From Argument to Engagement – The Power of Mediation

Guest Written: David Liddle, TCM group

Unresolved conflict is a barrier to employee engagement

Unresolved workplace conflicts are one of the significant barriers to employee engagement. Conflict creates uncertainty. It generates fear and it creates stress. Unresolved conflicts at work can drain resources and act as a major block at times of change of transformation. In some cases, the reaction to conflict can be so extreme that it undermines team working and hinders innovation and creativity. The costs of conflict run to an estimated annual £33 billion to UK business according to the Confederation of British Industry, taking up 20 per cent of leadership-time and resulting in 370 million days lost. 

However, psychologists including Dr Bruce Tuckman, argue that conflict (storming) is a normal stage in team development. As a mediator, my experience leads me to conclude that it is not conflict that is the problem; it is the way that we handle it that defines whether it is going to be a constructive or a destructive force.

In fact, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung described conflict as being necessary for constructive change and the development of stronger relationships: “The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed. It is just these intense conflicts and their conflagration which are needed to produce valuable and lasting results.”

Change, competition and complexity drive conflicts.

It is relatively easy to engage employees when the tills are ringing. However, during these tough times, driven by austerity and recession, the potential for conflicts are substantially increased. Competition for scarcer resources places greater and greater stress on relationships. This is exacerbated by rapid change within organisations, increasing complexity in management structures, the challenges of globalisation along with a steady devolution of HR functions to a management level which often lack core emotional intelligence competencies. In addition to the above challenges, our traditional dispute resolution systems are failing. The very procedures which are designed to resolve disputes are in fact perpetuating them. For those organisations that are serious about employee engagement, there is an urgent need for a radical review of how they handle disputes and conflicts.

The existing dispute resolution processes worsen and perpetuate conflict.

Traditional grievance or bulling and harassment procedures do little to resolve disputes. Drawing on a quasi-legal structure they are inherently formal and profoundly adversarial. When I speak with employees, managers and HR professionals, they tell me that they do everything that they can to avoid going into a grievance procedure. When they do however encounter the grievance process,
the experience has been described to me as harrowing; upsetting; destructive; stressful; frightening and ultimately counterproductive. Let’s not forget that this is the procedure of choice for resolving disputes in the majority of UK organisations.

The dichotomy is plain to see, HR on the one hand are a key proponent and enabler of employee
engagement. Yet on the other hand, HR are the custodians of a dispute resolution system which
tears workplace relationships asunder. This dichotomy has the potential to undermine the legitimacy of HR and in doing so, it creates the potential for cynicism and distrust of employee engagement initiatives. Never the less, employee engagement, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is a core function of the HR profession. “The HR professional ensures that in all aspects of the employment experience – the emotional connection that all employees have with their work, colleagues and to their organisation (in particular line manager relationship) is positive and understood, and that it delivers greater discretionary effort in their work and the way they relate to their organisation.” CIPD 2012. (

Many organisations are rejecting traditional thinking about dispute resolution.

Marks and Spencer, BT and Topshop are three organisations who have decided that enough is enough. These household names, alongside many more, are turning to a new and highly effective remedy at times of conflict, change and crisis – mediation. 

Mediation works. 

Mediation is a non-adversarial process of dispute resolution during which an impartial third party helps the two or more parties have an open and honest conversation. Underpinned by best practice in positive psychology, the aim of mediation is to help the parties to identify and secure an outcome which is mutually acceptable. The mediator doesn’t propose solutions; they don’t make judgements about who is right or wrong and they don’t assess culpability or blame. Mediators may be trained internal mediators or external mediators. Mediation is particularly effective when delivered by managers and leaders at the source of a conflict. Within organisations like Topshop, Marks and Spencer and BT, mediation is increasingly being seen as a core leadership function. Most practising mediators in the UK are members of the Professional Mediators’ Association and subscribe to the PMA’s code of conduct and professional standards. Mediation underpins employee engagement. By bringing people together to have open and honest conversations, not only does mediation help to resolve the root cause of the conflict, it also helps to build a level of engagement in the resolution process between the parties. Drawing on best practice from the fields of Positive Psychology; Principled Negotiation and Non-Violent Communication, mediation encourages innovation and creativity and reduces the barriers to employee engagement. When conflicts are resolved constructively, employees feel happier and stronger. They are more resilient as a result of the mediation process and they become more effective and engaged in the workplace. It’s simple – it’s called talking to each other.

