied within their role. If an employee who is strong on the detail must work with a colleague who has a ‘bigger picture’ approach, both parties can easily become frustrated with each other and can fall out over how best to approach the task in hand.

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Hybrid working

Companies have been catapulted into working from home and then hybrid working thanks to COVID-19. But as the pandemic abates, these new ways of working can lead to complex disputes. Feelings of unfairness or favouritism can quickly arise if employees feel there is inconsistency over working arrangements and more flexibility for some than others.  There can be a perception that those who are more ‘visible’ in the physical office space are more likely to get the plum projects. Even in a previously happy and peaceful team, the cracks can soon start to appear.

You could be stuck in the middle of any one of these situations. If you find yourself in the role of peacekeeper, how should you handle it?

  1. Acknowledge

Don’t ignore the conflict and assume that it will fade into the background of clattering keyboards. It’s important to recognise the difficulties present and ask the parties if they would like to resolve it.

  1. Diffuse

Encourage open, honest and non-judgmental dialogue from each party. Embolden people to really listen to each other and try and understand the other party’s perspective.

Now that everyone’s said their piece, all parties can look ahead. Individuals need to focus on the future, not the past, and work on practical, realistic and pragmatic solutions. This is where it can shift from animosity to amicability – and a productive working relationship going forward.

  1. Maintain

Sometimes the hardest part is keeping the peace. The conflict may be mostly over, but it’s possible for feelings to return to the fore in challenging moments. If this happens, go back to the beginning: acknowledge. If necessary, you can repeat the steps you followed before and let them talk it out. Frustrations should ease and the conflict will de-escalate, through your accidental supervision.

  1. Support

Once all is said and done, make sure to check in. This can be over hours, days, weeks and even months. Offer your support and solace in times of need – you’ll be surprised how much of a difference even a five-minute conversation can have.

Workplace conflict will affect at least one third of us each year, according to CIPD reports. As the pressures of Covid-19 see no signs of stopping, this statistic is expected to rise. If you find yourself in between sides, without formal mediation training, be sure to apply these principles and practical steps to restore harmony in the workplace. In short, it’s simple: be kind to those around you and don’t be afraid to offer a helping hand.

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