When coaching just isn’t enough, consider mediation

Meet Michelle

Michelle is a young, high potential sales representative working for a large pharmaceutical company. Patrick is a sales manager valued in the company for meeting or exceeding his revenue goals month after month and selling more products than any other sales manager in the business. Michelle is motivated to succeed and is an avid learner. She wants to progress with the company and believes that working for Patrick could provide her with some essential skills and experience in effective selling, so she got a job in Patrick’s sales team.

Things started to go wrong from week 1. Michelle’s previous boss had given her a large degree of autonomy; she was able to suggest and implement new ideas, experiment with different approaches and had a highly trusting and collaborative relationship with her boss. Her new boos, Patrick, just wasn’t like that. His style was autocratic and arrogant. He believed he was successful because of the strategies he personally developed and adopted, and expected others to follow the same approach. He viewed any questioning or suggestions of alternative approaches as a challenge to his experience and expertise and her desire to learn as an indication that Michelle “didn’t know her stuff”. His style bordered on bullying and he had a reputation as a manager who “burns out” his staff. Staff complained of being browbeaten and intimidated, that Patrick favoured some staff over others and persecuted those in his team who were not in his inner circle. Staff turnover in his team was triple that of the business overall.

Was coaching the answer?

Michelle loved the business and wanted to work through the conflict she was experiencing rather than resign. Although she wanted to avoid lodging a formal bullying complaint, she would proceed with one if no action was taken. She discussed the dilemma with her HR Advisor, who suggested Michelle take up a coaching service. Michelle gladly accepted this offer.

The coach played an important role for Michelle during this difficult time, enabling her to express her frustrations and helping her develop greater self awareness of her style, strengths, motivators and “hot buttons”. The coach encouraged Michelle to look at the situation from a range of perspectives and identify strategies to manage her reactions that she had not previously considered. Michelle learned to recognise and respond to Patrick’s different style and needs of her, and was able to incrementally improve communication with him. She started to view the situation as an opportunity to learn how to work with difficult people. After three months, however, Michelle felt she had accommodated Patrick’s behaviour as far as she was prepared to go and, unless he acknowledged the part he played in the relationship and agreed to modify his style, the situation would remain unresolved.

Losing Michelle from the business was the last thing she and the business wanted and so it was in both their interests to try and resolve this ongoing conflict.

An alternative approach – mediation

One-on-one coaching helped Michelle develop practical coping strategies and a sense of resilience, but without engaging Patrick in the process, it only tackled half the problem. This is where mediation could have been a powerful alternative to coaching.

What is mediation?

A trained mediator is a neutral third person who facilitates confidential discussions and negotiations between two people to assist them resolve a dispute or issue and re-establish a positive and productive working relationship. Through insightful questioning, active listening and encouraging participants to identify obstacles and consider alternative strategies, a mediator can help individuals reach a mutually agreeable and satisfactory agreement.

Why choose mediation?

Embarking on mediation with a skilled and accredited mediator has a number of clear advantages over one-on-one coaching or formal litigation. First, it operates a bit like a circuit breaker. Mediation empowers both parties to fully explore and address the issue and identify a range of alternatives they may have not previously recognised. Mediation also empowers parties to reach a solution by mutual consent, rather than a court-appointed order, so compliance with outcomes is more likely. Somehow, meeting a person face-to-face with the intention of resolving an issue together will often lead to the effective resolution of a dispute and restore relationships, compared to embarking on a formal litigious confrontational approach, which can leave parties bruised and relationships broken. The mediation process also enables both parties to be heard in a confidential manner to both parties and the employer (as far as the law allows), which may be important in many instances. Finally, many disputes are resolved quickly through mediation, often in one meeting, and at a fraction of the cost of litigation.

How to select a mediator

When choosing a mediator it is important to ensure he or she has been trained and approved as an accredited mediator and recognised by a mediation accreditation body. This ensures you have a highly competent mediator who will comply with approved practice standards.

It is also helpful to have a mediator who possesses a breadth of experience and maturity, with a style that is facilitative so that parties arrive at a solution themselves. Mediators don’t need to be legal experts, in fact it may be an advantage to select a mediator with broad workplace and life experience who can remain objective and not be tempted to give legal advice or instruction.

When to choose mediation

Before deciding on either a coaching solution or proceeding down the litigation route, ask yourself the following questions. If the answer to these questions is YES, mediation may be a more effective way of resolving an issue:

  •  Is there genuine goodwill on both sides to resolve the issue?
  • Does the issue involve behavioural change or an improvement in relationships between two people?
  • Is there a threat or a likelihood that the matter could end up in litigation if not resolved?
  • Is one or both parties unable or unwilling to proceed with litigation for financial reasons?
  • If you represent the employer, do you want to keep the process confidential and the name of the employer out of the media spotlight, for instance for reputational reasons?
  • If you are one of the participants, would you prefer to resolve the issue confidentially and not have your name and personal situation the subject of speculation or gossip by others?
  • Is it important to resolve the issue quickly?

Mediation is not always the right answer. For instance, it may not be the right approach where:

  • there is a substantial power imbalance between the parties
  • there might be some capacity factors with one party (such as psychological factors)
  • there is suspicion one of the parties may not be acting in good faith – perhaps fishing for information they could then use against the other person.

For more information about how mediation could work for you or your organisation, contact Norah Breekveldt at neb@breekthroughstrategies.com.au