When relationships at work get fractious this not only affects the individuals involved but also impacts on those around them. Despite the pressures of constant change and tightening budgets, organisations need to get the most from their people. Commitment to the job, as well as the values of an employer, can be undermined by small disagreements and frictions between different personalities.
Employees need to feel they can be open whenever there’s a problem, safe in the knowledge that their issue is going to be dealt with in a balanced and mature way, free from internal politics. Effectively dealing with these issues makes good business sense and, when problems cannot be solved by immediate line managers, mediation can be an excellent way of tackling them. Mediation not only helps resolve workplace disputes but also has an array of further advantages including positive culture change, employee wellbeing, recruitment and retention.
The more traditional view of the Army might not be that of soft skills and people management, but much has changed. What is required today is a useful and usable, future-focussed Army with people who respond to the pace of change; who develop novel capabilities and respond in a more agile manner. The requirement is for line managers to embrace diversity of all kinds, ensure people feel they belong, develop and nurture talent in order to achieve, and promote health and wellbeing. All this is underpinned by the Army’s operating model which is based on clear shared values and standards recognised by all with an inclusive climate driven by strong leadership.
In common with other large and complex international organisations, the Army has a plethora of workplace cultures and management styles where colleagues and line managers share a reluctance to acknowledge problems and engage in conversations to resolve them. In the Army, this is exaggerated by hierarchical structures which are both traditional and an important practical part of the culture. A career structure where individuals often move jobs on a two to three-year timeline, combined with a can-do attitude, can lead to issues being ignored and, even if acknowledged, endured for what is seen to be an acceptable amount of time. If frustrations lead to an individual resigning, a replacement needs to be ‘grown’ from the bottom – there is not currently the option for lateral entry.
If workplace frictions are identified, they are usually dealt with promptly at the lowest level by line managers across the organisation. If complainants so wish, the next step in the process is to enter the formalised Service Complaints process which is embedded in law and overseen by an Ombudsman. This process is applauded and has created a transparent and open way for soldiers to voice their complaints; however, the scope of the complaints received, the lack of individual ownership and the onerous burden on line managers are some of the more negative consequences. In seeking a way to encourage issues to be dealt with at a more appropriate level of escalation, the military adopted mediation as an additional option. The Army, having now fully embraced mediation, has established a discrete mediation service centrally coordinated with an active pool of 80+ trained mediators drawn from the wider Army and civil service workforce.
An essential part of the process adopted by the Army Mediation Service is that everyone that contacts them receives a one-to-one confidential phone call giving them the opportunity to discuss their issues with a trained mediator and understand the mediation process in detail. This is especially important not just for the parties in dispute but also for the department point of contact who provides continuity and assists parties with embedding any agreements. In many cases, these initial calls with the department encourage low-level conversations and often unlock the issue before moving to formal mediation. Against a background of mandating mediation, the Army retains its voluntary approach, preferring strong encouragement and positioning mediation in parallel to the formal grievance process.
Centralised coordination of Army mediation has proved critical to its success. Mediators are carefully matched with the demographics of the individuals involved, are unknown to either party and are independent of any reporting structure. All pre-, during and post-mediation arrangements are discussed in detail with the department point of contact including location, dress and follow up conversations and are designed to maximise success. A coordinated approach to CPD has assured a higher level of consistency in delivery of mediations and a wider use of the mediator pool in other activities linked to resolving conflicts including presentations throughout the wider Army and involvement in the Army’s wider culture surveys (Climate Assessments). Learning is ongoing and is built into the pre and post mediator briefings, mandated development days and an annual conference where best practice is shared. Selection for mediator training is rigorous as is their professional training which is delivered by an external provider, CMP Solutions, who have a wealth of experience in the field of mediation. Demand for mediator training in the Army is high, with around five applications being received for each available place on the annual course.
The Army’s investment in mediation has had an incredibly beneficial effect on the people involved in the process. The Army Mediation Service has a success rate of almost 95% in terms of mediation leading to positive resolutions, as well as facilitating improved working environments and wellbeing. The average time taken, from initial contact, to mediation being completed is around four weeks and, if successful, this can prevent a formal grievance being made (a process that can take anything from 6 – 18 months).
Mediation can unlock frictions and encourage more time for appropriate conversations at the lowest level of escalation. The Army model for mediation has not only minimised the demands on management time and reduced the potential for conflict but has also helped the organisation with addressing the wider issue of workplace culture. Mediation and a wider knowledge of the associated soft skills (improved listening and greater empathy) have resulted in an increased individual and collective confidence in the early and timely resolution of workplace issues.
Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan (Trigger) Buxton Royal Artillery, heads up the Unacceptable Behaviours Team which includes; the Army Mediation Service, the Army’s confidential Bullying Harassment and Discrimination helpline, Respect for Others training and Army Climate Assessments.