How many times have you run across situations where there were marked differences between two employees or where there were differences between yourself and an employee? How many of those situations turned into conflict that could be felt and expressed?  How were those differences resolved? Differences exist in the work place; this is not news. They should not be seen as something detrimental until they begin to cause problems for the people and the business, such as strained relationships, lower productivity, employees that leave, and unproductive meetings.

Such was the situation at a 5,500-cow dairy in the Southwest. Joe, the manager of the calf-rearing department, had gone over to the calving area which was managed by Greg.  Joe arrived somewhat heated because calves where not arriving in good shape. And, when he saw the area, he started getting on everyone´s case about how bad they were doing their work. Greg was in a different part of the dairy at the time. When word got to Greg about what Joe had done, he went to Joe´s area and they got into an argument. The situation had been tense for several months already, but this got them both into a conflict situation. Both had their own point of view about what had happened. How would you go about helping them resolve their differences? 

One of the ways you might go about helping employees resolve a conflicting situation is through a process of mediation, involving six steps:

1. Meet with each party separately in order to hear each of the stories — what happened, who was involved, and where things stand.  This allows each side to feel free to say what´s on their mind without the other party present.  If the conflict is too heated, you might ask employees to separate and give them a day or two to cool off before meeting.

2. Meet with parties together. In this case, have them both tell their story again. This allows them to hear each other´s point-of-view.

3. Have people describe as closely as possible what the problem is. Typically, people want to stand firm on their point of view and take things personally when, in fact, it can be pretty simple to identify the problem because it is related to a particular task that needs to be resolved.

4. Explore ideas for possibilities, solutions, actions that can be taken. Again, this might be difficult because people tend to stick to their point of view. The role of the mediator is to get them to find WIN-WIN situations.

5. Solidify a plan and make commitments. Specific actions should be agreed upon, and specific dates by which they will be started or completed.

6. Follow-up. Check in with both parties to make sure they are doing what they committed to doing, and to see how they are feeling about the whole thing.

As a mediator, your role is really to facilitate this process, get them to talk and listen so you can guide the steps. They are the ones who are doing the work. The minute you start judging and getting on one person’s side, you start to lose effectiveness as mediator.

Goals of a mediation process

Your goal should be to nurture productive relationships and promote healthy working environments.

Help employees resolve their own differences and conflicts, and empower them in their actions.   Basically, all you are doing is helping get them “unstuck.”

Not every difference between two people needs mediation. Another path is arbitration if a third-party source, such as a supervisor, decides a course of action for them to take. Sometimes, a supervisor or a manager must assess the situation quickly and define the plan or action to be taken so that work processes are not slowed down. Yet, there are other times when the conflict is so extreme that someone must go.

No doubt, there will always be differences among employees, or supervisors and employees. We need to teach people that these differences are not all bad, because some of the best ideas and improvements come from working out differences. What opportunities can you gain by using a mediation process?