Ditch your formal processes and choose mediation

Having been involved in a number of mediations in the work place as part of a larger mediation scheme I have noticed that there appears to be patterns in behaviour that are followed even with different staff involved in the session

Initially the observations are straight forward. The body language employed by each party generally does not require a psychology degree to work out. Staff will move their chair further away from the other party, fold their arms, avoid eye contact etc. The use of an uninterrupted opening statement from each party gives a momentary reprieve from the tension as each party is respectively required only to listen. Here is another interesting area. Each party is required to listen but only they fully know what they have chosen to hear. Thus as the mediator you are intent on gauging the reaction and impact to every aspect of the statement on the other person, analysing which statement have the real impact.

Following this there is the impact time as each party tries to digest what has been said. Bear in mind that there are cases where the parties may well not have spoken for several weeks and the build up of the tension would be considerable. Then comes the explosions as each part fires out with what they really wanted to put forward in the opening statement and now feel brave enough to do so. The reaction of each party to this is always difficult to gauge, some will want to run from the room (and do!) others will respond with counter argument and this section is the most emotive part of the session where the real feelings of anger, resentment and turmoil come out. This is where you can really learn to mediate dangerously, picking your key moments to intervene with the crucial questions, challenging each party to listen to the needs  and expressed emotion of the other party.

This is closely followed by a period of calm. It is almost impossible to stay highly emotive for a prolonged period of time, particularly where that emotion is anger. It uses up a lot of energy being angry with someone and each party quickly realises that this is not a sustainable way of engaging with the other party.

The next stage I feel is also dangerous for the mediator, a period of avoidance. Very often parties will effectively (and jointly) move away from the subject of their joint tension and conflict towards an area of work that they are both familiar and comfortable with talking about. I do not feel this is necessarily an issue to move to this type of dialogue as it opens up communication between parties and shows them that they are able to converse and interact in an acceptable way despite the conflict that exists between them and this is useful in bringing parties towards an agreement. The danger in this section is that the parties perceive this as the resolution to the conflict when in fact they are far and away from resolving the issue. The key for the mediator here is to know when to redirect the conversation back to the conflict in question. This could be done with a simple yet effective question such as ‘Do we feel that the issues are now resolved’ or perhaps ‘how useful do you feel the conversation is in helping you resolve the conflict?’ thus returning the parties back to the issue in question.

In some sessions I have been involved with I have found that the return to the conflict question at this point is much more structure and manageable, because the parties have re-established rapport and trust when discussing other points that they may have been in agreement about. They are much more conducive to problem solving and moving towards a final agreement at this point.

Having been a mediator for approximately 6 years I still feel that this is the most effective way to resolve work place conflict. When people come to me now to say do you think this issue could be resolved via mediation I instinctively say yes, any issue can be resolved using this process. The question really should be about whether we ever need formal processes to resolve conflict and could all issues not be directed through this route first.

Thanks for reading, I would be really interested in your views on mediation or any of the other articles on this page.


Mediating your way out of misery

One of the skills that I am required to draw on quite regularly is a course that I undertook about 6 years ago. Using mediation or conflict resolution as an alternative to following formal procedures is a difficult sell initially but the rewards can be huge. So what is mediation in the work place and how can it be practically implemented in large organisations.

In my organisation we use co mediation, that is working with a mediating partner to resolve issues between two individuals. The discussion initially with the line manager is something along the lines of:

Manager: I have an issue between two colleagues, I have tried resolving this myself but it did not seem to work

HR: Have you considered offering mediation

Manager: Erm, no, but I haven’t got a full day to spare two staff, its not very practical

I would then go on to talk to them about the formal processes, such as bullying and harassment, the various stages of the formal process, interviewing the staff, interviewing witnesses, preparing a statement of case, presenting this to a panel. Eventually this will be brought to a conclusion that is likely to be unsatisfactory to one of the employees and may even have lead to long term sickness absence. I would talk about the hours spent carrying out all this activity, the expense of the staff involved and then ask the question, are you sure that you can’t spare them for one day?

Co mediated days consist of 3 separate meetings. In the morning we would plan two hour long sessions, one hour each dedicated to each of the parties. This gives the individual  the opportunity to explain what has happened from their perspective. They are asked to consider what they expect to get out of the mediation session and to think about what they would like to say to the other party, how they might express this to them and to some degree preparing them for the meeting that will take place in the afternoon.

In the afternoon we will set aside at least 4 hours for the joint mediation meeting. This is the opportunity for the individuals to discuss the issues that have brought them to the table in a safe and facilitated way. I use the word facilitated because the discussion should be owned, directed and concluded by the individuals themselves. The discussion is only guided by the mediators to ensure that the issues that have previously been raised are brought out into the open and discussed with a view to gaining an amicable solution. It cannot be underestimated how powerful an outcome that is owned by the individual and not the organisation can be.

