In Conversation with Bernard Mayer

How can organizational leaders help to create healthy, conflict-friendly workplaces? Bernard Mayer, a Queen’s IRC Facilitator who is an international expert in conflict resolution and mediation, shares insights for managers in the following Q & A.

What is a ‘conflict-friendly’ environment?

The key here is to acknowledge that organizations, communities and relationships need conflict. It is naïve to think there will be no conflict where there are different needs and values. These are not superficial things, and as a result, we will have conflict.

Whether an organization is healthy isn’t related to whether there is conflict, but to how it is handled. A healthy organization welcomes genuine conflict, makes it easy for people to raise issues, has an environment that encourages this, and promotes a constructive response.

So people can safely, powerfully, consistently and directly raise issues. Conflict is also not prematurely referred to an impersonal bureaucratic process; nor is anyone made a scapegoat for the problem.

In other words, a conflict-friendly organization accepts the importance of the conflict process.

What are the most common ways organizations avoid conflict?

Organizations are enormously creative, as are individuals, at avoiding conflict. But there are four general ways that are the most common.

One way is simply denial and minimalization. That’s whenever someone raises a conflict and you say, ‘It’s just few malcontents,’ or ‘It’s not that big a deal.’

The second way organizations deal with conflict is they misdirect. They don’t deal with it directly and openly: they bureaucratize, refer it to a subcommittee or person far from the real issue, they scapegoat, or they immediately relate to it as a legal issue rather than a problem to be solved.

The third major way is using escalation as a means of conflict avoidance. Sometimes people are threatened with punitive consequences, or a boss gets really angry. The purpose is not to raise the issue so it can be constructively dealt with; it is to inhibit people from raising issues.

Fourth is premature problem-solving, or solving the wrong issues.

Think about sexual harassment a moment. It is a common problem in many workplaces, subject to great deal of denial. We individualize it. People are intimidated about raising the issue and are often victimized if they do.

Also what often happens is that people throw procedures into place that are supposed to deal with it. But they ignore the underlying culture of the workplace and the gender politics of the workplace that create an environment allowing it to go on.

Maybe what’s needed is a process of employee training, raising consciousness, changing the culture. But the fact is that far too often we rush to resolve the problem rather than staying with it a while, trying to really understand what people are concerned about.

How do we learn to handle conflict in way that benefits our organizations?

I’m not big on giving people prescriptions, but there are certain things we know make a difference.

The very first thing is to accept conflict as inevitable and healthy.

The second is to listen, to try to understand on a deeper level. It’s the most important thing we can do around conflict. Listen to what people saying, not judgmentally, but to try and understand. You don’t have to like what they are saying, but you can start by trying to understand.

Managers are often guilty of saying immediately how they are going to fix something without really spending time to understand and connect with the person. I suggest they try taking the attitude “My job is to understand; later I can come up with solutions.”

I also suggest three words that are almost always useful: “Tell me more.” Part of it is in the spirit you convey: of curiosity, of wanting to know, of wanting to understand, of not necessarily having answers all the time but taking it seriously.

A third skill is to learn to say what important to us, what we think and what we need, in a powerful way – but one that doesn’t shut others down, or seek to do that.

We also need to become good at coming up with forums for discussion and interaction around issues, and problem-solving where appropriate.

Another skill is knowing when to ask for help; where to go to ask for help; and developing organizational capacity to provide help.

For some reason we are perfectly willing to ask for help from legal, financial, public relations, even technical HR experts, but we are really reluctant to ask for help with the relational issues that are really key to what makes a successful workplace.

People often file grievances because they don’t know how to deal directly with a problem or issue and they aren’t provided coaching, training, or the forums to directly talk about it. Then you go file the grievance, and often the first step is to talk directly with someone, and you are provided no help in doing that – even though it could really make a difference.

Often the stuff that’s most difficult in dealing with human relationships is the simplest. For example, how do you listen to someone who you are furious with?

How do you manage it?

I’ve been teaching this stuff for 30 years, and frankly, I don’t always do it very well.

