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Work Advice: Boss and I clashed, but it’s okay now. Do we still need mediation?

Workplace mediation can help even when there’s no immediate conflict to resolve

5 min

Reader: I had a very close relationship with my former boss, who has retired. The boss’s replacement and I have not gotten along in the past; our history has included borderline abusive management practices (severe micromanaging, gossip, scoldings, etc).

We had a falling-out when the new boss vetoed a decision on a project I had conceived with my previous boss. In retrospect, I should have bitten the bullet and accepted the veto after pleading my case, but given our previous interactions, I stood my ground. I requested mediation with the new boss, but it was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, since then, my new boss’s attitude has done a complete 180 for the better.

How should I approach my new boss’s new, better management style? Should I still pursue mediation?

Karla: First, let’s take a moment to applaud your employer for offering what sounds like in-house mediation to resolve these kinds of workplace issues. Often, employees engaged in interpersonal conflicts are told to work it out themselves — which, if that were possible, they would have done already — or suck it up and accept that what the boss says, goes. Or the company expects a manager or human-resources staffer to arbitrate, regardless of whether that person has any skill or training in conflict resolution, or even the ability to listen impartially to both sides.

I want to be clear: Not all disputes are the “talk it out in mediation” kind. Abuse, discrimination and legal violations demand intervention from HR, upper management and possibly even an external governmental authority.

But even seemingly minor misunderstandings, miscommunications and other daily frustrations can undermine the stability of a workplace and drive wedges between people who need to be working together. Conflict poisons the environment as resentment builds, aggrieved parties vent to their friends, and those friends take sides. Work product suffers. The employer starts losing talent as workers who feel unheard and disrespected decide to take their skills elsewhere — something we saw often during the “Great Resignation.”

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So don’t second-guess your frustration or your request for mediation. Good for your employer for offering it, and good for you for taking advantage.

I understand why you’re thinking you should leave well enough alone now that there’s no immediate conflict to resolve. It sounds as though the pandemic hit “pause,” giving you and your boss time to reassess and stand down. Why throw a squeaky toy into a pack of sleeping dogs?

But what happens the next time you and the boss butt heads over a project? Even after life-changing epiphanies, people have a way of falling back into familiar patterns the moment they encounter a new obstacle. I think it’s worth doing a peacetime post-mortem on your previous conflict as a way to prepare for future ones.

And that’s the spirit in which you should approach your rescheduled mediation. Start by acknowledging the past conflicts and disagreement that led you to request mediation, and then acknowledge that in the interim, the situation seems to have improved — so now, you would like to build on that momentum and solidify your relationship with your boss.

Owning your contribution to the conflict is a good opener: “After some reflection, I realize I took it harder than I should have when I was overruled on that project.”

If you did something meriting an apology, this would be the time to say so. If you’re willing to dig into the reasons you reacted as you did, that could be helpful. You may not want to actually express the following whole truths to your boss in so many words, but you should at least be honest with yourself about whether something is a “boss” problem or a “you” problem.

For example, maybe that project was important to you because it was the last project you worked on with the boss you were close to, so you might have seen a simple business decision as a personal slight. Or you might be concerned that the new boss doesn’t see and respect your skills the way your old boss did, and you’re stressed about having to prove yourself all over again to regain that trust.

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Ideally, your new boss has been undergoing similar self-reflection. Maybe the boss’s previous behavior was driven by insecurity, but settling into the new role has brought some confidence. Maybe the boss has been struggling with some invisible burden outside of work that was finally addressed during the pause. You don’t need all the details, but knowing that your boss is a human with human struggles can help you see your previous (and, probably, future) conflicts in a different light.

And as you say, your relationship with this boss has never been an easy one. You probably won’t end up besties, and may not even particularly like each other. But if you each respect what the other brings to the table and can agree to deal in good faith, mediation can help you work out how to navigate and harness your friction to produce good outcomes.