Arriving at a final agreement is also owned by the individuals. I would also normally ask not only do they make the agreement but also consider how they might agree to deal with issues in the future and what steps they would take. Much of conflict resolution is also about re-establishing the communication channels and ensuring that they remain open in the future.

Setting up an internal mediation scheme can be a challenge however the benefits to this can be significant in establishing long term lasting solutions which enable staff to work together and build the business.

How Karl Marx taught me a lesson part 2

In an earlier blog I talked about how my friends history exam got me thinking what I can learn from his actions. Details of his exam response are in the first posting.

The second lesson I gained from this was the sheer simplicity and audacity of what he had done. He had basically told the examiner something factual, easy to understand and to the point. Is this not what your boss is generally looking for? Some professional organisations will ask as part of their assessment for a management report and will give a suggested word count of say 7000 words. Can you imagine your bosses face if you presented an assignment like this to him or her and how quickly you would be asked to go away and summarise to one page of A4?

There is something about keeping your responses simple and easy to understand that allows a number of freedoms in the workplace. Firstly it gives you more time, a commodity that is always in short supply. By keeping your responses to a minimum you reduce the amount of time you spend on other peoples work and increase the amount of time you can dedicate to your own activities. It may seem selfish to do this, but hold on a second, what about the person who just asked you that question? Rather than try and find out the answer themselves they have thought it better to interrupt you and steal some of you time while they discuss a case they have been working on in great detail. Of course you should be polite (after all you may want to encroach on their time tomorrow) but keeping your response to the point will give you more time.

This can also be about modifying other people behaviour. If they can see that you are managing your work well and give them the minimum responses but the answers they need they may also start working in a similar way, increased productivity is then on the distant horizon.

Then there is the way in which the message was delivered, in summary – this is how it is, followed by yes, this is how it is.

Karl Marx was a Marxist, indeed he was…

Very often in business you can find that matters get over complicated, indeed whole industries spring up around the need to generate complexity. Nobody really benefits but it takes a straight talking person to cut through that complexity and state very simply that this is how it could b done better, quicker faster, easier. The latter of these is generally the most popular. Any way to make your life easier is worth the effort, and actually it should be less effort to implement. Think about some of the processes you se in your work place. I recently simplified a system regarding developing job descriptions. The team were creating the job description, recording the request and saving the documents in 3 separate systems, sending it to a panel to check, sending it to another panel to verify and eventually sending it out to advert. Clearly this was about he breaking down of an industry, which took some time to tackle and although not all the objectives were achieved my main objective of only using one system was. Outcome being that a 50% improvement rate in meeting targets for delivery has been achieved.

So next time you are looking at a system failing or maybe just feel a bit stuck in a rut with work, perhaps if you remember my colleague and his exam paper answer it might spur you on to simplify, or at least make you smile.

How Karl Marx taught me a workplace lesson part 1

In answering his history final at university, a colleague of mine was presented with the question as follows:

Explain the influence of Karl Marx and your understanding of his theories.

My colleague, who had clearly made no preparation for this paper considered the question and committed to his answer with his full and unadulterated knowledge, he wrote thus:

Karl Marx…was a Marxist….indeed he was.

and left the room.

I think there are two important lessons here which can definitely be adapted to the work place. The first shows the self admitted naivety of my colleague at that time, and the second perhaps the sheer genius of simplicity.

And so to the first point. What did he fail to do – well clearly he was massively underprepared for the task ahead which of course cannot be underestimated. Even someone who was not a historian would have been able to put forward a more expansive response than the eight words mustered up for the question above. In fact the question was longer than the answer. To gain the advantage when preparing for a meeting or even a simple task in the work place you should first make sure you are aware of as many, if not all of the facts in question. That way you are prepared not only for the questions you have thought of but also for at least some of the ones that have not occurred to you. Secondly you have the option in the work place to potentially reschedule. Most colleagues would be prepared to give you a least some time to get to grips with a project particularly if it is complicated. Also use your diary to good effect. Don’t just schedule in the meetings that you have planned but book in the time to prepare for them and do not let other tasks creep into their place. You will ultimately feel better prepared for your tasks, and perhaps reduce the amount of stress that you put yourself under. Did you ever stop to think about how much workplace stress is self inflicted by poor planning on your part (if you are someone who has not prepared or procrastinate as I am prone to do then this is almost a given that you have not!). The lesson I learned here is, give yourself a break and prepare well, hopefully it will help you lead a life less stressful.

The second lesson I learned will appear in the next blog posting – thanks for viewing.