The very first part is you take care of yourself. Take a moment to get clear, have someone hear you and get some sort of affirmation, understanding, before you try to deal with things directly, if you possibly can.

If you can’t, it is one of these walk-on situations, you breathe, do whatever it takes to centre yourself.

The second thing is to become clear why you are angry and upset, then work on stating that as clearly and forcefully as you can. But say it in the way that you’d want other people to if they had those thoughts, feelings and concerns about you.

It is the opposite of being nicey-nice, which is one way of avoiding conflict. It is about being powerful in raising issues clearly and respectfully at the same time.

I believe when we are at our best we all can do this. The biggest problem is we’re afraid that we can’t, so we avoid things in a way that ultimately makes them worse.

It is hard. You can’t just wave a wand and make it happen the way you would like, but you can at least realize it is something you can become better at.

What happens when organizations avoid conflict?

I see this lot. Rather than confront a problem, especially when a powerful employee is involved, people restructure things in all sorts of ways. In one hospital there was a doctor who was a skilled specialist, upon whom they depended. I was asked to come in and provide conflict resolution training to the staff.

Why? This doctor was behaving inappropriately. He was abusive to nurses, colleagues, and probably to patients as well. Instead of saying ‘Help us figure out how to deal with this doctor,’ they said ‘Give conflict training to all of us.’ I think this happens all the time.

Of course the doctor was going to take it too – and this one-day experience was supposed to change his personality. What happens in these circumstances is the behaviour continues, morale goes down, and key people leave. People avoid dealing with issues directly and the problem gets larger.

In what kind of situations is escalation often used to avoid conflict?

A good example is what has happens with efforts to deal with medical employees with alcohol or substance abuse problems. The first approach often is to deny the problem until something happens – and that something is often very bad. Then the next approach is to get very punitive and demanding, and to set up elaborate monitoring procedures. That doesn’t work very well either. It sets a standard and a norm at least, which is a good thing. But it doesn’t directly address the roots of the conflict.

What happens in a conflict-friendly organization?

People deal with conflict openly, directly and forthrightly. They say, ‘We have a problem here; let’s just talk about it.’

One example was a large organization that had been through some very ferocious strikes. What had happened was not good for anybody, and prior to the next collective bargaining round, I was approached by both union and management to work with them.

I’ve done this a number of times. Without all the games people play in collective bargaining, I helped them find ways of saying in a safe, direct, unfettered way what they really thought about what had happened. We talked about how relationships were going, and cleared the air.

We also discussed how they were going to deal with the next round of bargaining, and what would happen when the necessary dynamics of bargaining made everyone feel pissed off at one another again. How were they going to deal with this? It made an enormous difference.

How does unresolved conflict drain an organization’s resources?

Avoiding conflict, not dealing with issues, and not creating an environment where conflict can be raised costs organizations billions of dollars a year.

The biggest pitfall is to avoid dealing with issues. A second big problem involves solving the wrong problem. It happens all the time. The worst is when people go through a whole strategic planning and restructuring and process to avoid dealing with a problem employee.

Many businesses go down the tubes. Why do most mergers and acquisitions fail? Not because the business plan was bad necessarily, but because people didn’t take into account all the different conflicts that inevitably arise when you take two different cultures and organizational styles and put them together.

The price of not creating a conflict-friendly environment is high.

The Seven Habits of Successful Mediators

An expert in managing conflict, Dr. John S. Andrew teaches negotiation at Queen’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; provides independent facilitation and mediation services to parties involved inland use, environmental, and transportation disputes; and leads executive seminars on strategic consensus-building in corporate real estate.

Dr. Andrew spoke with us about what makes a good conflict manager. You need to be part problem-solver, part creative thinker, and part loner, undaunted by the prospect of eating lunch by yourself.

What is the role of a mediator?

In conflict resolution we try to find a solution that allows as many of the parties as possible to have their key interests met. Seldom is it all of their interests, but usually a settlement can satisfy their most important ones. That’s really the challenge.

