Turning differences into creativity

When conflict strikes the workplace — often because of diversity — successful mediation can boost work atmosphere, productivity and morale

The elements that make a department or company strong, and the qualities that attract HR departments to hire particular employees, are often the very things that lead to conflict in the workplace. These differences can drain energy, divert attention from important goals and tasks, destroy morale and weaken a company.

Diversity in the workplace — of background, training, experience and culture — is a given in organizations. As a result, people have differing values, assumptions, goals and expectations.

This diversity creates incredible potential for new ideas and creative thinking and changes, but also brings the potential for ideas and cultures to collide.

The very creativity that makes someone just the right person for a job or department may also be what pushes her to try new things or work in her own way, at odds with the ways of others with whom she needs to collaborate.

There are a number of steps to take to alleviate these situations:

Training: Managers and supervisors — starting with HR managers but also department heads or team leaders — need conflict-management and mediation training. These leaders are best situated to help people make the diversity work for, rather than against, them. Mediation practitioners, colleges and universities offer these kinds of courses.

Conflict-management training for all employees, regardless of level or position, can make a significant difference. As employees and co-workers come to understand themselves, their own ways of responding to conflict and why others do what they do — along with gaining the skills needed to address differences head-on through helpful conversations — a workplace can be transformed from a troubled place to a department where people love to come to work. Many mediators will come to a workplace and offer courses tailored to the situation.

Mediation: Engaging the services of a mediator becomes important if conflict is ongoing or escalating and the best efforts of managers and supervisors have been unsuccessful. An outside mediator is often able to do things someone on the inside can’t. Managers and supervisors may be perceived to have their own agenda and sometimes they may even be part of the conflict.

It can be difficult, as an “insider” who has seen the conflict develop, to be impartial. Employees may be reluctant to speak freely and openly when a boss is listening in, fearing their frankness could harm employment or promotion possibilities.

When engaging the services of a mediator, the following steps are typical:

• A meeting with the mediator who will outline the steps of the process and provide an estimate of the costs for the first phase of mediation.

• A meeting of all parties involved in the conflict where the mediator is introduced. This is an opportunity for the mediator to meet everyone, outline the process and deal with questions and fears people may have. It is important everyone receive the same information and, as much as possible, employees are assured their “safety” is taken seriously and their privacy is protected. This meeting is also an opportunity to have management and a union (if involved) express support for the process.

• Individual, confidential interviews with each of the parties. This is an opportunity for each person to speak freely and openly about the conflicts. This is where a mediator gathers the information needed to plan the next steps and understand the history of the differences. The more information gathered, the fewer surprises later and, therefore, the greater the potential for a better outcome. The interviews also provide an opportunity for a mediator to build trust in the people she will be working with — crucial if the process is going to work.

• Analysis of the information and drafting a plan for next steps. Next steps can include training sessions, whole-group mediation sessions or mediation between individual parties in a department.

• Presentation of the plan to the manager in charge of the process at the company. This lists the issues that will need to be dealt with and the various steps that are proposed. The plan does not identify who said what.

• Presentation of the plan to all the people involved. If it has been determined one person in particular is a problem in a unit, that part of the plan is first discussed with the individual, privately, to prepare her for what is coming and to coach her on how to handle what will, undoubtedly, be a difficult time. The mediator will also work with the person on how to word this part of the report others will see (but there is no negotiation on whether or not the issue will be raised).

• With management approval, implementation of phase two — the plan. Training and mediation sessions are scheduled. This becomes the most intense part of the process as people sit down face-to-face and talk about the issues. The role of a mediator is to facilitate the discussion. She will help people express themselves and make sure they are heard. She has various tools at her disposal to ensure people hear each other and gain an understanding of each other. In this process, the way people perceive each other and what happened can change. They can make plans for how they will relate in the future.

Most often, however, it is not the plan that is the most important outcome. Rather, it is the understanding people have gained and the experience of working together and resolving the issues they had.

It is these changes in thinking and perception, along with the sense working together is possible, that will transform the workplace. The plan itself is just the cherry on the sundae.

That’s why it’s crucial every member connected to a conflict and in a work relationship with the people be part of the process.

With full participation by all those originally involved in a conflict, significant change can happen as a result of the training and mediation. The work atmosphere, productivity and morale can all improve significantly.

Not everything will immediately be perfect but, as employees use the tools they have gained and relate to each other based on new understandings and perceptions rather than the old ones, stress levels will go down and energy that previously went into a conflict can be directed at what a unit or company is really all about.

The very diversity that earlier threatened a workplace can add to its accomplishments as ideas are exchanged, debated and transformed into workable solutions and new products.

Ray Friesen is a mediator at Grasslands Mediation in Swift Current, Sask. He can be reached at (306) 773-5063 or visit www.grasslandsmediation.ca for more information.

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