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John Trombley’s “7 benefits of mediation in the workplace”

Village Business Institute Consulting & Training Manager John Trombley jokes about one of the great ironies of his job as a workplace conflict mediator, “If it weren’t for conflict, I wouldn’t have a job.”

Trombley is what’s known as a Qualified Neutral, which is a fancy way of saying he’s a trained and certified mediator, and with his background in not just workplace but also civil and family mediation, he’s seen a bit of everything in the world of compromise and resolution.

His e-book, “Seven Benefits of Mediation in the Workplace,” is not just a tool he uses in his own work, it’s a great reference for managers, HR professionals, and employees looking to gain some insight into the mediation process, should they ever find themselves involved in it someday.

1) Mediation avoids conflicts of interest by using an outside Qualified Neutral.

One of the challenges for people in the HR arena is that employees, advisors and companies look to HR like they’re a BAND-AID. And sometimes HR people aren’t even trained in mediation. They’ll do the best that they can do, but sometimes they know too much about the parties involved. And that’s especially true for supervisors, who can lose that objectivity.

I don’t want to know anything. I don’t want to be influenced in one direction or another. If someone reaches out to me ahead of time, talk to me about the nature of the conflict, but don’t give me your perspective about the individual.

When I walk into a situation, my main goal is to maintain neutrality. Sometimes that is challenging. Certain personalities are more difficult than others, but my goal is to keep the main thing the main thing, and to be able to maintain that objectivity is key to that.

2) Mediation ensures objectivity is maintained in the process.

The ‘he said, she said’ and finger- pointing happens during mediation. A good mediator can help folks get past that to focus on the behavior that’s causing the problems, as opposed to engaging in character assassinations.

I’ve never actively sought to find out a lot of information about anybody ahead of time, but you do find—because we are human—that in the course of conversation with these two people in the room, you can sometimes see the unreasonableness of a situation or how that individual came to perceive the world the way they do. So it’s about trying to help both parties look beyond their own personal slice of reality.

And I’ve become very aware of that and I recognize, ‘Hey, I may be losing objectivity, too.’ So it can be a struggle.

3) Mediation is much less expensive than litigation.

The mediation process I use is a full-day process typically. Rarely is it less than six hours of time, and sometimes it’s been longer. I try to get things done in one day, and once we get things moving, we’re working toward a resolution.

Most of the time when you get attorneys involved, it becomes an adversarial relationship. It just is. And attorneys are going to charge $200, $250, $300 an hour, and they’re going to say, ‘You have to put this much down for starters.’

Attorneys have a place and a function, but if you can resolve the conflict without getting an attorney involved…To be quite honest, my goal is to help folks not only resolve the conflict but to preserve the relationship. And that’s true whether it’s coworkers or a supervisor-employee
or a divorcing husband-wife situation. I want to help these folks preserve the relationship. It’s not just a matter of: who’s going to win? who’s going to lose? who’s right? who’s wrong?

To the extent possible, I’m trying to make this a win-win. But sometimes it’s the tyranny of either-or versus the freedom of both-and.

4) Mediation offers a significantly higher level of compliance since the parties involved create the list of agreements.

The reason for this is that it’s the individuals who have been in the conflict who are developing the list. And they’re saying, ‘This is what we agreed to.’ I don’t do arbitration. An arbitrator is like a judge, ‘You will do this and you won’t do that.’

And that would be the net effect of somebody else saying, ‘This is what you’re going to do.’ Compliance is much more effective when you come up with the idea and you say, ‘This is what I’m willing to do and we’re going to hold each other mutually accountable.’ They’re the ones who are in control.

5) Mediation provides a process through which participants are able to find common understanding and reduced conflict.

We’re not talking rocket science here, but until folks get to the point where they actually own their own emotions and own their own view of the world and are willing to see from the other person’s perspective—whether they agree or disagree about the conclusions is not the point. The issue is: can you at least see how that person came to that point of understanding? And once we have that, it’s easy to identify: what can you do to keep from going there again? And that’s the list that they will develop.

It’s invariably communication, communication, communication. When you think about any relationship— whether it’s personal or professional— the ability to communicate effectively and the ability to resolve conflicts effectively are the two things we always look for in a mate, in a good friend or in a supervisor. And, invariably, when it comes to communication issues, misunderstandings are a result of false assumptions.

