Mediation is Hard!

Each week, The Economist prints an opinion article in its business section entitled “Bartleby”. Its January 19, 2023 piece is entitled “Why pointing fingers is unhelpful”. Its thesis is that while it is easy and quite tempting to point fingers and blame someone, it is not really helpful. In the words of the author, blaming is “corrosive” and “saps team cohesion.” (Id.) “It makes it less likely that people will own up to mistakes, and thus less likely that organisations can learn from them.” (Id.)

The article then discusses  how certain industries such as aviation and health care have learned how much better it is “… not to assign blame or liability but to find out what went wrong and to issue recommendations to avoid a repeat.” (Id.)

But it notes that moving away from simply blaming someone or something does pose two problems: First, it requires a lot of effort. “Blame is cheap and fast.” (Id.)  While it takes only a second to point the finger and blame Mr. X, it takes a lot longer to investigate, document, figure out what went wrong and why and then introduce the needed changes. (Id.)

The second problem is the boss: “People with power are particularly prone to point fingers.” (Id.)   The article cites a recent study that found that “… people who are in positions of authority are more likely to assume others have choices and to blame them for failures. “(Id.)

To determine this,  academics from the University of California, San Diego and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore randomly assigned people to the role of either supervisor or worker and then showed them an error filled transcript of an audio recording   along with an apology from the  transcriber saying it was due to an unstable internet connection.  They found that the “supervisor” was much quicker to blame the transcriber and withhold payment than the “worker.” (Id.)

Other researchers found that blaming is contagious. If one person, let’s say the boss, starts playing the blame game, others within the organization will do so as well. However, if the boss accepts responsibility for the error, this mentality will filter down stream. (Id.)

Reading this article reminded me of mediation: parties come in and play the blame game, otherwise known as distributive bargaining: “You are fault, I am not, so I win, and you lose.”  But, moving away from this mindset (like moving away from the blame game) is hard. It requires that the parties attend to the needs and interests of  each other by trying to get to the bottom of what happened and then working together to come up with a way to “fix” it. That is, it requires collaboration and a lot of active listening.  Most likely, the dispute was created by a lot of miscommunications, lack of communication, and assumptions. Perceptions were off. To figure out where the dispute “went off the rails”, the parties will have to really talk and listen to each other to understand each other’s perception of the” problem” and then work together to figure a way forward that meets both of their needs and interests. It is hard work but will be much more rewarding than playing the “blame game.”

… Just something to think about.


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