It is common for disputing parties, especially in the workplace, to have a power dynamic in which one has more pull than the other. This can be true if the workplace conflict includes an employee and their manager, an employee and their customer, or workers from different departments sparring over work details.
Felicia Staub, a Washington State-based mediator recognizes the impacts of power in mediation, the challenges it can present in the process, and why it’s important to balance power before finalizing a solution.
Power Dynamics in Workplace Conflict
It’s important to remember that mediators don’t create the solutions sought in the mediation process. Instead they support conflicting parties in communicating their perspective and proposed solutions to each other. This fosters a collaborative effort toward finding a solution that meets some needs of everyone involved.
Staub argues that, because of this, mediations must include a balancing of power in order for them to remain effective. Without that balance, one party may utilize their position to manipulate the other or force their agenda into the solution. In this case, the less powerful party may feel as though they can’t advocate for their position or express their viewpoints without punishment, retaliation, or coercion.
One major problem with this outcome is that the mediation is less likely to result in a mutually beneficial solution, leaving one party unsatisfied and perhaps even feeling silenced. This can serve as kindling for future conflicts where tension and resentment remain in the relationship.
A Foundation for Balancing Power
While there is a natural hierarchy in workplaces that remain effective in certain key areas of business functioning, companies can take some preventative measures to ensure that typical workplace power imbalances don’t ignite or further complicate conflict that may naturally arise.
One way to ensure the power can be used for and not against all involved parties is for employers to cultivate a company culture that encourages open communication between managers and employees. This means that, while managers are still responsible for calling the shots, they can receive feedback and openly understand the ever-evolving needs of their employees. This can not only improve the relationship and communication skills brought to mediation in service to a collaborative outcome, it can even help prevent conflict altogether.
Reminder for Employers
There is a time and place for relying on power to get a job done. Mediation is not one of those places. If employers want to nip workplace conflict in the bud and keep the business operational and productive, they will take heed to the message that, in mediation, all humans are created equal. This means no employee should ever feel silenced in mediation for fear of retaliation, nor should an employee feel as though their needs are less important than their managers simply because of their job title.
Employers that use aggressive communication before, during, and/or after conflict are sure to maintain a company culture ripe with conflict. Consistent utilization of effective communication can not only mitigate the impacts of current conflict, it can prevent future conflict, too. This may put the onus on managers to ensure they are communicating professionally with their employees and perhaps also that they provide resources like conflict resolution coaching to their employees to ensure the whole company has the tools needed to express themselves effectively.