The Mediator Mindset: A Leader’s Guide to Conflict Resolution

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This article is part of the Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series.

There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and conflict in the workplace. ADF leaders play a key role in resolving workplace disputes and must address the process properly or risk harm to workplace culture, cohesiveness, morale, performance and possibly mission success. While a leader may be tempted to ‘ignore the problem away’, applying a Mediator Mindset empowers conflicting parties to begin a path to resolution guided by mutual understanding, open communication and accountability. 

The catalyst for workplace conflict can arise from even the most minor or negligible dispute that is fueled by workplace tensions, incompatibility or perceived differences in values, objectives or desires. Disputes can include personality clashes, leadership/followership style differences, poorly communicated or understood expectations of responsibilities, unmet personal needs and perceived inequities of resources.

For ADF leaders, adopting a Mediator Mindset approach can resolve disputes at the lowest possible level by delegating ownership of the resolution to conflicting parties. Employing mediation principles goes beyond the resolution of individual workplace conflicts; it enables leaders to promote the belief that a peaceful resolution is possible and works to protect and rebuild the relationship the parties had before the dispute. Some further benefits of assisted negotiation through a mediator are:

  • Mutuality. Occurs when all parties share the mutual understanding. Third party assistance will allow them to voluntarily and willingly negotiate in a safe and supportive environment in the hope of achieving agreeable outcomes.
  • Confidentiality. Workplace disputes often play out very publicly. Mediation removes the conflict from public view and opinion to an arena where discussions should remain strictly confidential. 
  • Support. At the point a leader intervenes in a workplace dispute, conflicting parties are likely to be emotionally charged, deeply divided, and unable to foresee a healthy and productive working relationship. The success of the mediation process is dependent on the leader creating a supportive environment and sound process that focuses on restoring belonging and self-worth for all involved. 
  • Cost saving. Cost is hard to quantify, but think back to workplace conflicts you’ve witnessed in the past and its cost to time, productivity, and ADF resources. 

Co-writing this article is Malia Naupoto, a trained mediator who served on the South-East Queensland panel. She offers five essential steps (in the fitting acronym P.E.A.C.E) that ADF leaders can follow throughout the conflict resolution process to take action, build trust, and enable a collaborative resolution for the conflicting parties:

  • Prepare for the mediation process. The success of mediation is dependent upon the work done before all parties formally meet. The mediator must shift the mindset from leader to facilitator (and not a counsellor!) as they begin the process by conducting individual pre-discussions with each party to inform them of their roles and explain the process. The mediator must confirm each participant’s willingness to be involved in the mediation, and ensure all parties have a clear understanding of information/resources or alternate avenues for advice or support available pre-, during, and post-mediation 
  • Establish ground rules. Applies to all parties in the same room, begin by introducing yourself with confidence and warmth to create a foundation of openness and trust. Clearly establish your impartiality, reinforce voluntary nature of mediation, and seek the verbal agreement of parties to show respect and be actively involved in the process. 

An outline of the mediation process, which can include: Statements (parties briefly outline their primary issues relating to the conflict), Summaries (mediator conveying comprehension by confirming accuracy through summary of issues raised reflecting both facts and feelings), Agenda Setting (setting a neutral agenda of ~ 3-5 matters based upon key issues raised), Exploration (guiding parties through each agenda item and unpacking perceptions and feelings), Facilitating solution options (prompting discussions on possible solutions), Agreement (if any are made, facilitating the writing to maintain objective language and ensuring copies are available), and lastly, Conclusion (summary of session including congratulating parties and any next steps). 

  • Active dialogue. While an agenda is used to guide the mediation, it is important to be flexible with time, particularly during the Exploration step, as this creates the foundation of reviewing the past and analysing the present to create a better solution. Active dialogue is encouraged through phrasing open-ended questions which draws out different perspectives, the clarification of any incidents, and the underlying causes of the dispute. For example: Party A can you describe to Party B a time when your relationship was positive? What did that look like? Explain to Party A how that made you feel? Party A, take Party B through your memory of the incident from start to finish.

To inspire active dialogue, the mediator must also actively listen. Use the party’s own words to help frame questions and paraphrase when a key issue has been communicated or when moving to the next agenda item. For example: Party A and Party B, you have both discussed the matter of X, is there anything new you would like to add? If no, suggest moving onto the next agenda item

  • Create a way forward. After focusing on the past and present through the Exploration step, the mediator has the option of holding private sessions if needed. Shifting the dialogue to become ‘future focused’ will guide parties towards potential solutions. Use of a whiteboard will help visualise these options and ask impartial questions that promote active discussion. If an agreement has been reached, ensure that all issues have been addressed, and that the solution is clear and sustainable. A final important element is to formally conclude by congratulating parties, reinforcing confidentiality, and emphasising the ownership of each party to the agreement. 
  • Eliminate root causes of conflict.  Leaders must invest in reviewing the culture in the workplace and organisation to determine if the conflict is a representation or manifestation of deeper issues that need to be addressed. This may be where command is exercised through enforcing prescribed solutions to these root causes, taking swift administrative action, or configuring the environment to mitigate the conflict. An individual appreciation of each dispute is key to assessing the conflict as a risk to the team, unit, or even the mission, and the speed at which resolution needs to occur.

As a leader, approaching conflict resolution with a Mediator Mindset ensures disputes are managed with a spirit of empowerment and understanding. The process may not always have a successful outcome, but it is important that all parties are afforded equitable opportunity to express grievances and agree to solutions. Some disputes lend themselves well to the involvement of a mediator, while others may have participants that are unwilling to negotiate, situations that involve sensitive personal matters (including the member’s family), or legal elements that go beyond a mediators remit to solve. These should be directed up the chain of command or to relevant policing authorities as appropriate. 

ADF leaders can refer to the Complaints and Alternative Resolutions Manual (CARM) on the DPN which outlines the process for managing and resolving unacceptable behaviour, complaints, and workplace conflicts. The CARM details options for Alternative Dispute Resolution Services, which is an additional tool for leaders and individuals to deal with workplace conflict.

Handy Resources

Biographies of co-authors

Malia Naupoto is a Personnel Capability Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. She is a Jack Cranstoun Mediation Scholarship Winner completing the National Mediation Accreditation course and was a South-East Queensland Panel Mediator. Malia is an advocate for empowering Pasifika people, Mediation and Gender Peace and Security. Twitter: @MNaupoto.  

Lyndsay Freeman is a Transport Officer in the Australian Army. She is a Chief of Army Scholar for 2020 and is completing a Master of International Development Practice, specialising in Gender, Peace & Security, at Monash University. Lyndsay is passionate about the ADF’s pivotal role in advocating for women’s empowerment across the globe. Twitter: @LyndsayFreeman8.