Is Mediation Right for Your Small Business?

two people talking, sitting at a table in front of a window

Is Mediation Right for My Small Business?

Let’s set the scene:

Jennifer opened her own catering business. She hired Morgan, a recent marketing graduate, to manage the marketing for the business. However, they never fully discussed the details of the role and expectations for the work — after all, things move fast on a small team and everyone has to pitch in. Jennifer is expecting timely campaigns including social media, email marketing, and Facebook ads. Morgan was expecting an Emily in Paris experience.

Fast forward 6 months:

Jennifer has tried meeting with Morgan about her poor performance and clarifying what she was looking for. However, after a few conversations, the situation is starting to affect the work environment. Morgan is frustrated because she feels like Jennifer is dumping a large workload on her without reflecting a fair salary. Jennifer feels like Morgan is being lazy and has unrealistic expectation of an entry-level role and salary. This scenario is not a minor conflict to ignore and move on from. Jennifer and Morgan need help.

Why Conflict Management Is Hard for Small Businesses

First, in smaller companies especially, it’s difficult to avoid conflict when it arises. Word travels quickly — and usually right to the ‘top’.

As a leader, you’ve spent long hours beside your team of employees bringing your dream to life. They’ve become your allies and support system. Even if you’re not friends with all your employees, you’ve built strong relationships for the sake of your business. When conflict comes into the picture, it can be awkward as a leader to maintain objectivity and a good relationship with both conflicting parties.

Second, small business owners, like Jennifer, often wear many hats in their company. They’re often the CEO, hiring manager, accountant, and product developer. It’s understandable that, when conflict arises, they would also adopt the role of mediator. When problems arise, more leaders than not fall victim to trying to put out the fires on their own with an “I can handle it” mentality.

Think back to Jennifer and Morgan’s conflict. Can you see how this tense situation developed and worsened quickly? While Jennifer has great leadership qualities, she’s too close to Morgan to remain objective. Jennifer needs a mediator.

Benefits of Bringing in a Neutral Third-party

A mediator is a neutral third-party — with specific training and skills — who can provide an objective perspective and listening ear during conflict. They are often empathetic and, actually, have nothing to gain from a peaceful resolution. The purpose of mediation is to help conflicting parties determine a solution for themselves before it grows into something more severe.

Both parties should be willing to enter mediation and trust the mediator for unbiased participation. For example, another leader at Jennifer’s company may not be an unbiased third-party because they may want to protect Jennifer and the business rather than objectively explore Morgan’s claim to a salary increase.

There is great value to hiring a professional mediator to manage an emerging or lingering conflict within your company.

First, a professional mediator could protect the small business owner from getting entangled in the conflict itself or being held liable for any further distress once they become aware of a problem.

Second, the outside support can offer proven tips and techniques to resolve current conflict and prevent future conflict. Mediators are trained to address pain points for all parties involved and to explore how each party views — and is willing to work towards — a mutually acceptable outcome.

For Jennifer and Morgan, a mediator might ask, “What issues would you like to see resolved during this process?” or “What expectations do you have for moving forward?”

After the mediator surfaces each party’s requests and expectations, Jennifer and Morgan have an opportunity to talk to each other and generate solutions to the issues they’ve identified. It’s important to understand that a mediator’s role in this situation is to empower both parties to speak constructively about the issues and possible solutions. Ideally, both parties walk away from the table with an outcome they have agreed upon.

Keep in mind: this is the very reason many small business owners have trouble navigating conflict conversations; oftentimes, they want to solve the problem quickly rather than sit in the discomfort and allow employees to work things out. (For more on this issue, check out ONE EIGHTY’s “Empowering vs Enabling” video.)

After conflict has entered into a work relationship — even if it gets resolved — there may be a season of rebuilding trust and communication between the parties. For Jennifer and Morgan, a professional mediator may use ongoing conflict coaching to support them in improving their communication and problem-solving skills for any future conflicts.

Remember: conflict is a natural part of life, and it can’t just be avoided — as much as we may try to pretend it can. However, there are steps businesses of all sizes can take to resolve major and minor conflict quickly and effectively.

As a leader, it’s important to take conflict in your workplace seriously, acknowledge the limitations of your abilities and perspective, and understand when it’s appropriate to bring an objective third party.

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Natalie Garramone

Natalie Garramone

Workplace Conflict Coach, Trainer, and Mediator. Owner of ONE EIGHTY. To learn more, visit oneeighty.io