Change projects can often continue over weeks, sometimes even months.  From an HR viewpoint, the focus of managing the change is on how the workforce is adapting to new working situations, new colleagues, and sometimes even a completely new approach to how their work is now carried out.

We tend to believe that people don’t like change and that their automatic response is likely to be some form of obstruction.  This is not necessarily true as a starting point.  Generally, there is always some level of concern, but if dealt with quickly and adequately, with lots of information and opportunities to ask questions and get satisfactory answers, the level of concern can be reduced to a low level and business can continue as usual.

But sometimes two situations occur:

  1. Certain staff members fear that the change will be bad for them, despite any amount of information, consultation and assurance they receive and their response is obstructive and difficult.
  2. Disputes break out where staff cannot resolve issues that arise between them.

When either or both of these situations occurs the concentration of the staff involved will be focused more on their problem than on their work and, if not resolved quickly and effectively, will both involve and distract others around them.

For a Manager leading a change project, not having the full attention and involvement of staff is going to cause delays and have a knock-on effect if the project is trans-Company. 

It may be that the Manager has made attempts to settle the problems informally but no matter what is tried, nothing succeeds and the situation becomes entrenched, with no-one prepared to move or consider compromise.

2 employees shaking hands after mediation

What tools does a Manager have in such a situation to bring the situation under control.  It has to be his or her ultimate aim to return the situation to one of harmony and good relations, without having to allocate blame or lose staff in the process.  There are formal responses, but if the situation can be resolved before such escalations, so much the better.  If the Manger has good working relationships with his or her staff, then s/he will have an idea at an early stage that something is not working, that relationships have been disrupted and that it is in his/her interest to get back on track as quickly as possible.

From the staff viewpoint, if left too long without resolution one formal approach is to raise a grievance via the Company’s grievance procedure.

The problem with this is that it then reaches a level where there has to be an outcome that either supports or denies the grievance.  Whatever the outcome, someone is not going to come out of it well.  The unsupported injured party may well believe themself to be suffering from undue stress, which can then lead to a period of sickness.  And as anyone knows who has dealt with a stress related illness, there is no quick or easy resolution.

From the Manager’s viewpoint, if he or she sees that one party’s behaviour is unacceptable, the formal process is to instigate an investigation and ultimately hold a disciplinary hearing, resulting in a sanction.  But in a case where behaviours are involved and the individual believes that they have a genuine grievance, they will be unhappy if what they see as their valid grievance/dispute with another member of staff is made subject to a disciplinary procedure.  Even if the outcome is not a sanction, feelings will run high and trying to resume business-as-usual will take up a lot of the Manager’s time.

So, is there any other form of action that can be taken, where informal discussions failed but the Company doesn’t want to spend time on formal procedures?

The answer is “Yes”.  There is a half-way house between these two actions.  It’s called Mediation and it’s a generally very successful process that is quick, intense and based on returning to good working relationships without the need to use the Company’s formal procedure.

Mediation is itself a process, structured and formalised, but with the aim of the parties resolving their dispute, facilitated by a professionally qualified Mediator, who is an independent and impartial person.  It is his or her role not to find solutions, but to encourage dialogue aimed at the parties discussing their standpoints and finding a way between them to bring about a resolution.

Mediation Process board next to coffee cup, gavel and stationery.

From the Company’s viewpoint, it’s carried out quickly.  There is a pre-discussion between the Mediator and the Company and if the decision is to go ahead, short discussions between the Mediator and the parties, followed by the process that takes one working day.

The process begins when the Mediator is clear that both parties are coming voluntarily to the talks and are willing to explore a joint solution.  They start the day with separate discussions, based around what it is that has brought them to this point and what they would like to say to the other person.  A statement is then prepared with the help of the Mediator.  In the second half of the process the parties come together, read their statements to each other and, again with the help of the Mediator, discuss common ground.  This then leads to the preparation of a joint statement of intent about how they will go forward, which both parties sign.

Of course, the statement is neither legal nor binding, but having been constituted by both parties, they have a vested interest in making it work.

If the mediation has been successful the Company will be informed and the parties can return to work the following day, differences resolved and ready to work either harmoniously together, or to be able to work in the same team without stress or antagonism.

Does it sound too good to be true?  This has been said, but in both private sector mediation and mediation through ACAS who offers the service, success is achieved in about 80% of cases.  In those cases where it does not work, the Company can still fall back on its own grievance and disciplinary procedures if there is no other way forward.

For Managers, mediation can quickly bring resolution to what is the ongoing headache of managing people who are in dispute and bring back focus to the work in hand.

Mediation isn’t a panacea to solve all ills.  It cannot address legal or criminal issues, but it can move entrenchment.  It will take a skilled and experienced mediator to bring about a successful resolution and there is a cost, but most Managers will agree that, for a truly harmonious outcome, it’s a price worth paying.