There’s a classic example I use for teaching. There are two sisters fighting over an orange. Both of them want it – those are their positions, and they’re completely incompatible. I ask the students, ‘What’s a possible solution?’ and someone usually says, ‘Get a knife and cut it in half’, which of course meets only 50 percent of each party’s interests.’ That’s not great – if were trying to sell my house for $300,000 and got $150,000 for it, I would be pretty unhappy. The best answer is that you need to get all of the parties to identify and share their real interests underlying their positions. Ask them why they want the orange. It turns out one wants the pulp to make juice, the other wants the rind to make a cake. So it’s possible to meet 100 percent of the interests of both parties.

This is a simple example but it gets people thinking in a new way. Finding the interests is important because there are usually more compatible interests than conflicting ones in a dispute. Once everybody at the table understands the key interests of the other parties, then you can begin to make trade offs and “expand the pie” rather than divide it.

What are the key attributes and skills of a successful mediator?

1. You have to be able to quickly understand the essence of the conflict. You often get just a few days notice of a mediation, and you’re under pressure to come up to speed about the dispute as fast as possible.

2. You have to be able to get the parties to focus on their interests rather than their positions. For months or years they’ve been saying, ‘This is what we want, this is what we want.’ You need to get them to identify what they really care about. I was involved in a railway dispute in British Columbia that was fascinating and complex. It was a good illustration of the need to, and difficulty of, identifying true party interests. For quite a while it appeared to be a fairly straightforward transportation dispute, with many common interests between the parties. However, as we began to unravel the interests it became apparent that for some of the parties it was really more of a land use/real estate conflict, and their interests had little to do with the operation of the railway. The land adjacent to the railway was worth far more than the railway operation itself, and real estate eventually became a whole new set of issues. Only once they were on the table could we begin to make progress toward a solution.

3. It is essential to be completely neutral and impartial, and be able to convey that to the parties. Both perception and reality are important. Some of that is the language you use and how you conduct yourself during mediation, and it can be very simple: if there’s a lunch break, eat by yourself. The parties may be getting together and it’s natural that they invite you, but you can’t unless everyone is together. Disputants are very sensitive to your degree of fairness. If you lose the parties’ trust, it’s almost impossible to get it back.

4. You need to know when to let the parties hash it out, when to step in, and when to suggest possible options. You ask yourself, ‘Are they making progress on their own?’ Sometimes you’re better just sitting back and letting that process happen but it can be uncomfortable. Remember it’s their dispute and they have to craft the solution jointly – you can gently steer them but you can’t hand them any solutions, even if you see them. It sounds terrible to say, but a good mediator doesn’t care about the content of a settlement or whether the parties even reach agreement. You’d love to be able to say, ‘I’m such a good mediator, I’ve done 120 cases and 99 of those have been resolved,’ but that’s not a good measure of success. Lots of agreements are reached that are bad agreements. Sometimes the best thing is for the parties to walk away before that point. I’m there to help the parties to craft their own agreement, and if they reach one, that’s great. But there are lots of legitimate reasons why they might not. This is a voluntary process, and there has to be buy-in from all the parties. They won’t all love the agreement, but the key is that meets their most important needs and they crafted it themselves. If I come in and suggest something, they are less likely to implement it and buy in, and the agreement is more likely to break down later.

5. You need to know when to have a private caucus – when to take the parties aside. And then you do so with all of the parties. This can be very effective – you can give them a sense of what will likely be acceptable to the other side, and what they’re true BATNA is – their “Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.” For example, if I hear people say, ‘Well, I really don’t want to negotiate because if we go to court we will win,’ I can sit them down and say, ‘Based on my experience you aren’t going to do as well as you think, and it’s going to cost everyone 10 times as much. So even if you don’t get exactly the agreement you want, you’re going to get it months or years earlier, and save a lot of money and anguish.’

