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Advanced Mediation, Bringing Oxytocin Into The Room: Notes on the Neurophysiology Of Conflict

Date: 14 September 2009


Written by Kenneth Cloke


“We do not see things as they are.  We see things as we are.” Anais Nin


While people in conflict commonly refer to facts, behaviors, feelings, personalities, or events, for the most part we ignore the deeper reality that these are processed and regulated by the nervous system, and are therefore initiated, resolved, transformed, and transcended largely within our brains. 

All conflicts are perceived by the senses, manifested through body language and kinesthetic sensations, embodied and given meaning by thoughts and ideas, steeped in intense emotions, made conscious through awareness, and may then be resolved by conversations and experiences, and develop into character, nurture a capacity for openness and trust, and contribute to learning and an ability to change. 

To explain the etiology of conflict therefore requires us to gain a deeper understanding of how the brain responds to conflict.  This should clearly include the ways distrusting personalities are formed, even among primates; the sources of aggressive character traits and the “fight or flight” reflex; the wellsprings of spiritual malaise and hostile gut reactions; and the neurological foundations of forgiveness, open-heartedness, empathy, insight, intuition, learning, wisdom, and willingness to change. 

While conflict and resolution have yet to be reduced to a simple set of deterministic biochemical events taking place exclusively within the brain, research clearly demonstrates that basic neurological processes provide all of us with alternative sets of instructions that lead either toward impasse or resolution, stasis or transformation, isolation or collaboration.  For these reasons, it will serve us well as mediators to understand more about the neurophysiology of conflict. 

We have yet to examine communication and conflict resolution very deeply from the perspective of neurophysiology, though we know that the presence of an empathetic listener, particularly one who is skilled in mediation, can by itself create a significant shift in conflict dynamics, and alter, at a subtle level of awareness, the attitudes of parties in conflict.  But why is this so, and what does it imply for conflict resolution? 

For millennia, our greatest sages – particularly those from the East, including Lao Tse, Confucius, and Buddha – have sought to convince us that the universe consists of opposites that, at the deepest level, merge into a single, unified whole.  Yet it has taken until the 20th century and the discovery of quantum mechanics – initially by Planck and Einstein, then by Bohr and Heisenberg – to establish scientifically that observers and the things they observe are part of a single interconnected system, and reveal how and why the act of observation, at a subtle level, directly influences the object or process being observed.  

For all our immense progress in recent years in understanding conflict and discovering techniques that encourage resolution, until recently we have paid little attention to the physiology and internal operations of the brain, and the ways it perceives and responds to the complex, ever-changing experience of conflict. 

I am not a trained neurophysiologist, but an avid lay reader, and have learned an immense amount of useful information regarding conflict resolution from reading scientific studies of the brain and how it functions.  What follows is a brief synopsis of some of the more interesting and important ideas and news items I have read describing recent research and experiments in neurophysiology as they pertain to conflict and the mediation process. 

What is the Brain?

Most conflicts are triggered by external experiences and information regarding them is conveyed to us by sensory inputs that have been gathered from our environment. Our conflicts therefore seem to us to take place externally, yet everything we understand about the meaning of what happened, and all of our responses to the actions of others are initiated and coordinated internally by our brains.

What, then, is the brain, how is it structured, and how does it typically respond to conflict?  First, the brain has been analogized to a massively powerful parallel processing computer, more powerful than anything we have been able to design or create.  One hundred billion nerve cells make up the brain, each of which may create up to ten thousand synaptic connections, and together can form more than a million neuronal connections every second.  

An average desktop computer is capable of sending 25 billion instructions per second, while a human brain can send 100 over trillion.  An adult human brain, by some accounts, can make as many as 500 trillion synaptic connections per second.  This, by itself, can explain what we commonly refer to as intuition, which is merely what we know that we don’t know that we know. 

Second, the brain is divided into two halves or hemispheres that are largely separate, but connected at the base by a corpus collossum.  Each hemisphere processes information regarding conflict somewhat differently: one side functions linearly and considers problems individually and in detail, while the other side works more holistically and considers problems collectively and as a whole.  One side favors logical reasoning while the other side favors pattern perception; one works by linear thinking while the other practices emotional responsiveness.  The right hemisphere, for example, has been shown to be more adept at discriminating between emotional expressions and processing negative emotions, while the left is demonstrably less so, and more involved in processing positive emotions. 

Third, the brain is organized into regions, each of which processes different aspects of the information it receives related to conflict in specialized ways.  For example, the ventral tegmental area reinforces the reward circuit; the prefrontal cortex allows for objectivity and logic; the nucleus accumbens, which is directly beneath the frontal cortex and is involved in the release of oxytocin, which is described in greater detail below; the hypothalamus produces testosterone; and, most importantly, the amygdala, an almond-shaped region near the brain stem, regulates immediate responses to conflict and change, especially anger and fear. 

Neurotransmitters and Conflict

The brain is awash in chemicals, including hormones and neurotransmtters that accentuate or dampen its responses and influence its organization and operations.  Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay, amplify, or modulate signals that are sent between neurons and other cells.  There are many different hormones and neurotransmitters, of which the most important are glutamate and GABA, which excite and modify synapses.  With regard to conflict, the following compounds seem to be most active:

  • Adrenalin, which triggers the fight or flight response
  • Testosterone, which stimulates aggression
  • Oxytocin which instills trust, increases loyalty, and promotes the “tend and befriend” response
  • Estrogen, which triggers the release of oxytocin
  • Endorphins, which reinforce collaborative experiences with pleasure
  • Dopamine, which generates a reward response and fortifies addiction
  • Serotonin, which regulates moods
  • Phenylethylaline, which induces excitement and anticipation
  • Vasopressin, which encourages bonding in males in a variety of species

Many vertebrate brain structures involved in the control of aggression are richly supplied with receptors that bind with hormones produced in the endocrine system, in particular with steroidal hormones produced in the gonads.  In a wide range of vertebrate species, there is a strong relationship between male aggressiveness and circulating levels of androgens such as testosterone, a hormone produced in the testes.  

These aggressive behavioral patterns and the modulation of an animal’s tendency to fight or flee are controlled by a hierarchical system of neural structures.  Many of these are found in the limbic system; a part of the forebrain that is involved in emotionally based behavior and motivation.  These neural structures interact with biochemicals that are produced inside and outside the nervous system.  

For example, it has been shown that serotonin injections cause lobsters and other animals to take a dominant or aggressive posture, while octopamine injections induce submissive postures, which favor cooperation.  When serotonin levels are increased in subordinate animals, their willingness to fight also increases, and declines as they are reduced.  

From fish to mammals, aggression levels have been shown to rise and fall with natural fluctuations in testosterone levels.  Castration has been found to reduce aggression dramatically, while the experimental reinstatement of testosterone by injection restores aggression.  Circulating testosterone also influences the responses and signals that are used during mating and fighting in many species.  In stags, the neck muscles needed for roaring enlarge under the influence of testosterone, while in male mice, the scent of another male’s urine, which contains the breakdown products of testosterone, elicits intense aggressive responses. 

In pregnant female mice, the scent of urine from a male that is ill can even induce the formation of antibodies in their embryos, and the presence of stress chemicals that are increased by fighting and are detected by females who are able to detect the smell of male urine can produce personality and behavioral changes in unborn offspring. 

The experience of fighting has been shown to have a significant impact on brain biochemistry and therefore on brain structure, especially in the limbic system which is strongly associated with conflict.  For example, among rainbow trout and lizards, dominant animals show significant transient activation of their brains’ serotonin systems, whereas subordinate animals display a longer-term elevation of these systems. 

Researchers have shown in several vertebrate species that electrical stimulation of the midbrain and hindbrain elicits stereotyped, yet undirected aggressive behaviors, while stimulation of the hypothalamus and a nearby pre-optic region in the forebrain elicits well-coordinated attacks on other members of the same species.  Lesions in these areas have also been shown to reduce aggression.  

