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Navigating Conflict, Mediation and the Art of Effective Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tanya Settles
September 1, 2023

Conflict in public service is inevitable. Whether that conflict lives in the space of internal organizational culture or is external to the community, effective leaders know conflict management can save the day.  One of the most valuable skills in the leadership toolkit is the practice of mediation. Widely used throughout the judicial branch at various levels, particularly in civil cases, mediation is successfully used to reduce the size of the court docket and encourage settlement, thereby reducing costs to both the government and litigants. The judicial use of mediation has critics, but the practice is not without merit. Judges often order mediation to provide parties with opportunities to find common ground, resolve dispute and reach a settlement without the burden of a trial. Across the nation, judicial departments have seen reductions in court caseload and reap the benefits of efficiency improvements.  

Mediation, however, is not limited in scope to resolving one-off conflict between litigants. Transformative mediation, as introduced by Robert Baruch Bush and Joseph Folger, goes beyond simply resolving disputes on a one-by-one basis. Transformative mediation can result in deeper changes in how people interact with one another and change themselves for the better. This creates opportunity for organizational growth and development in ways that can also inspire positive impact on communities. A skilled leader-mediator helps identify the root causes of conflict so disagreeing parties can find mutually beneficial solutions to the conflict at hand and inspire transformation and change that can have lasting impacts on social justice.

The attributes associated with mediation are aligned with empathy, fairness and psychologically safe organizations. Leaders who understand the nature of conflict can diagnose and proactively resolve it before a conflict erupts, either in terms of interaction with the community, among employees or in policy or rule making. To accomplish this, it is important for leaders to consider that in addition to conflict being inevitable, conflict itself is neutral. This means that conflict is neither good nor bad; it just exists. Leaders who understand the nature of conflict can see multiple angles of perspective, hear the narratives of the involved parties and make enlightened decisions about resource allocation. When leaders can identify the underlying causes of conflict, they are better able to facilitate open discussions and guide parties toward resolution. Transformative approaches to mediation change the quality of conflict, most often seen as negative, into something that strengthens the people who are involved for the better. In turn, this transformation can generate positive impacts for the communities governments serve.

In terms of organizational culture, here are some things governments can expect from conflict-informed leadership:

Improved Communication:  Mediation requires active listening, practicing empathy and effective communication. Leaders who possess these skills can listen and filter the noise of conflict and get to the root causes of the problem. 

Improved Morale: Unresolved conflict leads to decreased morale among team members that can quickly escalate and impact how the government interacts with the community it serves. A leader with mediation skills can identify problems quickly, resolve them at the level they occur and boost team morale by demonstrating commitment to resolving disputes and creating a peaceful work environment. 

Innovative Problem-Solving: Mediation helps underscore the idea that “the problem is the problem” and not necessarily the people involved in the dispute. When a mediator-leader brings opposing parties together, they create the opportunity to find common ground and inspire innovative creativity while at the same time practicing accountability. 

Proactive Conflict Intervention: Building mediation skills help leaders recognize tension before it erupts and moves people towards resolution before the situation escalates. Inside the workplace, this means being proactive and leading people toward solutions. With the community, this means finding opportunities to listen and constructively bring opposing parties together.  

Cultural Competence: Many of the most pressing challenges public administrators face come from a place of misinformation or misunderstanding that can lead to intentional or unintentional disrespect on cultural grounds. Leaders with mediation skills can build a structure where people can be heard and gain greater understanding of one another. When transformative mediation occurs, parties define their own issues, and therefore identify their own solutions. Often, parties in dispute find there’s a lot more to agree upon than they thought. 

Mediation skills inspire leaders to improve efficiency, create a culture of belonging and promote psychological safety at work by creating the expectation that employees will be treated with equity and fairness, even when they disagree or make a mistake. When leaders practice mediation skills, apart from conflict resolution, they set the foundation for a healthy and inclusive organizational culture that generates innovation in public service.

Author:  Tanya Settles is the CEO of Paradigm Public Affairs, LLC.  Tanya’s areas of work include relationship building between local governments and communities, restorative justice, and the impacts of natural and human-caused disasters on at-risk populations.  Tanya can be reached at [email protected]The opinions in this column and any mistakes are hers alone.

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