Power imbalance breeds resentment and anger. When an employee feels strongly that there is a power imbalance with his or her supervisor, it does not matter whether that power imbalance is real or perceived.

What matters is knowing what to do to resolve the situation and to prevent it from turning into a destructive personal war.

As a workplace mediator, I often get called in to mediate these situations. A good way to start is by understanding the employee’s feelings. However, after she or he feels heard and understood, it is quite important to shift her/his mind, from the past to the future. Although the problem is in the past, any resolution can only be found in the future. Talking about the future is safe. There is no need to feel
angry; no need to feel resentful.

In mediation an employee might be asked: Imagine that this problem between you and your supervisor has been resolved. How would things be different tomorrow morning? What would you like the supervisor to do for you differently than yesterday? And what are you willing to do differently in exchange? A future-oriented approach allows (actually forces) the employee’s mind to stop dwelling on negative feelings and to start thinking in terms of behavioral changes. The employee also starts looking at the relationship with the supervisor in terms of common responsibility and mutual benefit, rather than as a power struggle.

Getting clear answers to the question “What are you willing to do differently?” always takes considerably more time and effort than the previous question, “What would you like the supervisor to do differently
for you?”
Expressions like “I’ll try to do this” or “I’ll do my best” sound great, but they don’t yield any practical results. Unless the employee is willing and committed to take specific actions on her/his
own — almost disregarding what the supervisor will do differently — nothing much is going to happen.
Catch-22 situations, where the employee and supervisor are each — suspiciously — simply waiting for the other to change first, don’t resolve their conflict. As a matter of fact, they make it worse.

To overcome this problem, mediators typically use some challenging but quite effective role-playing techniques with both employee and supervisor, in separate and joint sessions. This way it is possible to assess how committed they are in working together to resolve their conflict by each changing something in their habitual behavior.

Who would be most effective to intervene in an employee/supervisor conflict? Human resource managers have the training, experience and people skills for resolving conflict. Besides, who can appreciate the importance of a balanced and constructive supervisor/employee relationship, more than a human resource manager?

The problem is a disgruntled employee may consider the human resource manager to be the supervisor’s ally. Consequently, any suggestion made by the human resource manager — no matter how reasonable and fair — may be rejected out of hand. This is why workplace disputes are usually much easier to resolve if they are handled by a third party, such as an external mediator, who is accepted by both employee and supervisor as totally neutral to their conflict.

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