The hypothalamus and pre-optic area of the forebrain are also involved in the generation of coordinated aggressive behaviors that are produced in lower brain regions.  This activity is modulated by the brain’s higher centers, including areas of the limbic system – in particular the septum, which lies above the hypothalamus and has an inhibitory effect on aggression, while the amygdala located deep in the temporal lobes has the opposite effect. 

In a series of experiments, dogs and monkeys have been shown to respond negatively to favoritism and unfairness in experiments where certain animals have been given rewards without having performed, causing others to punish them or refuse to cooperate with researchers. 

The lateral habenula has been shown to react strongly when expected rewards are denied or replaced by mild punishments.  Dopamine neurons are inhibited by the habenula, and since dopamine contributes to learning by producing positive sensations in response to success, researchers now think the habenula may also contribute to learning by shutting off dopamine in response to disappointment, representing an internal form of the carrot and the stick.  Some research suggests that the habenula is implicated in depression.  It has also been shown that the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), located at the front of the brain behind the eyes, is implicated in various aspects of decision-making and choice evaluation.  The anterior cingulate gyrus then reacts to mistakes and internal conflicts between intentions and outcomes, and helps us alter our behaviors in response.

Researchers have established that the negative emotions we routinely encounter in conflict are triggered in more or less the following sequence: 

•          Sensory information from primary receptors in the eye, nose, ear, and other organs travels along neural pathways to the limbic forebrain. 

•          These stimuli are evaluated for emotional significance.  Research by Joseph E. LeDoux has demonstrated that auditory fear conditioning involves the transmission of sound signals through an auditory pathway to the thalamus, which relays this information to the dorsal amygdala.

•          The amygdala coordinates a “relevance detection” process that is rapid, minimal, automatic, and evaluative. 

•          Emotions are then activated in the subcortical thalamo-amygdala pathway and relayed from the thalamus to the neocortex for cognitive appraisal and evaluation.

•          In some cases, the same information is simultaneously sent to the neocortex for slower processing, creating a dual, two-circuit pathway that permits reason to override an emotional response.

Perception, Mirror Neurons and Suggestibility

The brain notices changes in its immediate environment predominantly by contrast or comparison against a relatively static backdrop of familiarity, expectation, desire, fear, and habit.  Observing the contrast between what is moving and what is not is the way our minds attempt to simplify and predict what is likely to happen next.  At a primitive level, for example, there is an immense evolutionary advantage in being able to notice a potential threat by contrasting the mirror symmetry of a predator’s face and eyes, or sudden movement against an asymmetrical, slower moving background.  In a similar way, we are biased by evolution to credit threatening behaviors more than non-threatening ones.  

A number of recent brain studies have revealed how perceptions and memories are profoundly distorted by emotions and by focused concentration, and how they can be reshaped by suggestion and subsequent events.  Thus, areas of the brain that are linked with negative emotions and judging others are switched off, for example, when mothers look at photographs of their babies.  Instead, the right prefrontal cortex lights up, not only in parents watching their children, but in lovers and Buddhist monks who have been asked to meditate on loving-kindness and compassion.  In other research, memory and awareness have been shown to decline dramatically in the presence of stress chemicals that are released during periods of intense emotion. 

It has also been revealed, in reverse, that the free expression through outward signs of an emotion can intensify it, while repressing or not expressing it, as far as is possible, can soften it.  Thus, experiments have shown that if people are able to control their facial expressions during moments of pain, there is less arousal of the autonomic nervous system and an actual diminution of the pain experience.

In one delightful experiment, a significant percentage of people who were assigned to focus their attention on a single task, such as counting the number of individuals in a colored tee-shirt to whom a basketball was passed.  When they did so, the participants completely ignored and even vigorously denied afterwards that an unusual or bizarre occurrence had occurred, in this case, the entry onto the basketball court of someone dressed in a gorilla outfit, who walked and pranced across their line of vision. 

Scientists have begun to trace the development of empathy in primates, including human beings, leading to the discovery of “mirror neurons,” which fire in the brains of observers watching a given action, and replicate to some extent the experience of the one being observed. Similar neurons fire when we observe someone else suffering or frightened, reproducing those experiences in the form of empathy. 

In one surprising recent experiment, “phantom limb syndrome,” in which a lost limb may experience itching or pain, has been shown to dramatically disappear when the subject is allowed to observe a false image of the lost limb by means of a mirror, thereby tricking the brain’s mirror neurons into thinking that the lost arm or leg had reappeared. 

Several studies have shown that the brain is highly responsive to suggestion.  In a series of remarkable experiments it has been shown that the performance of simple, seemingly unrelated tasks can be increased or decreased merely by placing a briefcase or sports equipment nearby, triggering unconscious associations with work or play.  

In an interesting study, subjects were made happy or angry, then shown happy and angry faces and friendly and hostile interpersonal scenes in a stereoscope.  Happy subjects perceived more happy faces and friendly interpersonal scenes while angry subjects perceived more angry faces and hostile interpersonal scenes. 

In addition, it has been shown that relatively small favors or bits of good luck (like finding money in a coin telephone or getting an unexpected gift) induced positive emotion in people, and that these emotions increased the subjects’ inclination to sympathize or provide help. 

At the same subtle level, a number of experiments have shown that behaviors can be modified simply by the introduction of background scents such as lavender, or the lemony odor of detergent, and that consumers of different products purchase different products more or less readily in the presence of certain scents. 

Equally dramatically, test results can be predictably raised or lowered merely by asking people of color to identify their race beforehand, or by giving indirect racial or emotional cues, or by priming teachers falsely in advance of a test regarding the innate intelligence or stupidity of their students, producing conformance with expectations and a well-established “Pygmalion effect.” 

In one remarkable study, when 12- and 13-year-old African American students were asked to spend 15 minutes indicating which values, such as friendship or family, they upheld, the achievement gap between them and white students decreased by 40%.  Similarly, when female college students read passages before a test arguing against gender differences in mathematical ability, their scores increased by 50%. 

At a very subtle level, Yale University psychologist John Bargh found that when volunteers were “primed” with words associated with the elderly, like “wrinkle,” they took significantly longer to walk down a hall than those who hadn’t.  And interestingly, for conflict resolvers, Alex Pentland of the MIT Media Lab found that watching body language and tone of voice for only a few minutes allowed researchers to predict with 87% accuracy the outcome of subsequent negotiations between strangers. 

This suggests that the brain can be re-programmed by consciously selected practices.  It has been shown, for example, that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for empathy, compassion, shame, and intuitive emotional responses to moral dilemmas) can be significantly strengthened by the practice of meditation, or merely thinking compassionately for a few moments about the well being of others.  

Other experiments have demonstrated that men become more loving toward their female partners as their ovulation approaches, that women prefer different forms of male attractiveness at different stages in their menstrual cycle, and that women make decisions about male attractiveness based on chemical indicators in their sweat indicating that they have immunities the women do not, as measured by genes for the major histocompatibility complex or MHC.  Other studies have found that men also prefer women with dissimilar MHC genes, specifically human leukocyte antigen or HLA genes. 

An important recent study from Stockholm suggests that lesbian women have more asymmetric brains, like heterosexual men, and that gay men have more symmetric brains, like heterosexual women.  Moreover, in heterosexual women and gay men the amygdala connects mainly to areas of the brain that manifest fear as anxiety, whereas in heterosexual men and lesbian women it connects more strongly to areas that trigger the fight or flight reflex.    

It has also been shown that sweat from women who watched violent movies was accurately rated by others as stronger, less pleasant, and smelling more “like aggression” than sweat from women who had watched a neutral movie.  In a recent study, researchers from Stony Brook University in New York taped absorbent pads to the underarms of 40 volunteers who went on their first skydive.  In a double blind experiment, a second group smelled sample pads from them and from non-skydivers in an fMRI scanner, and showed increased activity in their amygdala and hypothalamus while breathing sweat produced under frightening conditions, indicating that humans may in fact be able to smell fear. 