Frankenstein unbound in the workplace

It is a common theme in the modern workplace, problematic staff. Unfortunately some staff remain problematic despite any level of support that you might offer them. At some point you may, as an organisation decide to take some positive action to attempt to remove that person from the workplace entirely. You are aware of the potential monetary risks and that of your reputation but keeping this person employed may well send you out of business anyway. Another alternative might be that your management team feel that moving the person to another area of work may alleviate the problem, and therein lies the rub.

What they have actually done (unless the person takes with them a clear performance plan) is to move the problem. Thereby leaving that person to be as disruptive in the new job as the old one. Failure to address performance does not make the problem go away. In fact it is simply likely to get worse, much worse. The conversation you might have with that person will be difficult in addressing the problem and may be unpalatable for them, but it needs to be done.

So if we step this up a gear, organisations effectively adopt an informal policy of managing performance by moving people. I have come across examples where the habit has got to the stage of moving all these people to one place of work. Taking you back to the title and if we remember what our eponymous hero Victor Frankenstein did, taking bits of bodies that did not work, stitching them all together in an attempt to breathe life into something that was dead, he created, by his own admission a monster. Not only that, the story goes on to show how his creation disgusts him and yet it eventually destroys him.

Okay so its a bit of a leap from Shelley to the modern workplace but you get my point. Put all these problems together and don’t deal with them and you will soon have your very own monster stalking your career down the corridors of your workplace. My advice, nip the issue in the bud before it gets out of control. Speak to the individual in question, after all if no one ever said what they were doing was wrong how were they to know? Oh and read Frankenstein (yes the book and not the film adaptations). Thanks for reading

Psychopath in the workplace

Ok so having just watched psychopath night from a programme that was on months ago I have picked up some disturbing news around the likelihood that your manager is a psychopath. Further to this the higher up the career ladder you reach the more likely that this is the case. Maybe something to think about when faced with dealing with issues in the workplace. The challenge is to work out how you might handle this person when faced with their manipulative and callous attitudes, or alternatively the shallow charm with which the likes of Hannibal Lechter was able to convince his victims that he was a nice guy whilst he opened a nice bottle of Chanti and eyed up their liver as an entree. Indeed the area where these fellows are found most prevalently is in banking. Note that being in a position to be able to gamble with money and not only that other peoples money is the ultimate goal in terms of achieving what many psychopaths desire, power and money.

So what to do if you are faced with this prospect? Resignation is not always an easy option. Being aware that accepting any person on face value can be naive. When you enter the workplace it is not like going down the pub with your mates. These people aren’t actually your friends, they are competing with you for status power responsibility and possibly that next promotion you were after. You are all there because you are paid to be there, no one pays you to go down the pub with your mates (or if they do I need there email address so I can send them my cv). By no means am I suggesting that you go to work tomorrow and change your dynamic or approach to colleagues who you have worked with for the last 20 years however you need to be at least self aware of other peoples drives and intentions. In short, keep your wits about you people, you never know if the charming young chap sat opposite tomorrow is secretly planning your untimely workplace demise!

HR as the teacher

The role of the teacher

The role of a teacher is complex and multi-faceted. A good teacher is able to evidence that the people who attend your sessions have learned. There is a requirement to be an excellent communicator in the sense that they must be able to engage learners who have different approaches to learning. The same sessions may need to be delivered in different ways to engage learners. The teacher needs to be organised and the delivery of the session must be well planned. Learning cannot happen by chance but is actually part of a series of well informed and well executed plans to engage and educate the learner.

‘A suitable learning environment is crucial for effective learning to take place. This involves not only the venue and resources used, but also your attitude and the support you give to your learners’

Gravells, A. (2007) Preparing to teach in the lifelong learning sector. Learning Matters

A teacher must be suitably qualified, experienced and informed, either via formal qualifications or well prepared research to enable them to deliver the training with confidence and authority. I have achieved this via a combination of the necessary qualification from the chartered institute of personnel and development and through several years of practical experience. This enables confidence in delivering the session and in providing examples and answers to questions from the learners. The teaching role is supportive and involves coaching and mentoring. This is carried out in my day to day work assisting managers with cases and advising them of the appropriate steps to take when dealing with staff.

Being a knowledgeable practitioner in the first instance in many professions is not enough. It is essential that you remain up to date with current best practice and any changes to legislation so the training that you deliver is up to date and relevant.

In relation to current legislation it is important that any educators are aware of their legal responsibilities. Most relevant in the training that I deliver are the Employment Rights Act 1996 which gives reference to most of the casework that I am involved in. covers areas such as disciplinary matters and maternity rights. One of the other areas that is given consideration is the Equality Act 2010 which has superseded legislation such as the Disability and Sex Discrimination acts. This is extremely relevant in designing training to ensure you do not unintentionally cause offence or breach legislation that is designed to protect people. Although it is unlikely to occur in the training session this needs to be a consideration in the session content.

