Opinion: Resolving workplace conflicts

by Contributor08 Jul 2016
Disagreements between colleagues are part and parcel of corporate life. How can we manage workplace relationships more effectively? Let’s hear from Susan de Silva of Bird & Bird ATMD LLP, an employment law specialist and mediator trained at the Singapore Mediation Centre.
 
Mediation: Turning win-lose into win-win
 
Employees with diverse talents make important contributions, but these differences also create potential for conflict. Individuals may insist on “doing it my way”, failing to see that others have alternative approaches to the same issue. If unresolved, conflicts can greatly drain office morale and productivity. On the other hand, workplace conflicts that are effectively managed can produce new ideas and innovations.
 
Here’s where mediation comes in. Mediation is an informal method of dispute resolution that has been used to settle million-dollar claims between corporations and employees, as well as small tiffs between colleagues. The mediator is a neutral third party who guides the two sides toward a mutually beneficial resolution.
 
You can find out more about the official mediation process here. In this series, however, we will draw on seven principles used by experienced mediators to show how YOU can be the mediator in your workplace.
 
#1 Revealing fundamental interests
 
Almost all disputes can be viewed in terms of positions and interests. A position represents someone’s stance toward the conflict. Interests are deeper needs and concerns.
 
For example, two managers both want the lion’s share of their company’s marketing budget. Peter's position is that his business unit has proven itself and needs to sustain its position in a mature market. John argues that his new initiative has tremendous potential that can only be fully realised with aggressive marketing.
 
Positions are a kind of excuse. They are only skin-deep, so trying to change them will be a waste of time. The employee can always think up a new “excuse”. Instead, mediators try to discover the underlying interests and build a solution that will satisfy their needs once and for all.
 
Going back to Peter and John, the mediator may find that both of them want a bigger budget because they are concerned about retaining talented staff who need big opportunities to improve their skills.
 
It takes strong people skills to uncover hidden interests, but once you do, possible solutions to the dispute may become apparent.
 
Bonus tip: Look out for people who have a strong relationship with the conflicted parties, such as office friends or bosses. Do these third parties have interests and are they blocking a settlement?
 
#2 Brainstorming possible solutions
 
Getting interests out into the open is just the beginning. Now, we are ready to brainstorm for options that can satisfy the interests of both sides. At this stage, let the parties raise as many options as possible without judging them.
 
Mediators like to think of solutions as “expanding the pie”. Imagine the benefits of a settlement as a pie that will be divided between the two sides. This pie is actually made up of contributions from both sides. However, it is often also possible to creatively increase the shared benefits.
 
For example, the experienced Peter could mentor John's team or talented staff could be seconded to the other team to broaden their experience. Perhaps the two teams could collaborate on the big budget items. They could even jointly appeal to upper management for increased skills development opportunities.
 
Bonus tip: Encourage parties to make suggestions but advise them not to “jump the gun” by making promises at the brainstorming stage. While it is only normal for parties to be anxious to end the argument quickly, this could result in a “half-baked” solution that is unclear and difficult to uphold. It is important for parties to go through the full mediation process.
 
Find out more in our next article, where we discuss appropriate criteria for settlement and provide a framework for examining best and worst outcomes of a dispute.
 
SMC welcomes any queries about mediation, mediation training or selecting a mediator to assist with your workplace disputes. Get in touch with SMC here!