Oxytocin and Dual Pathways in Conflict

The physical basis for collaboration, altruism, trust, forgiveness, and interest-based conflict resolution techniques, has been clearly identified with the “tend and befriend” hormone oxytocin.  Oxytocin was first synthesized by Vincent du Vigneaud in 1953, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1955.  It is secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland and can be made synthetically.  Physiologically, it promotes the secretion of breast milk and stimulates the contraction of the uterus during labor.  It cannot be ingested orally, but can be administered intravenously, sublingually, or by nasal spray, although its strongest effects last only for a few minutes.  

Oxytocin is widely believed responsible for prompting empathy, compassion, trust, generosity, altruism, parent-child bonding, and monogamy in many species, including human beings.  Oxytocin has been dubbed the “bonding” hormone, primarily as a result of research involving voles.   Prairie voles in the U.S. are largely monogamous and the males provide care for the young.  Montane voles, on the other hand, are polygamous and the males are less caring of their young.  Experiments have deprived prairie voles of oxytocin and provided it to montane voles, causing a dramatic reversal of these behaviors. 

In one extraordinary study, participants were given a small amount of pretend money and encouraged to invest it with a stranger. On average, they initially invested only a quarter to a third of the money they possessed. But after four sniffs of the neurotransmitter oxytocin, their trust levels skyrocketed, and without hesitation they became willing to invest 80% more.  Here is a summary from the original study: 

“Human beings routinely help strangers at costs to themselves.  Sometimes the help offered is generous—offering more than the other expects. The proximate mechanisms supporting generosity are not well understood, but several lines of research suggest a role for empathy.  In this study, participants were infused with 40 IU oxytocin (OT) or placebo and engaged in a blinded, one-shot decision on how to split a sum of money with a stranger that could be rejected.  Those on OT were 80% more generous than those given a placebo.  OT had no effect on a unilateral monetary transfer task dissociating generosity from altruism. OT and altruism together predicted almost half the interpersonal variation in generosity.  Notably, OT had twofold larger impact on generosity compared to altruism.  This indicates that generosity is associated with both altruism as well as an emotional identification with another person.”

[Zak PJ, Stanton AA, Ahmadi S (2007) Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans. PLoS ONE 2(11): e1128. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001128]

Several experiments have shown that positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving. One study, for example, showed that positive emotion enabled subjects to name more uses for common objects.  Another showed that positive emotion enhanced creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations among objects that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.  A number of studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of positive emotion on thinking, memory, and action in preschool and older children. 

A recent study by a group in Zurich, Switzerland showed that oxytocin improves recognition and memory of previously presented faces, which were more correctly assessed as being “known,” but the ability to recollect faces that had not been seen before was unchanged, and there was no difference when recalling images of houses, landscapes or sculptures.  The researchers argue that “this pattern speaks for an immediate and selective effect of the peptide [oxytocin in] strengthening neuronal systems of social memory.”

There is a considerable body of research that has linked oxytocin with collaboration and creative problem solving, and these with the release of endorphins, the brain’s version of morphine.  Creative problem solving has also been shown to increase with diversity, and a mathematical proof has been offered purporting to demonstrate that more diverse groups predictably experience greater creativity, success in problem solving, and satisfaction as a result. 

Thus, the brain possesses not one, but two systems for responding to conflict, and is capable both of adrenalin-based “fight or flight” responses, and of oxytocin-based “tend and befriend” ones.  Just as, in biology, there are evolutionary advantages to aggression and “selfish genes,” there are also advantages to collaboration and altruistic efforts that aid others. 

There are two bundles of nerves, for example, that connect the eye and other sensory organs with the brain.  One travels directly to the amygdala where fight or flight responses are initiated, while the other proceeds to the neocortex where logical explanations can be discovered, allowing us to override costly adrenalin-based responses. 

As we learn, develop language, mature, and accumulate long-term memories and experiences, these dual pathways to the amygdala and the neocortex become more developed and integrated, and we become able to process events in either or both pathways at the same time.

This duality allows the amygdala pathway to specialize in processing information that may require a rapid response, while the neocortex pathway specializes in evaluating information that may be important in forming cognitive judgments or developing complex coping strategies.  Duality also allows us to by-pass the amygdala’s initiation of the fight or flight response and consciously choose the less aggressive option of tend and befriend. 

Moreover, the brain not only dictates how we respond to changes in our environment, it is actually shaped and molded by those changes.  The brain requires sensory stimulation in order to develop, and repeated stimulation creates physical connections between neurons that strengthen the pathways and networks responsible for thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  

These stimulations have been shown to produce profound attitudinal changes.  Indeed, several experiments have demonstrated that countless previous experiments on laboratory mice and rats over the course of decades have been profoundly influenced by whether the animals were raised in rich or impoverished environments. 

The environment in which a young animal is raised also has a profound effect on whether and how it fights as an adult.  These environmental factors are not always directly related to social experience.  For example, mice that are deprived of food during their early development become particularly aggressive as adults.  On the other hand, environmental effects on the development of aggression may depend on social interactions in contexts other than fighting; for instance, mouse pups that have been roughly handled by their mothers are more aggressive as adults.  Similar results have been found in a range of species that have been reared in social isolation. 

More surprisingly, physical tests have revealed that babies are able to rewire their mothers’ brains in utero, and that some of the genetic material and cells of each remain in the other and may influence a variety of behaviors, including a tendency to aggression or collaboration. 

Is Aggression Inevitable?

Clearly, aggression and war are “hard-wired” into the brain, but so are empathy and collaboration.  Recent research has emphasized the cooperative aspects of warlike behavior, which forms a core element not only in gangs, but sports teams, organizations and nation states, which use internal cooperation as an aid to external competition.  Indeed, modern warfare can be seen as requiring a high level of internal collaborative activity. 

Yet it has also been shown, for example by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, that men in war simulations tend to overestimate their chances of winning, making them more likely to attack and behave aggressively, and leading to unnecessary losses that a more sober calculation might predict. 

It has recently been argued by evolutionary biologists at the University of New Mexico, based on data from 125 civil wars, that cultures become more insular and xenophobic when diseases and parasites are common, perhaps in an effort to drive away strangers who may carry new diseases.  By contrast, cultures with a low risk of disease are more open to outsiders.   They argue that when the risk of infectious diseases fell in Western nations following World War II due to antibiotics and sanitation, these societies became less hostile and xenophobic. 

In one interesting experiment, cricket players on the Caribbean island of Dominica experienced a surge in testosterone and aggressive behavior after winning against another village, but did not experience the same surge when winning against a team from their own village.  Similarly, it has been shown that an increase in testosterone typically experienced by men in the presence of a potential mate is muted if she is in a relationship with a relative or friend. 

This suggests again that building empathy and “identification with the enemy” will prove useful as techniques for countering aggressive behavior.  There is also research suggesting that whereas women may be better at brokering harmony within groups, men may be better at making peace between groups.  These techniques suggest that it may be possible to identify more precisely which approach will work best in a given setting to reduce warfare and aggression. 

Implications for Conflict Resolution

These are just a few of the more dramatic conclusions that have emerged from countless studies and experiments, from which I have culled those that seemed most interesting and significant based on my experience as a mediator.  What, then, does all this research suggest for conflict resolution? 

In the first place, it reinforces the idea of brain “plasticity,” indicating that the brain is not fixed but evolving, learning, and producing new synapses all the time, even among those who were previously considered elderly and incapable of doing so.  Among other things, this gives us hope, and explains why it is possible for people to switch suddenly from aggression to collaboration. 

