The Benefits of Workplace Mediation: An Interview with David Weaver
DWC Consulting prides itself on bringing organisations together and one way that we have such a substantial impact is through helping individuals resolve disputes in the workplace.
Today, we treat our readers to an exclusive Q and A with DWC Consulting’s very own Senior Partner, David Weaver. David is a leading expert in the field of workplace mediation with over 25 years of experience supporting co-workers and organisations in moving forward in situations of conflict to stronger places of negotiation and collaboration.
OM: So, David, why do we see so much conflict in the workplace?
DW: Human beings engage in conflict by nature and even people who work well together will fall out within the challenging dynamics of a workplace. A big part of the problem is that there are a lack of conflict management skills among managers and leaders. These positions are taken up by those who excel in their technical ability and it is taken for granted that they can also manage people, which is not always the case. Conflict can be a positive force but is often avoided because of a lack of confidence and ability to channel that force. Organisations need to bring in a mediator at this point.
OM: What reasons are most common for bringing in a mediator to the workplace?
DW: In public services, and in other organisations where there is a climate of rapid change, people often feel bullied and harassed at work. When people are asked to drill down on why this is the case, protected characteristics frequently come into the picture. Race discrimination and disability discrimination are still highly prevalent in the workplace, both at initial recruitment stages and when disputes arise later down the line.
OM: Why is mediation beneficial in these cases?
DW: Mediation is essential. If you’re asking about issues around race discrimination - research by the Local Government Association shows that managers do not address allegations of race discrimination for fear of being called racist. The effect of that is, where there are issues, white managers tend not to have difficult conversations early on with BME employees. With their white employee counterparts, conversations are likely to occur early on, where clashes are more easily addressed. Therefore, the first point of addressing issues in communication and working styles happens so far down the line between white managers and BME staff that things become formal and opportunities are lost to settle things internally. This is reflected in figures where disproportionate BME staff find themselves at the wrong end of workplace grievances. Employees with other protected characteristics also often seen in this position, whether that is women, workers with disabilities or the LGBTQ+ community.
Another area where mediation might offer a fresh, fair perspective is in addressing the organisational culture around disputes. A big leadership challenge for organisations is that they tend to find it uncomfortable dealing with issues of discrimination. Knowledge of diversity is essential within the organisation so that there is much more alignment with increasingly diverse societies and communities. This is not just a moral argument but a business case. If you understand your customers and have the knowledge, experience and skills to manage difference internally and externally, your business will thrive. If managers are diverse they will be able to deal more effectively with a diverse employee base and employees are more likely to have confidence in managers’ approaches.
OM: So this almost starts with recruitment - and the values of the organisation?
DW: Conflict is the end manifestation of lots of flaws within the organisation. Good conflict management starts with leadership and diversity of thought and representation to ensure productive organisations. Conflict is a necessary energy but we need tools to channel it productively. If organisations treasure that in their values, conflict is beneficial in all sectors.
OM: What might stop people from pursuing mediation?
DW: Usually, distrust in the organisation is the reason employees don’t seek mediation. They don’t trust that the organisation really wants to address the root causes of conflict. What I would say is that - when explained properly and when organisations embrace conflict and negotiation as an essential part of the organisational culture - then organisations opt for mediation. Mediation is about win-win, not win-lose. Leaders need to demonstrate they see mediation as beneficial and conflict as important and natural.
OM: What does the mediation process normally look like?
DW: I like to call mediation “a big conversation”. Essentially, it’s an opportunity to raise sticky issues and problem-solve in a confidential, safe space. It is a voluntary process that cannot work unless all parties agree to participate. A skilled mediator will empower parties to speak frankly and openly to each other about their views and concerns as a means to arrive at mutually acceptable outcomes that make a material and positive difference to the situation.
The process may begin with one-to-one conversations with each party and the mediator so that they can get a sense of the frame of the conflict. Most desirably, this process will culminate in meetings between the conflicted parties, facilitated by the mediator and concluding with meaningful agreements written up in unambiguous language for all parties to take away.
OM: Can anyone be a mediator? Tell us about your journey...
DW: My journey comes from a particular personal value around social justice. In my professional life, I always seemed to be the individual that was asked to help people in organisations arrive at a consensus underpinned by fairness and equality. I first got into it by accident as a consultant tackling a toxic culture within one organisation. I found myself in a meeting with senior leaders and put myself in a position where I resolved a conflict situation involving bullying, harassment, racism, sexism and threats to the reputation of the organisation. I used mediation processes that arrived at a powerful solution where the organisation worked with tension in a creative way to diversify its workforce and increase the satisfaction of its customer base.
A good mediator will have a sense of fairness and an ability to be neutral and outcomes-focused; working from a position of integrity and a strong values base. For example, at DWC Consulting, we will only work with solutions that enhance fairness and don’t reinforce discriminatory culture.
OM: When and why does mediation work?
DW: As long as there is a will to arrive at positive outcomes, then mediation is possible. When matters are sticky and there are “wicked issues”, or solutions are not obvious, there can be a lot of conflict because of unintended consequences within the organisation. That’s where mediation works best, because it can navigate complexity and make a difference for people and organisations. At DWC Consulting, we have a very high success rate, owing to the fact that we can see the wider context for the organisation, and the dynamics of race equality and general discrimination. We strike empathy with individuals in the room because of our understanding and our approach. Empathy is essential for mediators to support conflict resolution.
Notwithstanding that, I will say that not all cases are mediatiable. For example, there may be situations where one or both parties feel pressured into participating in the mediation. Sometimes the organisation might have a predetermined outcome in terms of what they might see as success from mediation. If this conflicts with individual aspirations then there is no basis for a process which has integrity and sustainable outcomes. Our approach includes identifying whether mediation will be possible for the organisation and individuals involved.
My view is that the need for mediation is increasing and will continue to do so. There is a “them and us” culture in society that is manifesting in organisations, which are finding themselves under more stress in all sectors - especially in the emergency and recovery context of COVID-19. Organisations will have to make difficult and challenging decisions in the coming months, which are bound to cause tension and force leaders to increase their conflict management skills. Mediation support will be an essential tool at this point.
OM: Thank you for your insight, David. Can you remind organisations facing challenges how best to get in touch with us?
DW: We do encourage concerned organisations and leaders to get in touch with DWC Consulting from our website - bring us your most sticky cases! We offer workplace mediation support as well as mediation at a community and individual level. On top of that, we are specialists in coaching and leadership and organisational effectiveness. We are happy to discuss the range of needs you might have internally or individually.
OM: Excellent, stay in touch and stay safe everyone.
DW: Stay safe and well.
This interview was conducted by Olivia Mohtady, a project consultant and assistant psychologist who works closely with David on mediation cases and other projects and DWC Consulting. If you want to find out more about DWC Consulting and what we stand for, please visit our home page or get in touch.