6. Shuttle diplomacy – being able to effectively shuttle ideas and offers between the parties – is another skill. Sometimes parties will say, ‘Well, offer this to them,’ and I might suggest modifications that will make it more palatable to the other side. Sometimes they’re subtle changes in the wording or the order in which items are offered. The challenge is that a mediator obviously can’t give away any confidential information, so giving guidance to parties is a delicate business, and you have to keep careful track of where you obtained certain information and what needs to remain confidential to one party.

7. Finally, I think it comes down to your own personality and how you relate to other people. Credentials are nice, but does having a Ph.D. really make me a good mediator? Not really. What makes you a good mediator is doing mediation, and you probably learn more from your mistakes than anything else.

Grievance Mediation: The Impact of the Process and Outcomes on the Interests of the Parties

The revival of grievance mediation can be traced to an experiment in mediating workplace disputes in the coal industry of the United States in 1980, which resulted in a very high success rate of 80 to 90 percent. The decades that followed, researchers comparing the effectiveness of grievance mediation and arbitration concluded that grievance mediation is a faster process with lower costs that can produce a ‘win-win’ outcome and a positive long-term impact on the relationship between the parties. However, except in a very general way, the research has tended not to explore the long-term impact of the process and the outcomes of mediation.

Using a hypothetical case of a discharge grievance, this study attempts to fill that gap by taking the grievance through both mediation and arbitration, and contrasting the impact of the two mechanisms on the interests of the parties.


Mediation: An Early Dispute Resolution Procedure for the Workplace

Dispute resolution is an integral part of management. Almost seventy-five percent of job-related stress is generated by internal disputes, and more than eighty-five percent of people leaving their jobs do so because of some perceived internal conflict. Festering disputes are time-consuming and can result in feelings of alienation, reduced productivity, loss of production quality, and strained relationships. All too frequently, employees in conflict ‘win the battle but lose the war’ because they confuse long- and short-term conflict resolution goals and objectives. If employees are likely to work together in the future, dispute resolution procedures should be designed to encourage the development and the maintenance of healthy long-term relationships. Mediation is becoming a popular early dispute resolution procedure in many companies and provincial organizations.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Where once Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) referred to an alter­native to the courts, ADR in the field of labour relations is increasingly being referred to as an alternative to arbitration. The objectives of ADR and the newly emerging Internal Dispute Resolution (IDR) are to settle disputes prior to having to go to binding arbitration over which the parties have little control. ADR and IDR are recognized as giving the parties greater direct voice in fashioning remedies and more timely settlements.

Factfinding: A Dispute Resolution Procedure for Collective Bargaining

Many different forms of impasse procedure exist to facilitate arrival at an agreement once the parties, engaged in negotiations, reach an impasse. The more traditional approaches have tended to be the use of mediation (or conciliation), arbitration and strike/lockout. However, one other procedure that has widespread usage in the United States public sector and only limited usage in Canada, specifically with federal employees and Ontario teachers, is that of factfinding. This study examines the procedure by reviewing the existing literature on the subject.

Settlement Methods in Ontario Collective Bargaining 1970-1973

The state of labour-management relations often tends to be assessed in terms of the number of strikes which occurs in the economy or in particular industries. This ignores the fact that strikes are in part a function of the number of settlements that are negotiated, which varies from year to year and from industry to industry, and the further fact that work stoppages are only one of several routes by which settlements occur. The range includes direct bargaining, conciliation, mediation, bargaining following conciliation or mediation, work stoppages, and occasionally mediation or arbitration following a work stoppage. Strains in collective bargaining, therefore, should be assessed in terms of the ease or difficulty with which settlements are achieved, as reflected in the incidence of different settlement methods.

This paper analyzes the methods by which settlements were arrived at in more than 1400 Ontario collective agreements during the years 1970-1973 and discusses some of the implications of these patterns. The analysis is based on information published jointly by the Federal and Ontario Departments of Labour, covering settlements involving more than 250 employees in industries other than construction. Included are settlements in federal administration, as well as a number of other settlements which, though they cover workers in Ontario, are in industries that come within the federal jurisdiction.

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