Second, it suggests that a variety of techniques might be useful in reducing adrenalin, increasing oxytocin, and stimulating collaboration and trust.  One clear example is research that involves what we call “mirroring,” but in scientific literature is called mimicry, and sometimes included under the heading of persuasion.  It has been demonstrated, for example, in human subjects, that mirroring body language after a two second delay (so it is not recognized as mimicry by the subject) improves the outcomes of negotiations and encourages collaborative behavior. 

In reading each of these studies and experiments, we can imagine a number of subtle ways we might go about encouraging a shift in the attitudes of disputants toward problem solving and collaboration.  For example, it is clear by hindsight that a number of very common simple techniques, such as welcoming, introductions, reaching agreement on ground rules, caucusing, summarizing, and securing small agreements, will predictably reduce the release of adrenalin and stimulate the release of oxytocin.  This may cause us to wonder: what deeper results might we achieve by better understanding how the brain processes and overcomes the fight or flight response? 

Even basic information about neurophysiology can lead us to technique, for example, by allowing mediators to work directly with different hemispheres of the brains of conflicted parties, not only presenting information in ways that are more accessible to one hemisphere or the other, but by focusing attention, for example, on the eye that feeds information to a particular hemisphere that may be more receptive to it. 

Other quite subtle techniques might also have an impact on the brain chemistry of conflict, including the introduction of scents that remind people less of fear than of social connection, serving chocolate to stimulate the production of dopamine, placing objects that stimulate positive emotions inside the mediation room, asking questions about values to orient people to their highest standards, using body language to trigger mirror neurons, or offering positive acknowledgments regarding something each party did or said. 

None of this is meant to suggest that oxytocin should be administered in large and continuous doses to parties in mediation, or that we should slip into clever, yet inevitably crass forms of physical manipulation.  Rather, it is to say that we have been working with brain chemicals unconsciously for years, and it is now possible for us to begin thinking about conflict resolution more scientifically and using the information we gather to encourage more positive responses, being careful to build transparency, empowerment, and authenticity into the process. 


Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the human brain is its capacity to understand and alter the world, starting with itself.  We have begun a period of rapid, perhaps exponential increase in understanding how the brain operates, and a growing ability to translate that knowledge into practical techniques.  But without an equally rapid, equally exponential increase in our ability to use that knowledge openly, ethically, and constructively, and turn it into successful conflict resolution experiences, our species may not be able to collaborate in solving its most urgent problems, or indeed, survive them. 

All of the most significant problems we face, from war and nuclear proliferation to terrorism, greed, and environmental devastation, can arguably be traced to our brain’s automatic responses to conflict.  Out of the last few years of neurophysiological research has emerged a new hope that solutions may indeed be found to the chemical and biological sources of aggression.  These solutions require not only a profound understanding of how the brain works, but a global shift in our attitude toward conflict, an expanding set of scientifically and artistically informed techniques, a humanistic and democratic prioritization of ethics and values, and a willingness to start with ourselves. 

Meeting the UK’s people management skills deficit

3 September 2009

This article was written by Ben Willmott and John Purcell and appeared in issue 28 of Impact – The CIPD’s Quarterly Update on Policy and Research

A joint CIDP and Acas discussion paper highlights the shortfall of people management skills in the UK and why these skills are so critical if line managers are to support improvements to employee engagement, well-being and productivity.

The role of the line manager is an increasingly important and challenging one in the modern workplace. CIPD research consistently identifies good-quality line management as one of the core drivers of employee engagement (Purcell and Hutchinson 2003). It is the day-to-day behaviours of line managers that will, to a large degree, decide the extent to which employees will go the extra mile in their jobs and remain loyal to their loyal to their organisation. It is line management behaviour that is also central to the degree people learn at work, their well being and resilience and ultimately their productivity. These people management skills are more critical than ever as the UK’s economy emerges from recession and positions itself for the recovery.

The recently published Acas booklet on the front-line managers recognises that managing staff can be the most rewarding aspect of the job, but also often the most challenging, because of issues that line managers have to cope with, from dealing with employees who regularly arrive late to two colleagues accusing each other of bullying, or a senior manager who repeatedly undermines their role as team leader.

Good line management cannot exist in a vacuum without the support and strategic leadership from the top in creating organisational cultures where management styles based on openness and mutual respect can flourish. The senior management team will influence how managers throughout an organisation see their jobs and the extent to which they place a priority on people management.

Line managers need to be able to communicate effectively with employee representatives, knowing when to consult and how to do it.

Line managers also need a clear understanding of the link between the strategic objectives of their organisation, their department or team objectives and their day-to-day people management in areas such as: communication and consultation; training and development; and conflict, stress and absence management. They also need clearly communicated HR policies to provide a framework for consistent people management practice across the organisation.

In addition, line managers need to be given the opportunity to learn the key people management skills needed for their role. Initially, most line managers are promoted because they have particular skills or technical expertise, not because of their ability to manage people.

However, too few employees invest in people management training for their line managers. A 2008 survey of 6, 000 employees across the UK, US and Europe by Skillsoft found that 80% of UK managers had bee asked to do things at work for which they feel they should have been given some training before hand, with managing people at the top of the list. The survey Essential learning: The Employee perspective also revealed that 78% of UK employees identified line management as the job function in most need of additional training. This figure was far higher in the UK than in the USA or the rest of Europe, where respondents had more faith in line managers, which is not surprising given that the UK spends less per manager on management development than any other European country (Leitch Review 2006).

This inadequate investment in management development is reflected by evidence showing that the people management skills of many of the UK’s estimated 4.3 millions managers are not up to the needs of the modern work place in a number of critical areas:

Supporting learning and development

CIPD research has identified a shift over the last few year s from training as an instructor-led, content-based activity to learning as a self-directed, work based process in which the line manager plays an increasingly important role (CIPD 2008b). Line managers now have greater responsibility over people’s career development and promotion, as well as for coaching and supporting informal, on-the-job learning.

The CIPD 2008 Who learns at work? survey reveals that half of training and development at work is now initiated by line managers, compared with just a fifth of training initiated by HR or training department and a fifth initiated by the learner.

If and when new legislation is introduced to give employees the right to request training as the Government is proposing, line managers’ role in this area will be given further weight. Moreover, they will face the added challenge of managing the expectations of those who are turned down do not feel unfairly treated.

However, according to the CIPD’s spring 2009 Employee Outlook survey report, 44% of employees say their line manager rarely or never coaches them and a third or employees report that their line manager never or rarely discusses their training and development needs. Fewer than half of employees say their line manager usually or always provides feedback on their performance.

Employees saying that their line manager usually or always coaches them, discusses their training and development needs or provides feedback on their performance are also more likely to say they are satisfied with their job.

If organisations want to ensure that their investment in training and development has a maximum impact, they must make sure that they develop line managers’ ability to support, accelerate and direct learning in the workplace. Lien management behaviour will also decide to a large extent which employees are given the opportunity to use their skills and are motivated to put in discretionary effort.

Managing conflict

The cost to employers of employment tribunal applications as a result of workplace conflict, both in monetary and reputational terms, is generally well known. However, the vast majority or interpersonal conflict at work never reaches an employment tribunal but plays itself out in the workplace to damaging effect. On average employees spend 12 days each year dealing with conflict in the workplace – significantly more than time lost to absence (OPP 2008). Employers typically spend a total of 13 days in management and HR time or each disciplinary case and 9 days on each formal grievance submitted (CIPD 2007). Conflict at work is also a significant cause of employee absence and employee turnover (OPP 2008).

One of the challenges in managing work place disputes effectively is that, as a result of the increasingly complex legal landscape, more employers are relying on their HR departments and specialist legal advice. Line managers are shying away from tackling conflict in case they say or do something that exacerbates the problem, or which could be held against  them during any formal proceedings (CIPD2007).

