The limitations of mediation: some hindering factors

This first blog is about an important issue I have been struggling with for a while:

How to help organizations with conflict, when mediation is not/no longer possible?

Some difficult and disappointing mediations these last few years, puzzled me. Organizations had asked for mediation, but the projects did not end at the proverbial mediation ‘table’ and were stopped.

The reasons were often a mixture of the following elements. Maybe you recognize them?

Neglect and abdication by management

Often the tensions had been neglected for a long (!) time, for all sorts of good reasons. In the perception of employees, they had given clear and repetitive signs to management. When nothing seemed to happen, they felt let down, were disappointed and angry. They did not trust the positive intentions of the mediation.

The request for external support came too late

As a consequence, many organizations had waited too long to ask for help. In the meantime, situations had become toxic. For some managers it was hard to admit they should have called for support much earlier. Or that their interventions – with the best intentions – had made things worse (e.g. be patient and wait for the storm to blow over).

Looking at others: blaming & shaming

In general everybody was looking at everybody else. That’s what people tend to do in difficult situations: someone must be responsible! Unfortunately finger pointing rarely helps. For most people it was hard to acknowledge their share in the problems, and to take responsibility for their behaviour.

Collective underestimation of the situation: survival mechanisms

Leadership had often totally underestimated the seriousness of the situation and was, for instance, not alarmed by the high levels of absenteeism or turn-over. Employees too, had no idea that their colleagues were (also) desperate, angry, fed up, stressed and thinking about leaving the organization. Often people were merely surviving. In many cases the organization did not realize that mediation is no longer an option, when a conflict has become violent and destructive.

Lack of safety and trust: no hope for improvement

During individual intakes, participants clearly announced they would come to the mediation, but would not speak a word. Some openly said they were too scared/intimidated/vulnerable/weakened to stand up for themselves. Many had given up hope and were looking for another job or reinforcing their survival strategies.

Fear for an ‘open’ group dialogue: mediation as a source of threat

Most people were terrified at the prospect of having to speak openly and directly with their colleagues and/or boss about the conflict. They could not imagine that an open dialogue would help. On the contrary, they feared that a frank conversation would make things worse and result in explosive outbursts, uncontrollable emotions, and destructive rows. Some were afraid of their own anger.

Conflictology – a complexity perspective

As I was looking for an alterternative, I stumbled upon the word ‘conflictology’. To my surprise, I discovered it was an existing approach to conflict resolution!!!

Here’s a description I found:

“Conflictology is defined as the way of understanding conflicts assuming all related areas, such as conflict resolution, transformation and management, while at the same time it is based on the principles of non-violence as a paradigm opposed to the conviction that violence is the way to resolve conflicts.

It is, therefore, a form of cross-disciplinary, comprehensive and synthetic knowledge. Conflictology is the culmination of knowledge that helps us understand conflicts, crises, violence of all kinds, and, simultaneously, the compendium of transformation, intervention and aid techniques, resources and procedures.”

(Conflictology: a multi-disciplinary vision, E. Vinyamata, Journal of Conflictology, 2010)

This integrated approach of workplace conflict fits with the different perspectives I offer in my work. 

mediation & more: an integral framework and holistic approach

So if mediation is not the ‘magic cure’, how to approach conflict and help a team or organization move forward.

We usually look for ‘quick’ solutions. Unfortunately, most workplace conflicts are complex and multi-layered. Many (invisible) factors influence a visible conflict situation.

This calls for an integral framework with interventions that address different levels: organizational (e.g. procedures, roles), group (e.g. protective dynamics), interpersonal (e.g. interaction patterns), and individual (e.g. coping mechanisms).

A holistic approach focuses on the development of cognitive, emotional, collective and embodied forms of intelligence to increase conflict literacy.


After publishing my website in English (yesterday!), this is my first blog in English!

I have been writing blogs, columns, and book reviews in Dutch since 2006! And now finally for a wider audience.

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