Building leadership in companies through transformative mediation

In 1961, President John F Kennedy visited the NASA headquarters for the first time. As he walked along, he introduced himself to a janitor mopping the floor, and asked him what he was doing. The janitor infamously replied that “I’m helping put a man on the moon!”.

I’m helping put a man on the moon!

A workplace that provides meaning and a sense of self-worth to its employees by equipping them with the skills to positively handle differences and disagreements helps to create employee leadership that fulfils the mission and vision of the organisation.

Inter- and intra-departmental conflict

Interdepartmental and intradepartmental conflict are frequent occurrences that can adversely impact productivity in big organisations.

Interdepartmental conflict, as explained by Colombia Business School Professor Katherine W. Phillips, occurs because departments are specialised and therefore have interdependent but separate functions. They may have conflicting goals—the legal department wants to protect the corporation, while the marketing department wants to maximise sales. These differences in goals can foster conflicts that spread to interactions between teams and individuals in the respective departments.

Intradepartmental conflict takes place between people within the same department, for example, a disagreement between two senior members of the marketing department of a company.

Inter- and intra- departmental conflicts can help people learn to work with conflict in a constructive manner, as they present an opportunity to learn positive skills. These skills include confronting the challenges of conflict, adjusting values, and learning new attitudes, and can build leadership. This positive response is a behavioural change, and requires a change in mindset.

Organisations that seek to develop a culture of positive response to conflict need to cultivate it on an ongoing basis, putting in place systems and learning strategies that bring about the change. The first step is transitioning mindsets from ‘victim’ to ‘player’.

Transitioning mindsets, from ‘victim’ to ‘player’

In his book ‘Meaningful Revolution’, VP of Leadership Development at LinkedIn Fred Kofman deals at length with the essential steps enabling a shift from ‘victim’ to ‘player’. The intuitive response while in conflict is towards denial, blame, and complaints. It is tempting for those involved to appear as a victim and avoid taking responsibility. This response can be countered if management fosters an approach that welcomes conflict and views it as a clue to deeper issues. The effort is towards learning, understanding, and drawing out issues rather than quelling conflict or winning the argument. Conflicting parties can express and understand each other’s views and begin to see value in one another’s perspectives. They can then all work towards identifying the cracks that may exist in the system, and use the situation as an opportunity for creativity and growth. The culture in the organisation allows people in conflict to consciously choose to see and present themselves as players responding to a challenge, rather than victims.

Transitioning from victim to player occurs when conflicting parties recognise that by identifying themselves as part of the problem, they become part of the solution. Instead of apportioning blame, they engage in self-reflection and understand their role in the situation. Rather than being a victim of external circumstances, they become the agent of their own actions and take responsibility, accountability, and ownership for the things that happen in their environment. Together the parties work to prepare a shared narrative that leads them to integrate arguments and find solutions.

In case they are still not able to find solutions, the colleagues’ goal continues to be not ‘winning’, but finding the best decision for the organisation. They can invite a neutral third party into the conversation to facilitate their engagement in interactive problem-solving.  This process is called mediation.

What is mediation?

Mediation is a process whereby a trusted, neutral third party called the ‘mediator’ facilitates dialogue and discussions between parties in conflict to help them find mutually acceptable solutions. Perspective-taking is an important part of this process. The underlying interests or prime drivers of the conflict are heard and understood. Emotions are welcomed as an opportunity to be informed on how the dispute is seen and how it may be resolved. Multiple options are explored, and the mediator continues to work with the parties until mutually acceptable solutions that are in the best interest of the company are found. The objective of the mediation is maximise benefits to the company through an optimal configuration of arrangements suggested by the conflicting parties and endorsed by the company.

Mediation is voluntary, confidential, and based on self-determination.  It recognises that disputes are more than just about right and wrong, and most often arise because of miscommunication, lack of understanding, hurt feelings, conflicting concerns, cultural differences etc.

Transformational mediation empowers parties to transform the way they relate to each other in the future. Through the process of mediation, parties understand each other better, learn each other’s perspectives, build bridges, and continue in interdependence.

Case study: Indian developments

The benefit of mediation in resolving interdepartmental and intradepartmental disputes has been recognized and acknowledged by the Union Ministry of Law and Social Justice. The Ministry has advised various ministries and central government departments to go for online mediation, conciliation or arbitration, instead of approaching regular courts to settle inter-department or inter-ministerial disputes. Private companies are also seeing the benefits of mediation for inter and intra-departmental conflicts. As the CEO of a German company in Bangalore reported after mediation, “The air in the office is lighter now”.


The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

Jalaluddin Rumi

The workplace of the new millennium will focus on building the skills of their workforce for a positive response during conflict. In-house mediation and other conflict management programs become a sine qua non to organisations that seek to develop leadership and a sense of self-worth within the organisation. Each member in the organisation, equipped with the skills to handle differences and disagreements, becomes an agent of their own actions, and a transcendent leader with self-confidence and a sense of self-worth in whatever role they are engaged in.  Inter- and intra- department conflict becomes an opportunity for growth. To quote Jalaluddin Rumi, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you”.

Mrs. Ollapally is the Founder of CAMP Arbitration and Mediation Practice Pvt. Ltd. The author is grateful to Saiesh Kamath, a student at National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkota, who contributed to this article during his internship at CAMP.

Note that an alternate version of this piece was published on

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