This is counterproductive, as evidence shows that conflict is much less likely to escalate where managers have the skills and confidence to tackle conflict situations as soon as they arise. Inadequate line management is cited as one of the main causes of conflict at work by respondents to the 2008 CIPD survey report, Leadership and Management of Conflict at Work.

Conflict management should be an integral part of leadership ad management training. Managers must be able to identify the early signs of conflict and intervene and defuse situations before they escalate if teams are to work productively and harmoniously. Managers must mange underperformance firmly and consistently, as well as pick up on when banter starts to become bullying or when workloads become excessive.

Just as importantly, managers must learn to manage in a way that does not create conflict by providing clear objectives, communicating effectively and planning and managing individual and teal workloads appropriately. Managers should also realise that building effective working relationships with employee representatives will pay long-term dividends preventing and resolving workplace conflict.

Managing stress and supporting employee well-being

Stress at work is, behind musculoskeletal problems, the biggest cause of time lost to employee absence, accounting for 13.4 millions lost working days a year, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Stress at work also tends to result in long-term absence, with CIPD research finding that the average spell of stress-related absence is 21 days (CIPD/AHP 2007). It is also on the increase, with HSE statistics showing the prevalence of self-reported work-related illness caused by stress doubled between 1990 and 2007-08. The recession is likely to add to the levels of stress at work as a result or work force cuts and increased competitive pressure. The CIPD’s spring 2009 Employee Outlook survey found that about half of employees reported an increase in work related stress as a result of the recession.

It is not just time lost as a result of stress that undermines productivity because many people suffering from stress and other common mental health problems remain at work. Research by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health (2007), estimates that the annual cost of such ‘presenteeism’ attributable to mental health problems amounts to £605 for every employee in the workforce. Stress is also a significant cause of conflict at work and contributes to staff turnover.

The HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them’. Of course, a certain level of pressure in a business environment is desirable. Pressure helps to motivate people and will boost their energy and productivity levels, but when the pressure individuals are under exceeds their ability to cope, it becomes a negative rather that a positive force – in other words, stress. Stress is not in itself a medical condition but research shows that a prolonged exposure to stress is linked to psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical conditions such as heart disease, back pain, and headaches.

Managers are in many cases part of the problem. CIPD research finds that managers are the category of employee most likely to be identified and bullies within organisations (CIPD 2004) and that workload and management style are the top causes of stress at work (CIPD 2008a). Joint research by the CIPD, HSE and Investors in People (IIP) (2008) has identified four areas of management competency that are key to managing and mitigating against the causes of stress: managing emotions/acting with integrity; reasoning/managing difficult situations; and managing the individual within the team. These are all generic people management skills that managers at all levels should be equipped with, not just to manage stress but to manage performance and underpin employee engagement.

The core people management competencies

The CIPD and Acas have drawn on their extensive research ad practical experience of providing line manager development to identify the key areas of people management competency needed for high-performing workplaces:

Managing work now and in the future

  • Gains, develops and communicates clear objectives
  • Develops action plans
  • Monitors work and workloads regularly
  • Sees project/work streams through to delivery
  • Looks collaboratively for ways of improving work processes
  • Ensures work cover, manages rosters/workloads and discusses these with staff; deals with absence fairly
  • Maintains effective working relations with senior managers

Managing the team

  • Keeps team members informed on what is happening in the organisation
  • Holds regular team meetings with time for questions , discussion and views to be expressed
  • Encourages every member of the team to participate
  • Allocates and delegates work evenly among the team in line with their level of responsibility and experience
  • Allows the teams to take some responsibility for work, work allocation and problem-solving
  • Solves team problems quickly and effectively if need be by taking the issues up to senior management while keeping people informed.
  • Takes part in the work of the team and joins in
  • Mixes with the team in work and at rest times
  • Protects the team from excessive work demands; knows when and how to say ‘no’
  • Understands health and safety issues and the importance of well-being at work
  • Helps new team members to move on inside or outside the organisation

Managing the individual

  • Takes part and takes care in selection and induction to welcome and support the individual
  • Sets challenging yet achievable job and performance expectations/targets
  • Gives autonomy to let the person get on with the work
  • Often reviews performance and gives regular constructive feedback
  • Rewards good performance quickly from ‘thank you’, ‘well done’ to small gifts or prizes
  • Takes appropriate action where there is evidence of poor/unsatisfactory performance, giving opportunities for improvement
  • Takes the formal appraisal process seriously, showing preparation and time allocation, giving priority to development and the future
  • Provides coaching and guidance on a regular basis, and is patient
  • Shows concern, and takes action, when there are signs of stress, listening in confidence when help is requested or needed
  • Shows interest in colleagues and their lives

Managing conflict and difficult situations

  • Deals with possible conflicts early on, informally where possible
  • Acts as a mediator if appropriate, showing impartiality and listening to each side
  • Works constructively with employee representatives
  • Talks through grievances and problems as soon as they are raised, before formal procedures are used
  • Knows when to ask for advice and help, using HR as a resource, and when to pass the matter on to another manager
  • Ensures the formal disciplinary and grievance procedure is used when necessary
  • Seeks evidence from all sides before making a decision
  • Looks for causes behind the symptoms
  • Focuses on the future

Managing yourself

  • Understands own stress and ways of dealing with it
  • Develops, as far as possible, an open relationship with the boss
  • Learns from experience, especially ‘near misses’
  • Looks for support and advice from other line managers and provides  support to them
  • Keeps on top of workloads and communications
  • Knows what is going on in the organisation, keeps in touch and takes part in discussions
  • Is aware of own strengths and weaknesses and develops self-confidence by dealing  with issues
  • Had a strong interest in personal development and learning
  • Believes in the values of integrity and professionalism and expects it form others
  • Seeks to be a role model and leader
  • Has a sense of humour and can show ‘ the human side’

Skills policy and people management

The CIPD and Acas believe that public policy on improving skills, employee well-being and productivity should place greater emphasis on the importance of the development of line managers’ people management skills.

There is evidence that government policy is beginning to move in this direction. This recently published MacLeod review of employee engagement highlighted the critical role of the line manager. The 2008 Foresight report on human capital and well-being also flagged the need for improved people management skills among line managers to support employee mental health and well-being.

In addition, the UK commission for Employment and Skills’ (UKCES) recent report, Ambition 2020 – which assesses the UK’s progress towards becoming a world leader in skills, employment and productivity by 2020 – argues that improving management practices, in particular their take-up across a wider range of companies, is likely to improve both business and national economic performance (UKCES 2009).

The report cites research by the LSE and McKinsey (Dowdy et al 2007), which finds that ‘companies that apply accepted management practices perform significantly better than those that don’t’. The McKinsey/LSE research states that ‘while UK firms are among the best in their approaches to attracting and retaining talented people, they do not rank highly in aspects of individual performance management such as establishment of effective, well-structured targets. The implication here is that while the UK’s flexible labour market ( and competition from a thriving service sector) forces firms to work hard to attract good people, they are far less effective at equipping their employees to deliver improved performance and at motivating them to do their best.’ One of the authors of the McKinsey/LSE report, John Dowdy, director at McKinsey, commented: ‘Professor Michael Porter concluded that he could find little evidence that the quality of UK management contributed to the UK’s productivity gap whereas we have found exactly the opposite of that’.

The Ambition 2020 report include a welcome emphasis on the benefits if skills utilisation, which is about, firstly, ensuring the most effective application of skills in the work place to maximise performance and secondly, the use of a range of effective HR, management and working practices, also known as High- performance working (HPW). HPW emphasises the importance of the role of the line manager, as well as a range of issues that are directly affected by line management behaviour, including: the improvement of employee engagement; the ways people are treated at work; communication; autonomy; and team work.

The CIPD and Acas applaud the Ambition 2020 report and the emphasis that it puts o the importance of management and leadership, skills utilisation and HPW; however, we believe that there needs to be a debate among policy makers about what is really meant by management and leadership skills. There needs to be clearer articulation about exactly what world-class management and leader ship is, if the necessary skills are to be developed. We argue that a large part of the UK’s leadership and management skills deficit is the so-called ‘soft’ people management skills needed by line managers in the modern workplace.