Once a person has decided that something is intentional, it’s virtually impossible to get them to maybe consider that there’s another truth.

6) Mediation allows for the restoration and well being of workplace relationships – there are clear emotional and physiological benefits to be gained.

Conflict, stress, all those kinds of things not only take an emotional toll, they also take a physical toll. And research has shown that something like 50 percent of folks who have experienced conflict in the workplace have actually felt the physical implications and gone home sick as a result.

That takes an incredible toll, not only on the individuals themselves, but on the work and teammates. It impacts morale, good order, functioning and so forth. The impact of conflict in the workplace can’t be overstated.

In our world, we see how very closely related physical and mental health are.

7) Successful mediation allows people to focus on their work while not feeling like they have to be constantly looking over their shoulder.

At the end of the day, when you’re not worried about the conflict that you’re having with a coworker, you’re free to concentrate on what you’re there to do, which is the work at hand. It’s a natural consequence and it allows the entire team to get its job done.

And here’s the other part of this. It’s implied but needs to be stated. We oftentimes think we can contain conflict in the workplace and that it doesn’t impact anybody else, but at the end of the day, the person who pays for it without ever realizing it is the customer. That’s the bottom line. They don’t even know that they’re paying for conflict, but they pay for it as a result of poor quality of service, poor product, delayed service, any number of things.

If you’ve ever gone into a store or to a business where you’re dealing with somebody who’s grumpy behind the counter, then guess what? You, as a customer, are paying for that. Your experience is suffering and you’re also going to show that back to them.

3 Mediation Misconceptions

1 Mediation is punitive.

Sometimes, employees will come into mediation and you can already tell they’re tense. Not just nervous about the process and having a conversation with somebody they don’t want to be in the same room with, but they feel like sometimes they’re being made or forced to go to mediation.

And I can’t speak to whatever conversations supervisors or HR managers have with individuals, but oftentimes, what needs to be spoken to the employee before they ever show up to mediation is that they need to hear from their supervisor or HR—whoever is giving them the message—that the reason they’re being asked to go to mediation is not a means of spanking them but rather that it’s being provided as a tool to help them be successful in the work that they do. Otherwise, why would the company spend the time and resources?

2 Mediators are judge & jury.

Sometimes employees think I’m going to make them do something. Like they’re going to be forced to do something they don’t want to do. And, of course, they quickly come to realize that I’m not there to sit as a judge. Rather, guess what, guys? You’re the ones who are going to do the work. This is all up to you. And I’m okay with whatever you decide. I’m not there to judge that.

My role is to facilitate a conversation. At the end of the day, I can walk away saying, ‘I don’t have a dog in the fight.’ And I am often times able to walk away, regardless of the outcome, feeling like, ‘Okay, I did my job.’ When folks walk away and they’ve been successful, they’re oftentimes pretty exhausted. They have invested themselves emotionally and psychologically and if they can walk away with a list of items of agreement, they’re going to feel satisfied.

3 Mediation participants are aware of their own assumptions.

Check your own assumptions. If someone ever does something that hurts you or offends you, rather than talking to everyone else about it, have the internal fortitude to go to that person and say, ‘Hey, maybe it’s just me, but when you said this and you did that, this is how it made me feel.’ Or another way to approach it is, ‘When you said that, this is what I heard. Is that what you meant?’ In other words, kind of clear the air before it becomes an issue.

People will often attribute intent based on how it makes them feel. And we all do it. If you do something to make me feel good, I assume good things about you. If somebody does or says something to make us feel bad, a lot of it depends upon our own particular filter system. And we all have them. We all have a filter that’s based on our past life experiences, our families, our values, history, whatever those things might be. Our past hurts.

More Info
To learn more about the benefits of workplace mediation, contact:

Village Business Institute
thevbi.com/workplace-mediation
1201 25th St. S, Fargo
701-451-4900

* To download a free copy of Trombley’s e-book, “Seven Benefits of Mediation in the Workplace,” visit thevbi.com/workplace-mediation

Written by Nate Mickelberg

Nate Mickelberg is the former editor of Fargo INC! He holds his master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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