This is a question that invariably stimulates lively debate. I have written on the subject before and was struck by the passionate responses from all sides.
Given the importance of the issue and its implications for the way the mediation model works within organisations, I thought it would be worth opening up the debate to all those with ‘skin in the game’.
My team and I conducted a non-scientific survey of our customers and contacts to see what they thought. The results were striking: 56% thought managers made good mediators, 44% thought they did not.
Although certainly not a laboratory study, it highlights the fact that we are a long way from consensus on this issue. And the comments people were able to make anonymously in our survey illustrate that too.
The ‘yes’ camp pointed to the unique abilities a manager could bring to the situation, “I think they understand the culture of an organisation” said one respondent. Another thought, “They should have an overall insight into the issues and have respect of both parties”.
The ‘no’ camp centred on doubts over whether managers could set aside their own views and interests. “I don't feel that they are impartial” was one example. Another participant thought managers “have a vested interest in the outcome - hence it is nigh on impossible to mediate from a position of impartiality.”
It seems that the manager as mediator debate is raging. So we picked up the phone and began calling people to hear their views in more detail. The responses are fascinating.
Jennifer Hircock is Leadership & Staff Development Manager at City University in London and also a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. She explained why, for her, the answer was a clear ‘yes’:
“Managers do make good mediators because they understand the culture of an organisation and the difficulties managers can face when dealing with conflict.”
But there is a more cautious endorsement of managers as mediators from others, including Sally Brett, Employment Rights Officer at the TUC.
“There is definitely a place for managers conducting mediation, if a dispute is between two colleagues, for example. But it is vital that the manager involved has the appropriate level of mediation training. People skills are something that have often not been prioritised for UK managers. It is also important that people are able to go through a grievance procedure and have union representation when they think that is appropriate.”
Hoda Lacey, workplace mediator and author of Powerful Win/Win Solutions, goes further. She thinks that even with the appropriate training, managers are still not the best choice,
“If you are a manager in an organisation, be it big or small, you are part of the organisation. You are part of the whole thing. As they say, the last ones to notice the sea are the fish. You cannot help but hear whispers about this or whispers about that. And of course you will always have people who are friends of friends. Someone who comes in from the outside is much less likely to get hooked in by things which are happening in the organisation.”
When it comes to an issue like this, you would expect the Chartered Management Institute to have plenty of confidence in its members’ abilities. And Patrick Woodman, Head of External Affairs and Research at the Institute has no hesitation.
“Managers have got the ability to nip problems in the bud. They know the parties involved, they understand the situation, the personalities and the context.”
But there is a qualification to Mr Woodman’s answer. He believes that without the right training, managers can potentially aggravate a situation. That is why, like so many others we spoke to, he believes training is key.
“Our research shows that UK managers see dumping their partner as a less daunting task than having to tackle difficult conversations in the workplace. So without managers being given the developmental opportunities to learn mediation skills, they may be struggling.”
OK, here's my point of view. I think that Patrick is absolutely right. I am a big believer in managers as mediators. I think the answer to the question of whether they are up to the job should be a resounding yes. We should be able to look to our managers to provide the people skills to deal with difficult conversations in the workplace.
People management is one of the most fundamental roles for the modern manager and I believe managers are the best mediators an organisation will ever have. But I do, genuinely, understand people’s concerns. And if we don’t see managers as mediators, things have to change. And that’s not down to managers themselves so much as the organisations they work for.
Workplaces are full of conflict and that’s actually not necessarily a bad thing. Conflict is a fundamental part of teamwork and can stimulation innovation, problem solving and team bonding if handled well. Those are all things any good organisation, and any good manager, would want.
We need to build people management and conflict resolution skills into the core competencies of all our leaders. As long as we see these things as some kind of luxury, we risk blocking all of the benefits I've just mentioned.
Mediation is cost-effective and time-effective. It can resolve disputes that otherwise run for the long-term, sapping motivation, engagement and innovation. I make no apology for repeating myself when I say that I believe managers are absolutely the best mediators an organisation will ever have. But we have to invest in them, nurture them and support them.
That is the only way they will develop the skills and confidence necessary to do the job well and convince the doubters that they really are uniquely well placed to be fantastic mediators.
Please add your thoughts and experiences of managers as mediators (good or bad) in the comments section. Please remember to share this article so that others can contribute also.Thank you
I'd like to thank all of the people who contributed to this article and I hope that this debate will continue to happen in organisations up and down the land.
About David Liddle
David is the CEO of The TCM Group and father of three beautiful kids. The latter of which ensures that his conflict resolution skills are continually polished and honed! His greatest passion is mediation and his greatest strength is people. He has over 20 years experience of resolving some of the most complex disputes imaginable. With over 15 full time employees and with 20 expert consultants, TCM are Europe's leading provider of mediation and resolution training, consultancy and policy development