This paper provides an initial template to help inform this debate, setting out the day-to-day people management behaviours needed to promote and support learning at work, as well as underpin employee well-being, engagement and ultimately productivity.

In 2008, just 3% of the Government’s Train to Gain budget was allocated to the development of generic leadership and management skills. We would like  to see a greater proportion of public funding on skills to be allocated specially to the development of people management skills among SME’s, which we believe will help government make the most out of its wider investment in skills.

We would also like to see more government support for the effective communication and marketing of the proposition for developing theses skills to help build demand for investment by employers in this key area of management competency.

References for this paper can be obtained by downloading the report Meeting the UK’s people management skills deficit from here

Employee engagement review presents opportunity for HR

3 September 2009

 This article was written by Mike Emmott and appeared in issue 28 of Impact – The CIPD’s Quarterly Update on Policy and Research

When the HR trade press reported last month of the government-commissioned review of employee engagement by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, one HR director was quoted as saying it was unlikely to tell employers anything they didn’t know already. At the same time, the CIPD was reported as describing the report as ‘the best thing that’s happened to HR for years’. So who is right?

 The answer is that these apparently conflicting comments both reflect important truths. The MacLeod report didn’t set out to be a ‘how to’ guide or toolkit, so HR professionals who have already made serious progress in implementing engagement strategies will find the report much with which they are familiar. On the other hand, the report showcases many examples of employee engagement in practice, and underlines the vital role of HR in delivering business performance. The CIPD strongly support the recommendations of the review which build on extensive discussions the review team had with a wide range of people, including many of our most experienced senior members. Employee attitude surveys make painfully clear how much progress remains to be made in raising engagement levels. The report refers to research for the CIPD by Professor Katie Truss as Kingston Business School, which found that only three in ten UK employees are actively engaged in their work.

 One of Jackie Orme’s priorities as Chief Executive of the CIPD is to raise the profile of the HR profession. The report quotes Jackie’s comment that HR ‘have a key role in helping companies develop the kind of organisational culture where engagement can thrive, and ensuring that managers have the skills to make engagement a reality’. Many respondents to the review pointed to the strategic opportunity engagement offers for HR to re-establish itself as the heart of business and organisational success, rather than being viewed as a cost centre or administrative function.

The report recommends a nationwide awareness-raising campaign to expose organisations in the public, private and third sectors to the potential benefits of employee engagement. The campaign will be led by Government and guided by a high-level sponsor group on which the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and professional bodies, including the CIPD, will be represented. The campaign is yet to be worked out in detail, but is expected to include a series of nationwide and regional events and conferences, seminars and workshops. It is hard to think of a previous government-led initiative on this scale that has focused so closely on the range of management issues for whish HR has responsibility.

The report’s second recommendation is about skills. It suggests that ‘more support should be devoted to the people skills vital to leader ship and management which lie at the heart of engagement, in addition to generic management skills. These softer skills include: the ability to consult; engage; communicate effectively; have difficult conversations; and interpersonal skills.’ This recommendation closely reflects the CIPD’s own proposals that a greater percentage of government financial support for training should be directed towards leadership and management skills.

Finally, the report recommends that more support should be made available to those who want to develop engagement. The CIPD’s own plans include a session led by David Macleod at out annual conference in November, a major conference on employee engagement early next year and research reports on a number of case studies currently in hand. We recently produced an HR director’s guide to employee engagement, which explains why employers should be interested and what the factors are that can drive or inhibit an engagement strategy, and we are considering what further practical support it might be useful to offer.

One major contribution the report has hopefully made is to finally put to rest any doubts about the business case for employees engagement. Evidence to date has rested heavily on studies by consultancies and the report helpfully summarises their findings. It also quotes John Purcell, who told the review team: ‘Despite the difficulties and weaknesses it is hard to ignore the volume of studies which show, to varying degrees, with varying sophistication, a positive relationship between high performance/involvement work practices and outcome measures.’

But the most convincing evidence probably lies in the sheer number of case studies reported of organisations – in both private and public sectors – where engagement activities have been accompanied by performance improvement. The report would be well worth reading for this evidence alone.

CIPD surveys underline the important role of line managers in raising levels of employee engagement. The top management team also need to pay a leadership role in establishing a culture based on mutual trust and respect. If the campaign that the report calls for is to succeed, it will require ongoing leadership and support from the HR community. The challenge now is to translate the consensus about what is needed into practical action.

The report puts employee engagement where it properly belongs: at the heart of business performance. Employer responses to the recession suggest that an ever-increasing number recognise people are indeed their greatest asset. Converting employee engagement into bottom-line results is what employee engagement is all about. HR professionals will see this report as an endorsement of what many of them are already doing, as well a stimulus to do more.

The CIPD has recently published a discussion paper, An HR Director’s Guide to Employee Engagement, which:

  • Outlines key elements of the business case that can help persuade top management of the contribution engaged employees can make to an organisation
  • Identifies the key factors driving employees engagement, as well as the possible barriers
  • Highlights responsibilities in work places for promoting employee engagement and suggests what employers and government should do to create an engaged workforce.

Members can download the discussion paper by clicking here:

Mediation in the Workplace – The benefits

Director3 August 2009

You can also view this article via the Institute of Directors website by clicking here:

The political and economic maelstrom which has swirled around us in the past few months has meant that stories which would once have made the headlines have struggled to have an impact.   The new and radical rules on employment dispute resolution which came into effect on 6th April have gone largely unnoticed.  Yet failure to pursue the options for early resolution of disputes, as laid down in the legislation, could have far reaching consequences for employers and employees alike.

The new guidelines follow the publication of the Gibbons Review, which concluded that the now infamous ‘three step’ process at the heart of the 2004 regulations had not only failed to deliver efficient dispute resolution, but had “unintended negative consequences which outweigh their benefits”.  Gibbons noted that if the three step procedure was not followed to the letter by an employer, any dismissal, however justified, would be considered unfair.  This had resulted time and again in the automatic instigation of formal procedures in dealing with straightforward matters such as lateness, whereas in the past a quiet word might have sufficed. On the flip side, an employee, given only three months to lodge a complaint, would often feel pressured into getting the process of their grievance underway, rather than seek to resolve matters informally.

Stephen Alambritis of the Federation of Small Businesses summed it up:  “it looked good at the start but, in reality, behind the three steps were a lot of regulations and codes for business owners that incited staff to take issue with an employer”.  In a nutshell, too many bosses had been forced into dealing formally with even the most minor of misdemeanours; in just two years the number of staff grievances had risen by 28%, and tribunal claims by 65%.

The new legislation comes hot on the heels of alarming research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which puts the annual cost of conflict at work to the UK economy at a staggering £24bn, with some 370 million working days lost in 2007 alone.  Line mangers are spending around 20% of their time managing disputes, with the average cost of defending an employment tribunal claim at around £9,000.  However, it is impossible to put a price on the cost to employees in terms of stress and damaged employment prospects.  At a time of economic downturn and rising unemployment, it makes sense for all concerned that workplace conflict be resolved as quickly and harmoniously as possible.

It is unsurprising therefore that, at the core of Gibbons’s recommendations for a new system, was the replacement of the “inappropriately inflexible and prescriptive” three steps’ with a much less formal process, and a far greater emphasis on the use of mediation.  The new Code states: “Where it is not possible to resolve disciplinary and grievance issues in the workplace, employers and employees should consider using an independent third party to help resolve the problem. In some cases, an external mediator might be appropriate”.

