Creating a Positive Workplace – Using Mediation as a Tool

Posted on
15 Apr 2019
by Brendan Schutte

How can staff be encouraged in work may seem a simple question to ask, but the answer is not always easy to find in the myriad pieces of advice and theoretical models about what to do. New advances in understanding the inner workings of the brain and how our minds work – often in quite surprising ways - are being discovered by neuroscientists using great new technology such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging. But trying to make use of this information effectively during the many day-to-day pressures can seem daunting.

One theory that aims to ‘unify’ what we know is that proposed by David Rock. It is known as the SCARF model, a helpful acronym which stands for:






These are viewed as the five core social domains that drive human behaviour. Importantly, Rock states that the brain treats social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards. Thus, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. This may ring a bell for those involved in change management who can often wonder why particular changes are resisted with such passionate hostility. Suffice it to say that the threat response is often underestimated in work.

Of course, the positive use of the five domains will produce a ‘brain reward’ perhaps longer lasting than actual rewards such as a salary increase. Paying attention to these domains is key to ensuring staff are encouraged and nurtured in the workplace.

However, when things go wrong at work, most likely to do with one or more of these domains, what can an organisation do to make things right? More and more, organisations are turning away from quasi-legal procedures such as investigation, and embracing the common sense, and quicker, process of mediation.

So, what is mediation and how is it used?

It’s a process where an impartial facilitator assists those in conflict to reach their own agreement for resolving matters, in a confidential and respectful setting.

While there is some variation in process depending on the facilitator, most will have initial preparatory meetings with the parties individually followed by a single, or perhaps a series of, joint meetings. The purpose of these meetings will be to open up communication between the parties, gaining a fuller understanding of what has happened, and then focusing on options and possibilities for resolution. The final stage is to distil the ideas into an agreement that is acceptable to all.

If nothing else is achieved there has at least been a high quality listening conversation and the parties will no doubt have learned a lot. However, the mediation process is also very successful in terms of agreement outcomes. 

Mediation can be used for staff grievances and other matters, such as differences to do with performance management, complaints of bullying and harassment, returning to work following an investigation, poor working relationships and ‘personality clashes’. But the potential is there for further use in other areas as well – client or user complaints, personal injury, disagreements with contractors and suppliers, the list is endless. Really, anywhere there is conflict of some kind can benefit from the use of mediation.

In the past, mediation has been considered as an ‘alternative dispute resolution mechanism’ but the Mediation Act 2017 has moved it centre stage as best practice procedure. Advantages include speed, little or no risk, and perhaps cost if mediation is able to prevent a dispute heading for the courts or to other expensive, time-consuming internal process such as investigations. 

Mediation – with a properly trained and professional facilitator – is a risk-free option that gets to the heart of the problem and ensures a robust resolution. 

Find out more about mediation, and ask Brendan any questions you have about the process, at a free webinar for members on 29 May. Register for a place on this special webinar here.

The Wheel also coordinates a pro bono Micro-Mediation Project for smaller member organisations. Find out more here.

About Brendan Schutte

Brendan is an independent consultant and trainer with a background in human resource management and development across manufacturing, healthcare, education and not-for-profit sectors. Having achieved 1st place in the very first postgraduate Diploma in Mediation Studies in UCD he qualified as a Practitioner Member in the Mediators Institute of Ireland, becoming the first Registrar for the Workplace Mediation sector, overseeing assessment and accreditation for mediators wishing to work in this area.