The benefits of using mediation to build an engaged workforce:
? It gives parties in a dispute a voice
? It encourages openness and honesty
? It builds empathic, adult to adult connections
? Parties focus on their interests and needs rather than the strength of their relative positions.
? The parties craft their own solutions – avoiding the need for solutions to be imposed
? It encourages creative and innovative thinking
? Issues are resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the parties
? It underpins economic growth and drives competitive advantage

Mediation is a core element of employee engagement.

Employee engagement has significant benefits for all the people involved. I am fortunate enough to be an Engagement Guru as part of the Engage for Success programme. I am also working at a senior level with an increasing number of businesses to integrate mediation schemes. As a result, I am seeing first hand that engaged employees feel more positive about their organisation; about themselves; about each other; about their leaders and about the HR function within their organisation. According to the ground breaking engagement report by David Macloed and Nita Clarke ‘Engaging for Success’, engaged employees deliver better customer service, they are happier and they are more innovative and creative.

Engaged employees have a sense of personal attachment to their work and organisation; they are motivated and able to give of their best to help it succeed – and from that comes a series of tangible benefits for organisation and individual alike.”

The power of mediation

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) finds that almost 60 per cent of companies using mediation see a significant reduction in formal grievances and a reduction of employment tribunal claims by almost 50 per cent. A typical mediation lasts one day with over 90% of cases achieving a successful outcome.

“Mediation works and everyone wins”, says Caroline Waters, Head of People and Policy at BT. “The power of mediation”, argues Caroline, “is in offering people real choices at times of conflict or change. The mediation programme at BT has really worked. It offers our business significant benefits in terms of financial benefits and reducing the costs of conflict. However, it isn’t just about the financial benefits; it is also about building strong relationships and developing engaged and productive employees and teams. Mediation really delivers.”

The BT experience is compelling and the message is spreading. At Marks and Spencer, Philip Edwards, Head of Employee Relations is 100% behind this new approach. We try and use mediation as an early, informal resolution to issues across the whole business of 75,000 employees he says.

The Insight – Engage Model

Mediation is a powerful tool for creating safe and compassionate dialogue. In doing so, mediation

enables the parties to develop insights into their own and others attitudes and behaviours. These insights are the building blocks to a more emotionally intelligent conversation which is based, not on blame or retribution, but on empathy, positive regard and appreciation. Connecting at an empathic level opens up our minds to understand one another more fully. Understanding is key to learning. During mediation, parties are able to see the other persons point of view – it’s not easy but we start to view each other as humans, with the same difficulties, challenges and emotions that we have.

With increasing confidence and reassurance borne out of the connecting being formed, the parties begin to recognise the impact of their actions, their reactions and their interactions and from this understanding comes a powerful form of learning. It is experiential and it is felt. The learning that we see during mediation can range from learning how to communicate with each other again through to learning how to give and receive feedback without being defensive. Finally, in mediation we see the parties engagement enhanced which in turns creates fosters opportunities for insights and continued connectedness, understanding and learning.

Internal mediation schemes deliver the greatest benefits 

Setting up a mediation scheme integrates the benefits of mediation into the heart of the business. In a recent report produced by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the Topshop experience is cited as a national benchmark. Paul Forrest, Head of Employee Relations for Arcadia Group (the company who own Topshop and Topman) is a TCM accredited mediator and a passionate advocate of this new approach.

In addition, Topshop recently won the Personnel Today award for Innovation in Dispute Resolution. Topshop were praised by the judges for the innovative way that they have used mediation to underpin their employee engagement and employee wellbeing initiatives. Paul Forrest explains: “For us” he says, “mediation has had the benefit of underpinning our commitments to employee engagement and wellbeing. Mediation reinforces our belief that problems can be resolved by talking about them. This is a major shift from the belief that, if an employee had a problem, ‘someone else’ would be there to sort it out for them.” And empathy is what mediation is all about. There appears to be an empathy deficit in many of our organisations and this is a major barrier to employee engagement and to economic growth. Talking, listening and finding a shared solution to our shared problems is a cornerstone of effective employee engagement. And it works – Mediation Works! The insights from Martin Luther King Jr 60 years ago are as relevant today as they were then. They can easily be applied to employee engagement programmes. From the perspective of employee engagement, perhaps his famous quote should be adjusted to read:

“The ultimate measure of an engaged employee is not where he or she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he or she stands at times of challenge and controversy”


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