Mediation has been practised in the UK for the last 20 years and is considered to be a future focussed process that is less concerned about who might be right or wrong and more about solving problems so that they don’t occur again.  A neutral and impartial mediator facilitates the process, but responsibility for finding a workable solution for the dispute rests firmly with the parties.  It is therefore essential that taking part in mediation should not be imposed on staff; by its very nature the process requires voluntary participation and a desire by all parties to seek an amicable and effective outcome.

Mediation is so effective is because it addresses the reasons why the dispute originally surfaced. By encouraging parties to express what happened, it also allows them to explore what needs to change in order to prevent future reoccurrences. One of the stated problems with the grievance process is that once concluded, colleagues are then expected to continue working together as if nothing has happened. Mediation offers employees a cathartic opportunity to talk about the past, and feel that they have been listened to, before moving on to find a solution in the future.

Another strength of the mediation process is that it can be applied to individual, team, departmental, functional or organisational disputes.  It is non-binding until agreement has been reached, but if a party reneges on agreed actions, the organisation can invoke its normal disciplinary or grievance measures.   It is also quick, saving money and emotional distress.  Mediation sessions can be set up very quickly, within days if necessary, preventing grievances from festering and spiralling out of control.  In the UK, mediation has a success rate of 93%.  East Sussex County Council reported productivity savings of £500,000 in just one year after introducing its in-house mediation scheme.   

However, there is government concern that the recent changes to employment legislation have gone largely unnoticed, a view recently confirmed by Sir Henry Brooke, Chairman of the Civil Mediation Council, who commented that “there are many companies throughout the country, large and small, that are unprepared for this legislation.  It is therefore essential that all employers should review their disciplinary and grievance procedures as a matter of some urgency to make sure they do not fall foul of the new Code”.

If employers take nothing else away from the new Code it should be that the business case is compelling. Mediation has become a tool that can help organizations stay one step ahead and secure competitive advantage. It helps key employees and line managers stay focused on the job, rather than becoming embroiled in conflict. Employers ignore its benefits at their peril.

Five recommendations for organisations when engaging conflict resolution principles:

  1.  Consider training some colleagues to become accredited mediators. This could be done on an in-house basis. The Civil Mediation Council has a list of bona fide workplace mediation services providers at     
  2. Partner with an external mediation provider. This will ensure that in cases where there may be a conflict of interest to appoint an internal mediator you can call on the services of an external organisation
  3. Review your organisation’s policies and procedures to incorporate clauses that promote and encourage early resolution of disputes and mediation
  4. Review other parts of the HR framework. For example consider offering training for line manages on topics such as ‘how to manage difficult conversations’ and equality/diversity training
  5. Link any success from mediation back to the business case. Identify savings made and ensure the benefits of mediation are publicised within the business.

 Clive Lewis is a Board Member of the Civil Mediation Council and chairs the Council’s workplace committee

 He is also the author of ‘The definitive guide to workplace mediation and managing conflict at work’

Management Briefing, Equality & Diversity

This article first appeared in The Times on 3 April 2009

Are all councils equal – or could some be more equal than others?

The Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA), a body that works to improve local government, plans to get councils to compete against one another to find who is the best at promoting equality among its residents. A competition called Peer Challenge will send senior council officers in to other councils to assess how well they do at ensuring all social groups in their area have equal chances in life. It is part of the Equality Framework, a document giving guidance on equality that has just been launched after extensive consultation with local councils, and which the IDeA hopes will redefine how councils view equality in their areas.

Traditionally, the focus on councils dealing with issues of equality and diversity has been on preventing discrimination on the grounds of gender, race or disability, and stopping ethnic minorities, disabled or older people from being marginalised, says Angela Mason, the national adviser for equality and diversity at the IDeA. But with the Equalities Bill going through Parliament, local government needs to change its approach, she believes.

She said: “There are lots of other vulnerable groups who are not covered by antidiscrimination law but who are actually doing pretty badly – the educational achievement of white working class boys, for example, or the progress on any measure of children in the care system.

“We are trying to say to councils, ‘Look widely at the opportunity of all the people in your community and see who’s not doing so well’.”

The framework, which replaces the former Equality Standard for Local Government, which was introduced in 2000, is designed to be a simple set of guidelines that will help councils to understand where they can improve. If equality law does change, it will probably promote a broader definition of equality, and with it a broader public duty for councils to promote equality in addition to the duties that already exist for race, disability and gender.

Those local authorities with the fullest understanding of their community make-up score highest on equality, Ms Mason says. But knowing the make-up of an area in detail (“equality mapping”) requires substantial data and evidence – meaning time and money. “A lot of councils haven’t invested enough in that area,” Ms Mason said.

As well as their existing responsibilities for education, local authorities will be given more responsibility for careers and skills, she said.

Ms Mason believes that local government has made more progress than other parts of the public sector, but says that there is still a “very long way to go”.

For some councils the problem is with leaders who do not see equality as a priority, while others do not have proper engagement or consultation methods worked out with their communities, she says.

The relatively nondiverse make-up of council staff means that most fail to reflect their communities. Women account for 20 per cent of council chief executives and a “tiny proportion” come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. “I’d say that’s the biggest thing they still have to get right,” she said.

Mediation is a performance issue

20 May 2009

This article was written by the CIPD’s Employee Relations Adviser, Mike Emmott and appeared in the May 2009 edition of CIPD Impact. Mike Emmott also endorsed the widely-acclaimed ‘The definitive guide to workplace mediation and managing conflict at work’ written by Globis Founder and MD, Clive Lewis and published in January 2009. 

Those seeking to build the business case for mediation in the workplace should not overlook its role in supporting performance.

The business case for mediation is generally framed in terms of reducing costs – either the cost of conflict, or the cost of alternative methods of conflict resolution. Conflict is a reality in most workplaces, reflected for example in the number of days lost through stress and other sickness absence, and cases of bullying and harassment. Research shows that managers spend many days a year handling discipline and grievance issues, and still more responding to subsequent tribunal claims.

But the real impact of mediation is best seen in terms, not of costs, but of importance. Conflict is damaging to performance since it undermines employee relations and individual motivation. The need to manage conflict also distracts managers from focussing on the business of keeping customers happy. People who are thinking of leaving the organisation, perhaps as a result of issues that have not been recognised or effectively tackled, are unlikely to be advocates for their organisation, or go the extra mile.

Conflict management has traditionally been seens as establishing procedures to help avoid and settle disagreements. The assumption is that employer and employee interests will differ, and procedures are needed to reconcile them when relations break down. But mediation goes beyond that in seeking to rebuild broken relationships and create a firmer basis for working together. it assumes that open and honest communication is capable of correcting mistaken perceptions about the behaviour motives of others and establishing a solid foundation for the future.

Mediation is about looking for solutions. It’s about problem solving. it’s about working towards a more constructive future. Mediation offers an alternative mindset to one based on ‘compliance’ with regulation. If we believe that workplace relations are based essentially on the psychological contract or unspoken deal between employer and employee, mediation is a way in which that contract can be restored after suffering conflict-induced damage.

Employee engagement depends to a great extent on effective communications, in both an upward and downward direction but, in the absence of trust, communication breaks down and is replaced by scepticism, disbelief or denial. Mediation focuses on repairing broken relationships between individuals, and helping to restore a sense of trust and fairness that is fundamental to achieving performance.

Employee engagement is also influenced by the degree of respect that people feel they encounter in their dealings with the organisation – by the extent to which people believe that they are being treated as individuals and that their opinions count. Mediation is a voluntary process in which individuals are invited to share their feelings about what they have experienced and the way they have treated or been treated by others. It is not about guilt and innocence but about opening up people’s minds to other perspectives.

Mediation is generally used to tackle problems between individuals: it’s about personal relationships. But there is also a parallel with the way the different departments do or don’t get on within the same organisation. The familiar ‘silo’ effect is produced when people in one department don’t talk to those in another, seeing them as incompetent, misguided and possibly malicious. These judgements are often based on misperceptions that can only be cleared up by a team-building process aimed at opening up communications.

