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CONFLICT MANAGEMENT: The Manager As Conflict Mediator

lisa 1.1webWhen faced with the job duty of “maintaining harmonious relationships,” many managers and supervisors in my workshops either: (a) chuckle, (b) groan or (c) sigh. So, when “handling drama in the workplace,” or in other words, “dealing with workplace conflict” was one of the top challenges in my supervisory workshop last week, I was not surprised. Furthermore, if you want to build a strong departmental or cross-functional team at stage four in team development, you have get beyond stage two – “storming.” Are you getting the picture? Frankly, you may know it all too well.

So, one important step is the willingness to recognize your conflict resolution role as a manager. That includes a commitment to the following tasks:

• Modeling effective conflict resolution with others

• Clarifying how staff members are expected to respond to and deal with differences in the department which could include the group development of department-wide guidelines and agreements

• Providing resources and training to build competency in conflict resolution among your staff

• Being available as a coach to assist individual members with giving feedback and surfacing issues; and when appropriate

• Acting as a mediator in conflict resolution interventions

Let’s focus on the last task or role responsibility. What situations typically call for a manager to be in that Mediator role?

1. First and probably most typical, is any informal problem solving or group/team discussion where conflict surfaces

2. Customer interaction where the customer is upset (internal or external)

3. Staff member to staff member conflict where they are unable to reach resolution themselves

Screen-shot-2013-02-06-at-1If you can see those opportunities, as a manager, what exactly does it mean you need to do? Not unlike a facilitator, the Mediator in a mediation session:

Facilitates discussion and most importantly, is able to stay neutral throughout the session. I was once involved in a mediation session where each employee was asked to meet with a suspended employee to determine if resolution could be met so that this person could remain employed. The suspended employee had chosen the Mediator which was not the best plan, but I knew this individual and thought that the Mediator had the skills to facilitate the discussion. However, early on in surfacing the issues in the workplace, the Mediator made deliberate comments that “sided” with the suspended employee and directed negative comments about my viewpoint. From that moment on, the mediation was “over” for me and resolution was not reached. In a recent CPP study on Workplace Conflict, “only 22% of non-managerial employees believed that their managers do a great job of sorting out disagreements.” Although not my manager, this Mediator failed to help the situation and instead, did irreparable damage.

Establishes a resolution structure for conflict resolution. A manager needs to have a clear resolution process to follow. We train our managers on a five-step process that focuses on (1) Prepare for resolution, (2) Uncover all points of view, hear all sides, hone in on the problem, (3) Learn what is important to each person and ultimately, define what is important to both of them, (4) Search for all possible options and solutions and (5) Commit to a mutually beneficial agreement with a follow up plan.

Maintains a commitment to ground rules. Typical starting ground rules to call for in mediation include: neutral ground for meeting, shared power among the individuals (one can’t be perceived as more powerful than the other), interdependence (must have to work together or see a need for resolution), and gains for both (both parties must have something to gain in the resolution). Ground rules on behavior, similar to a team’s help/hinder list, will need to be established at the beginning of the session. These ground rules also include what the Mediator needs as well. Once the commitments are made, the Mediator has to hold all parties accountable for adhering to them.

Facilitates discussion that is gentle, open, honest and specific. Non-verbal and verbal language has to be deliberate and geared towards creating this type of environment. Asking good, open-ended questions is key to success.

Listens carefully and surfaces different perspectives; restates and clarifies issues. Again the Mediator needs to have excellent facilitation skills and can gain these abilities through facilitating regular meetings of all types.

Asks for suggestions and works toward a behavioral commitment from all parties. It’s important for a manager to realize that he or she doesn’t have to have all the answers for resolution. Both parties, for buy-in and ownership, can develop their own solutions and agreements in behavior. A manager needs to only guide them in this process, and offer suggestions only after asking for permission.

Brings in additional resources if needed. Here, a manager needs to be able to recognize and admit when it is time to call in Human Resources or another party to help with resolution.

I encourage you to take the time and read again through the expected role description, noting your strengths as well as areas for skill development. Becoming an effective Mediator can help every manager to excel in his or her job and create a dynamic, highly functioning departmental team.


Looking to build upon the ideas in this post?  We encourage you to download our FREE Innovative Leadership Guide Volume 2, especially pages 43-56 as they deal specifically with conflict.

The Innovative Leadership Guide Volume 2

3 Responses to “CONFLICT MANAGEMENT: The Manager As Conflict Mediator” Leave a reply ›

  • Great article and website. Interesting question we had and would be interested in your response. Is it possible for the manager to continue in the role of conflict mediator when issues involve him/her? Your final, and very valuable message “Becoming an effective Mediator can help every manager to excel in his or her job and create a dynamic, highly functioning departmental team”
    Our thought is that though your training and employee development, your client organizations are “pre-emptive” in conflict. Would appreciate your comments.

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    Thanks ColoradoNDR for your comment,

    First, we like to follow a certain conflict resolution protocol which we help organization’s/team’s establish at the beginning of our relationship with them. This protocol includes the steps to go one-on-one with the person you’re having an issue with, two-on-one, team-on-one and then it goes up to management which could take it as a disciplinary action (because its already gone through 3 levels of engagement and attempts at resolution). We find this to be effective because it puts the ownership with the two conflicting parties, as well as hold each person accountable before it ever goes to management for resolution. This tends to lessen the time taken away from the manager’s core responsibilities in order to resolve conflicts. Obviously, you have to have a protocol like this in place and make sure everyone has had proper conflict resolution training to ensure success.

    In terms of can a manager be involved (as a party) in a conflict and be a mediator at the same time – the easy answer is no. The mediator is there as a neutral party to provide perspective, feedback and facilitation. If the manager has a vested interest in one side or another, he/she should relinquish their mediator role.

    Not entirely sure what you mean by ‘pre-emptive,’ but perhaps we answered it in the beginning stating that there are guidelines and protocols and conflict resolution only works when both parties have been through some sort of conflict resolution education or training. Otherwise, there is one party trying to ‘functionally’ solve the conflict for the good of the relationship and the other party without being competent in conflict resolution is at a disadvantage and quite possibly ‘dysfunctional’ in their resolution.

    Hope that helps,

    Matt Harrington
    New Directions

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