A teacher must use Equality and diversity, considering that each individual learner will have varying needs to potentially be accommodated in the teaching session. Ideally I would want the opportunity to speak to the individual before the session about any concerns that they may have by taking them though the lesson plan and activities, taking account of any concerns that they may have and suggest alternatives that would address these concerns. I would consider any additional equipment that may be required and where this could be sourced from or ensuring that if for example someone required use of a laptop then either this could be provided or if they have their own there is somewhere that they are able to plug it in.  Support measure such as Access to work or internal funding may provide these facilities for people. The best source of information for ensuring that any reasonable adjustments are in place is the individual themselves. In my training I refer to an example of making the appropriate adjustment such as ensuring that the training session is on the ground floor if a wheelchair user is attending rather than installing a lift to enable them to get to the top floor. Other adjustments can be quite simplistic such as providing your hand-outs in large print if the person has sight impairment or recording the session for people who may struggle with their memory. Working in a highly diverse workforce it is also important to recognise and manage the fact that any workforce is a representation of the local community, some of which may hold views which are at odds with those held  by other learners or may hold prejudices which are potentially offensive. I need to be mindful that employees do not breach policy within the discussions and balance this with the rights to tackle issues which may be unpalatable to hear. It is important to remain impartial but also to challenge any behaviours which may be deemed offensive. Serious consideration needs to be given to the individual learner and the fact that a one size fits all training session may not be appropriate. Although it may be partially successful it is certain to fail to engage at least some of the learners. The training should recognise different learning styles and include this in the lesson plan. Without giving due consideration to kinaesthetic, auditory and visual learners via the use of practical tasks, videos and other engaging activities there would be a failure by the teacher to properly consider the needs of the learners.

In ensuring that the teaching environment is suitable there are a number of considerations to take into account. I would need to consider the room layout and giving consideration to learners who may prefer to sit at the front (or at the back!) There may be a requirement for an appropriate space for someone who had physical limitations. Another adjustment may be using colour schemes that are easy to read when operating PowerPoint.

There is a need to ensure learners are comfortable in the learning environment. If consideration is given to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs then at a very basic level this must be met to facilitate good learning.

There are at least five sets of goals, which we may call basic needs. These are briefly physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-actualisation. In addition we are motivated by the desire to achieve or maintain the various conditions upon which these basic satisfactions rest and by certain more intellectual desires.

Maslow, A.H.  A theory of human motivation (1943) Brooklyn College

If for example, I knew that a role-play task would make all the learners uncomfortable and then belligerently went ahead with it this would potentially breach the trust and rapport that has been established. I would be enforcing something that they do now want to be engaged in.

When dealing with adult learners it is important to ensure that the language used and methodology for teaching gives consideration to the breadth of learners you have. In my role I can be expected to train employees in the same session who may be employed in roles as diverse as consultant doctors, domestic supervisors and accountants. The range of professions and skills mean that in order to engage the learners in the session the delivery must be diverse and flexible enough to consider their needs. In applying the policies that they are being taught in the session it is important that you demonstrate the need to respect individuals by showing respect to them. I will often set ground rules for sessions which include managing confidentiality, asking staff to join in discussions with scenarios rather than divulging names, asking that each person is afforded the opportunity to speak if they wish to without interruption. Although individuals can be challenged, people have the right to hold and express their opinions in a safe and constructive way.

As a teaching professional it is important to consider the role that other professionals can have in supporting learners. In the training that I deliver there are several other human resources staff who also deliver the same session, therefore when making any changes I need to ensure that they are fully briefed on the amendments. There is also a requirement within any business environment to consider the direction of travel for the organisation as although the same subject matter can be delivered there are potentially various ways in which you can coach and advise managers to deal with the issue. It may be necessary to adapt your lesson plans to take into account the type of professionals that you are training and/or working for. In managing boundaries account must be taken of your professional role as the teacher and there may be issues which the students are facing which may be beyond your expertise. This could be where the student is having personal problems which although need to be addressed. Potentially this could jeopardise the professional relationship that you have established if you do not advise the student to gain support from other professionals to assist them. An example of this might be a learner asking about getting support with a health issue that might impinge on their employment. In this case I would normally suggest a referral to occupational health so that the issue can be dealt with under professional support. In this way professional integrity is maintained. If the boundary is not established there is the possibility that this could be seen as an opportunity with some students to gain advantage and request higher grades. The way to manage this is to be helpful in signposting the student but being aware that you do not have to actually provide the support yourself. In many cases you may not be best placed with the relevant skills to appropriately support the learner.

In summary the roles and responsibilities of a trainer are complicated due to the need to consider a range of peoples needs when preparing a session. Where these needs are given full consideration however there is a much improved benefit to the learners experience.