Mediation can be undertaken either in-house, by a person or people trained for the job, or by an independent external mediator. Either can be effective, but the performance effect of in-house mediation can be reinforced by its wider impact on the organisation’s culture. Adopting a policyof sorting out problems by a process of in-house mediation makes a statement that the organisation is committed to maintaining positive relationships with its workforce and is willing to invest in acquiring the skills to make that happen. There is a parallel here with coaching, which can give a message about the kind of line management skills the organisation wants to foster.

But if we accept the argument that mediation is a performance issue, how do we know it works?  A CIPD survey in 2008 found that employers saw mediation as a highly effective method of resolving conflict, second only to informal discussion between those affected. Major organisations, including NHS trusts and BT, have recently moved to set up their own in-house mediation services and have no doubts about their value and effectiveness. Success rates of up to 100% are reported in disposing of issues remitted to mediation.

Looking at the impact of mediation on well-being, nearly three-quarters of respondents to the CIPD survey saw mediation as reducing or eliminating the stress involved in using more formal procedures. Two in three saw it as a means of retaining valuable employees. Over one half said they used mediation to develop an organisational culture that focused on managing and developing people. It’s time mediation was taken out of its box and seen, not as a technical intervention for dealing with a small minority of workplace issues, but as a tool for transforming cultures and building high-performing organisations. Why wouldn’t HR professionals want to take ownership of a process that seeks solutions based on trust, fairness and respect?

The survey report Workplace mediation: how employers do it is free to download from

Building better relationships in the workplace, When Mentors and Mentees Switch Roles

20 May 2009

This article was written by Cynthia Wagner and originally appeared in The Futurist in December 2008. Globis believes that bridging the age divide and emracing age Equality and Diversity is one of the biggest issues facing organisations today.

Baby boomers and millennials must learn to teach each other

Old-timer Victor remembers that bad run-in your company once had a certain supplier; he warns you to check all references before signing a crucial contract. New-comer Sasha seems to keep to herself, but she turns out to be one of the best salespeople on your staff. She shows the rest of the team how she found six new client leads just by using Facebook contacts.

When most organisations think about “knowledge transfer”, they think in terms of veterans of the organisation mentoring the new hires, younger people with little experience. But increasingly, younger workers are bringing in new skills that are valuable to an organisation, the Conference Board points out in a new report.

“As baby-boom generation of corporate leaders and experts approaches retirement, business in the US, Canada, and many European nations face the loss of experience and knowledge on an unprecedented scale,” says Diane Piktialis, co-author with Kent Greenes of the report, “Bridging the Gaps: How To Transfer Knowledge In Today’s Multigenerational Workplace.” Piktialis notes, “Younger workers can’t be counted on to fill the void, as they lack the experience that builds deep expertise. They also tend to change jobs frequently, taking their technological savvy and any knowledge they’ve gained with them.”

With potential brain drains from both retiring baby boomers and job hopping Gen Xers and millennials, managers are challenged to keep institutional knowledge intact and organisational learning and innovation expanding.

The Conference Board report urges managers to understand the different learning styles of the generations and to ensure that receivers of “knowledge transfer” understand that it’s a two way street. The report identifies four generations working side-by-side in many of today’s workplaces, each with distinctly different learning styles.

Matures or veterans (born 1925-1945) and baby boomers (1946-1964) prefer to learn via formal classroom instruction and printed texts; they tend to be more verbal than visually orientated communicators.

Gen Xers (1965 – 1979) prefer informal learning but are adept at formal classroom learning as well. They strongly prefer action-orientated leaning that focuses on solving real problems. As the first generation to grow up alongside the development of computers, their learning style is more visual than verbal, the report notes.

Gen Yers or millennials (1980 – 1995) were born into the computer age, where leaning is a team process and occurs through a network and connections. They prefer to do things their own way rather than be told how.

With this mix of learning styles, and with mentors and mentees trading roles frequently throughout the process, knowledge transfer has never been more complex. And the rapid acceleration of advances in computers and other technologies has widened the generational knowledge gap, the report notes. For instance, younger workers may prefer to receive IMs (instant messages) rather than attend a company-mandated workshop, and to share their own insights via blogs, wikis, or podcasts rather than talking to others through a procedure they’ve developed.

The methods of knowledge transfer need to be as diverse as the workforce itself, including formal education and training, apprenticeships, simulations and games, storytelling and conferences, blogs and papers.

The report stresses that there is a strong business case for improving both ends of the knowledge transfer process – providing veteran workers with new skills and orientating new workers with institutional history. The benefits include increased productivity, innovation, and organisational stability.

Incorporating Mediation at Work, A Case Study

19 January 2009

Mediation at Work: A Case Study


Written by: Leatham Green – Assistant Director of Personnel & Training – East Sussex County Council

East Sussex County Council is a large, complex and dynamic organisation. It employs around 16,000 people, in over 500 locations, with in excess of 350 different job types and an annual budget of around £1 billion. Like any modern business, the Council is constantly seeking ways to improve the way it delivers services in the most cost effective way possible. This changing environment inevitably has an impact on its employees and despite the professional industrial relations climate that exists locally, the Council does experience a degree of workplace conflict that is costly both in terms of resources and human impact.

Over the past couple of years discussions have taken place with recognised Trade Unions and managers to establish what, if anything, could be done to reduce conflict at work, and where it does exist, improve our practices and procedures in such a way that any dispute is resolved quickly. The Council has taken the opportunity to strengthen the training and support that is offered to all managers to ensure they are better skilled and more confident in dealing with difficult situations and conversations, as well as providing coaching and mentoring as and when required. In addition to this, the Council also strengthened the level, quality and accessibility of the HR advice, providing a professional service that adds value to the business with an emphasis on finding pragmatic solutions rather than getting bogged down in process and bureaucracy.

The next step was to agree improvements to strategy and processes and the consensus from both managers and Trade Unions was to move away from a process that was reactive to one that was proactive with an emphasis on outcomes, shifting resources to support early intervention and resolution. Mediation was identified as the most effective solution.

A proposal to introduce mediation into the workplace was developed and presented to the Council’s Chief Officer (Directors) Management Team and was positively endorsed. The proposal was supported by a clear business case setting out the high level cost of the existing approach to tackling workplace conflict, the cost of introducing mediation, and the potential short and long-term benefits. It was agreed that the formal introduction of mediation would be made in line with the changes in employment legislation from April 2009.

Preparations for the proposed changes commenced in January 2008. We worked with Globis to train a pool of in-house mediators selected from different professional groups at a senior level across the Council. This also included the involvement of senior Trade Union officials. The mediation training was first class. We now have 12 accredited mediators including two from the recognised Trade Unions. Wherever possible, the Council will engage one of its in-house mediators to undertake a mediation, however it reserves the right to engage external mediators as and when agreed by both parties.

The following actions were also undertaken:

  • Revised “Dignity at Work” and Grievance Policies to establish mediation as the first stage in resolving the conflict/dispute.
  • Agreed the clause to be inserted into the contract of employment, for employees recruited from April 2009, which establishes mediation as the Council’s preferred method to resolve workplace conflict and dispute.
  • Offered mediation on a voluntary basis to any employees with outstanding disputes.
  • Raised the profile of mediation as an effective tool in conflict resolution with managers and employees across the organisation.
  • Achieved formal endorsement from the Cabinet of the Council to changes in policy and procedure.

The foundations for the positive introduction of workplace mediation have now been achieved.

Throughout our planning phase we have successfully mediated on a dozen cases and all have achieved an effective outcome for the parties concerned. A number of cases involved employees who had been absent from work due to the workplace conflict and they have now returned to work and are making a valuable contribution to the Council. There is still much work to be done and no doubt the cultural shift away from an adversarial standpoint to one of a speedy and satisfactory resolution may take time. However, the success we have had so far bodes well for a brighter future.

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