Why Employee Mediations Fail — and How to Get Them Back on Track

Here’s a hypothetical scenario. Maybe you can relate.

Two department heads are leading a project for a tech startup on the cusp of exponential growth. They don’t get along. In fact, they have never gotten along. And working in close contact has exacerbated their problems. As a critical deadline looms, their Slack channels are awash in snarky jabs, their direct reports bicker relentlessly with one another over minutiae, and you, their supervisor, have just discovered that they failed to assign a major task to anyone on the team because their communication is so strained.

Time for some team mediation? You bet.

At the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR) at Columbia University Teacher’s College, we lead research that promotes conflict resolution and helps people work through difficult problems. Ten years ago, at the request of the UN, we undertook a review of empirical studies about mediation. Through that work, we identified four primary reasons why mediation can fail.

As a leader, before you step in to resolve a difficult conflict like the one above, it can be helpful to know the problems that often arise — where your good intentions might go awry — so you can avoid them. First, we’ll share the four chief reasons mediations get derailed, and then we’ll highlight strategies you can implement to avert them.

Four Reasons Mediation Fail

High intensity

The higher the intensity of a conflict, the more likely it is for mediation to collapse because the odds of one of the disputants storming out or freaking out and further damaging the relationship goes up. In our scenario above, the fact that the project is high stakes and the department heads have never gotten along are factors that notch up the tension levels.

Competitive relationships

Conflicts that occur between people or groups who are competing against one another, especially over coveted resources, are also prone to fail in mediation. For example, perhaps those two department heads are fighting over sparse funding allocations or even the attention and recognition rarely doled out by higher-ups.

Limiting conditions

Efforts that are greatly constrained by time, law, norms, or other factors are also prone to flop. To suggest that two employees can work out their issues in a single, two-hour meeting might be wrong. Working things out takes as long as it takes, and mediation doesn’t always respond to the parameters that organizations draw.

Unspoken issues and hidden agendas

Problems can’t be resolved in open dialogue if important issues are kept hidden. For example, perhaps there are tensions around gender equity in the office, and the department heads in this scenario are different genders. Mediations that involve issues that organizations aren’t talking openly about tend to fail.

So how can you guide your staff, your company, or other types of negotiations out of these these entrenchments?

One of us (Joshua) pilots conflict for a living as the chief strategy officer for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. His team has settled major disputes over national railroads, a state-wide public pension system collapse, and even the government’s largest-ever federal investment in transportation infrastructure in Native American land. We share his lessons — learned from those experiences — to help any leader successfully navigate landmines in mediations.

The standard mediator’s role is ideally to open dialogue and then disappear, allowing the parties to reach their own resolutions. Once the mediation is underway, you want to offer a relational, non-judgmental approach by asking questions, reflecting the answers, and reframing what’s being said to help the parties expand their viewpoints.

But to do so, business leaders need to learn to navigate the four tripwires we’ve observed in mediation failures. This is where mediators can assume different roles (beyond the standard mediator role) to limit the potential damage of a dispute and get it back on track. What’s key is knowing which flash points to watch for, and devising strategies and developing skills for how to navigate each. We call this adaptive media, and research shows that it works.

To explain the roles you may need to take as a mediator, we’ve devised a cast of characters that allow you to role-play through these scenarios with success.

The Medi

A mediator’s first task is to gauge and control the intensity of a conflict. For those highly volatile ones, it’s important to play the role of medic by triaging the conflict to reduce its intensity. A mediator in medic mode is active — they remain highly present throughout the process and enforce communication guidelines like keeping people from going on the attack. This does not necessarily require an overly firm intervention; Instead, the medic strikes a deft balance between allowing the parties to vent while slowing them down long enough that they begin to talk. Meanwhile, they reframe, rethink, and reflect the conflict back to the parties and stay self-aware enough to keep themselves cleanly out of the dispute.

The medic’s best tools are controlling the process, managing emotions, and providing a structure that finally lets the involved hash it out, in a reasonable amount of time. Simultaneously, it’s up to the medic to model a positive example of self-composure and self-expression, and to reassure those involved, all while consistently evaluating and reframing their problems. The medic’s authority as an executive helps. A strong presence controls the room, and that control leads to better outcomes. But don’t just walk into the room and take control — take the time to get an accurate read of the situation and then be ready to adjust rapidly to address the specific derailers at hand.

The Referee

The next task for the mediator is to assess whether the dispute is primarily a win-lose competition. If so, you need to be prepared to support firm and fair negotiations between them. The referee models how to effectively bargain and horse trade and efficiencies settles. The referee also gives guidance and direction and makes the rules of the process crystal clear.

The referee does this by carefully evaluating the fairness and viability of both sides’ proposals. And also facilitating compromise and trade-offs or finding ways to expand the pie to move the parties out of a win-lose mentality. There may be more common ground than you think. For instance, in the hypothetical example above, it may be that the budget assigned to the project is not sufficient for either of the department heads to get their jobs done. That shared perspective can help align them toward working on a resolution together. One caution: Approach this role carefully — the evaluative nature of the approach requires high credibility to execute successfully.

The Fixer

Another critical task is to identify any major constraints on the mediation. Here the fixer makes an assessment with the goal of pushing restrictive situations toward new possibilities. Are there external constraints like bad timing (a pressing deadline makes it impossible to think), lack of privacy, restrictive HR procedures, or others that are keeping the parties from working things out? If so, look at what you can do to lessen those constraints; ideally you do this before bringing the disputants together.

The fixer can address tight constraints by calling them out and if necessary, discussing and solving them with the involved parties to make the necessary accommodations. This can trigger a more cooperative dynamic. The fixer can also leverage certain constraints to begin to lower the aspirations of anyone who’s completely stuck in their position or is there only to prevail. For instance, if the financial costs of a stalled project are escalating due to the dispute, the fixer might play to the budget concerns of the disputants to get them to budge off their position. Note that playing the fixer role well often requires a can-do attitude.

The Counselor

Now for the tough part — to carefully surface unexpressed concerns or hidden agendas. This is where the counselor role comes in. It’s best to speak privately with each party to unearth those covert issues. The counselor is a neutral coach who makes all parties feel safe, heard, and understood. The private caucus is sacred space created by the mediator for the benefit and comfort of the parties. The counselor must set the tone to show their employees, “Here is a safe space where we can get work done.”

The counselor’s tools are listening, coaching, questioning, clarifying, and probing the history of the dispute, all while taking their time. This approach often gets frustrated parties to open up about sensitive issues like workplace inequity, such as concerns about wages, access to promotions, advancement opportunities, and an unequal distribution of work. It’s often in these more open, candid conversations that managers get a more accurate sense of the challenges some employees face.

In some mediations, you may need to play all four of these roles to move things forward. Other times, you may lean heavily into just one. The key is to assess which of the pitfalls the parties are at risk of falling into and respond accordingly. Much like controlling the center of a chess board, successful mediation is also about knowing which risk to address when and how to get back to a smooth resolution process.

Editor’s note: This article was prepared by Joshua Flax in his personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) or the United States government. References to the FMCS should not be construed as FMCS’s endorsement of any product, service, enterprise, or the material contained herein.

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