The Modern Way to Handle Disputes
Are we living in an era where mediation is the way to govern all relationships?
Go back 30 or even just 20 years and the way that personal and business relationships were managed was far more hierarchical and prescriptive.
In business we lived in an era of "organisational man," the person who worked for one organisation all his of her life. In return for having a job for life that person would show loyalty to their employer and would also be expected to do as they were told. Essentially it was an old fashioned paternalistic approach – ‘you do as you are told and we’ll look after you’.
An employee whose face didn't fit was quietly sacked (with very little reason given) and bullying tactics to manage supplier, employees and even customers were not uncommon.
Fundamentally it was the organisation who dominated the employment relationship.
Outside work, and at home and with the relationship with the children, the parent would dictate to the children what was required. It was very much a ‘speak when you are spoken to and don’t answer back’ culture.
Oh how times have changed!
You can’t watch TV or walk down the high street without seeing the significant change in the child / parent relationship which is reflected right the way across society. Gone are the days when the parent had all the power – not always a bad thing of course. Just think about the difference in teacher pupil relationships too. In my school days a slap on the hands with a ruler to punish bad behaviour wasn’t uncommon. Today teachers aren’t even allowed to touch a child’s arm in a gentle attempt to get them to quieten down and listen to another pupil.
And of course this change is reflected in business too. As society has become more affluent and individuals less dependent on the paternalistic care of the employer and with global market competition meaning no job can be assured for life the whole dynamic has changed. Couple this with the growth of technology and the internet which has enabled small business players to exert a great deal of influence within new business life and you can see that power has shifted from the large organisation to the individual.
Such a position has been reflected in Daniel Pink's excellent book Free Agent Nation which highlights the dramatic shift in attitudes about and patterns of work in the economy from the early 1950s era of William Whyte's The Organisation Man to today's independent worker, the free agent.
He has shown that there is a major shift in the definition of what employment now means to millions of people and this in itself has changed the way that business relationships work.
The way that conflict and ‘bad behaviour’ is dealt with has changed too.
In the home most parents nowadays don't resolve disputes with their kids by resorting to a smack or the threat of having their heads ‘banged together' (as my mum always used to say). Instead there’s much more discussion and negotiation.
Today's society encourages an increased independence in young people, causing them to be far more self-reliant and confident from a very young age. With better access to information children are more inquisitive and generally more knowledgeable in the way of the world so it’s not enough for a parent to be older and wiser and take a ‘do as I say’ attitude. Instead many children will need an explanation for decisions and will want to negotiate on everything from what time they go to bed, to what they eat for lunch and what they wear.
In business the employer / employee relationship has changed in a similar way. Perhaps as a result of worker power originally through the union movement – but probably more recently through the changing shape of business. Since the recession of the early 80s, when significant redundancy programmes affected many big businesses, workers have realised that it’s every man for himself and whilst many will loyally stay with an employer others will be more promiscuous and at times more demanding, sometimes even pushing the limits of what is acceptable behaviour.
Another major change of course is in the law to protect workers rights and the rights of the individual in terms of age, sex, race and so on. The law has been changed to protect – and in some instances it's made it very difficult for old style managers and hierarchical organisations to know how to handle employees, especially when disputes occur.
The Modern Approach
Getting around a table and trying to come to an agreement is the modern approach - it saves time, it saves money, it allows relations between the parties to continue, to keeps things private that may have gone into the public domain which due to the power of the modern media and the Internet can happen all too easily.
With this in mind, there is greater pressure on us to communicate in both assertive and yet conversational ways which encourage retention of staff and overall recognises the shift in power to the individual or in the case of the family towards the child.
In essence the approach to dispute resolution has changed from a power struggle to find a winner and loser or for one party to prove they are right at the expense of the other to an approach which is all about trying to find a solution that both parties can accept. It’s all about negotiation and mediation in other words.
I’ve written before about How to Negotiate Successfully and How to Use Mediation in Employment Dispute situations but what are the key skills that are needed by those involved in a dispute situation – whether it’s around the dinner table with the children or at work with troublesome employees?
When you are in a dispute situation it is essential to manage the stress of confrontation. It is important that all parties feel able to express themselves but not in a way which descends into uncontrolled anger or violence. Of course that’s the advantage of having an independent person involved in such meetings. Around the dinner table a grandma can diffuse the anger of a situation by encouraging both parties to listen and try to understand the other’s perspective and in a business situation a trained mediator can be invaluable to the success of an effective meeting between employer and employee or business owner and supplier.
For both companies and their staff things take time – whether it’s the elongated process of negotiation around redundancy or trying to reach agreement in a business dispute over payment. Which means a degree of patience is required, rushing in with your first reaction may cause you to say or do things that make matters worse.
Following a sensible basic dispute management structure and taking professional advice from those trained in negotiation and mediation can be invaluable if you want a good result.
If you are to have any hope of coming to a settlement it is essential that you listen carefully – to what’s being said as well as what’s being left unsaid. Reading between the lines is a real skill that a mediator will use to get to the real nub of an argument and find out what the parties are really so upset about and what they really want to happen as a result. It’s often not as obvious as it appears. An employee may be battling against dismissal, not because they can’t see they did wrong but because they are worried about losing face with their work colleagues. Sometimes a better deal can be struck by accepting these concerns and finding a solution which placates them.
To maintain harmonious business and personal relationships and to get the best deal in any negotiation you need to be constantly anticipating and thinking about your overall strategy and how you are going to get the best out of the situation.
If you recognise the scenario we’ve painted here and need help in understanding the modern way to handle disputes contact Justin Patten of Human Law Mediation. Or alternatively why not read more about how mediation can be used to handle disputes in our downloadable guide.
The Human Law Mediation guide to Keeping Disputes Out of the Courtroom is available to download from the website.
It is essential reading for anyone using mediation into their organisation for the first time, for lawyers keen to understand what all the fuss is about and for HR professionals who want to understand this highly effective dispute resolution technique.
The guide covers the cost of disputes to UK businesses, what causes disputes at work, why the current system for settling disputes doesn’t work as well as the many alternatives available to Court room battles. It also contains an essential six point plan for mediation success and a model for effective mediation.
You can download a copy of the Guide to Keeping Disputes out of Court for free here.