The more traditional view of the British Army might not be that of soft skills and people management, but today sees a useful and usable, future-focused Army with people who respond to the pace of change, develop novel capabilities and respond in a more agile manner. If there’s any organisation that has the potential for problems with staff feeling unable to speak up, it’s the Army. But in reality, the British Army has the biggest mediation operation of any employer in the UK.
The requirement now 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 mangers 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 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 inf 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.
When relationships at work become 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 gain 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 my 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. 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 proves, 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 complaint 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-plus trained mediators drawn from the wider Army and civil service workforce. The army uses a co-mediation model with two mediators present for each mediation. Co-mediation allows different mediators with different skills and backgrounds to work together in a complimentary way. Physically, two pairs of eyes and ears can be better than one and it can allow the mediators to absorb not just the verbal communication from the parties involved, but to take it in turns to assess some of the nonverbal reactions to help bring the parties to common ground. Co-mediators can switch the lead position back and forth according to the emotional climate in the room ensuring that they achieve a balance that best supports the client. 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 more 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 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 the 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 Continued Professional Development 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. Demand for mediator training in the Army is high, with around five applications being received for each available place on the annual course. Interactive meditation is CMP’s model of mediation and is based on the idea that people in conflict need to interact directly with one another to restore communication, rebuild relationships and resolve the issues that are in dispute. The practical, skills-based course is run by experienced mediation practitioners and has been adapted for the Army by fitting the six-day course into five long days to allow it to be completed in a single week. Each participant receives developmental and motivational coaching around their use of skills and use of the mediation process. The course is structured so that delegates get the chance to learn core skills and process early on, before moving into more detailed work on higher levels of conflict and then concluding with the most difficult material including power imbalances and high levels of resistance to the process. There are carefully set-up assessed role plays and interactive small group exercises throughout which allow the delegates the opportunity to put into practice all that they have learned. The trainer to delegate ratio is low- no more than eight delegates with one trainer to ensure maximum input and attention to each delegate. This allows intensive coaching and one to one work which is essential for building skills and competence.
The large pool of mediators not only allows them to be carefully paired with the parties involved but also allows for new mediators to work with a more experienced mediator to ensure that they are supported through their first few mediations. A detailed knowledge of each individual mediator’s strengths and weaknesses allows the Army Mediation Service coordinator to select individuals who will complement each other and provide the best chance of success. The Army’s investment in mediation has had a clearly beneficial effect on the people involved in the process. The service has a success rate of almost 95 percent 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 six-to-18 months). Close cooperation between the Army Mediation Service and the Army’s Bullying Harassment and Discrimination helpline “Speak Out”, also allows any individual who calls with an issue where mediation may be appropriate to be identified. The Speak Out operators can provide an overview of the mediation process and can arrange for the Army Mediation Service to call an individual back at their convenience to provide more detail. 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 for 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, Head of the Unnacepetable Behaviours Unit of the British Army.