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Mediation for transgressive behavior in the workplace

Topical, painful, damaging, difficult. Mediation for transgressive behavior in the workplace is more relevant than ever. So is there more transgressive behavior than there used to be? Probably not. But it has become more normal to state your boundaries. And it has become more normal as a company to accept that what is "just a joke" for one person is crossing a line for another.

In this article we show you how a mediator deals with transgressive behavior. We do this with examples and a step-by-step plan that will also be useful in everyday life.

An example of transgressive behavior

We did a mediation for transgressive behavior in an ICT department of a large company. The employee, a man of 40, had felt intimidated by his supervisor, a man of 50. He had reported this to the head of the department who had told both men that they had to go into mediation.

The employee said that he greatly looked forward to any contact with the supervisor because he did not know when he would explode again. He did not feel safe. The supervisor did not recognize himself in the story and was very touched by it. A yes-no conversation ensued that was clearly just frustrating for both of them.

Discussing transgressive behavior in a mediation

In such situations, the mediator can bring calm and give space to both sides. He then starts with the person whose boundary has been crossed and asks him to tell what happened using a number of steps.

Step 1: Event

What actually happened? The important thing here is to mention only observable things. Things you can objectively see and hear. So not, “he yelled very angrily.” Whether someone is angry is something only that person can know. What you saw was, “he started talking louder and louder and talked through me. His face turned red.”

Step 2: Thought

This is where your interpretation may be added. “I thought, he is very angry. I thought, what have I done wrong?”

Step 3: Feeling

Step 3 is about the effect this had on you. How did this make you feel? “I got scared and insecure.” Not “I thought he was stupid.” That is a judgment, a thought, that belongs to Step 2. This step is really about you alone.

Step 4: Consequence

What did you do as a result? What was your reaction to the event?

The mediator will write this out on board or paper and take time to tell the whole story while the other person listens in. The distinction between step 1 and step 2 is especially important; this is where things often go wrong. When you say to someone, “I can’t work with you because you are a sexist,” there is little chance that they will be able to listen and change. After all, that person does not consider himself a sexist, so your message does not make sense to him. When you tell very calmly what happened, the facts, not your thoughts and feelings about it, a common starting point emerges. So “every morning you say “good morning” to Hans, but to me you say “you look good again”. (Step 1) I then think “why does he do that? And it reminds me of other situations where that difference was also there and it ended up wrong” (Step 2).

If we manage to agree on the facts (what happened observationally? Suppose an alien is watching, what did they see and hear?), there is more room for improvement thereafter.

The mediator also listens to the other side

After the mediator has done this with one, he will do it with the other. The manager also has a story, an experience, thoughts and feelings. If there is no room for that, an unsafe situation arises for him and then you get the metoo-backlash: “you are not allowed to do anything as a man anymore!”. Nonsense, you can do anything as long as you take the other person into account. And you can expect the other person to be considerate of you.

This may sound like a lot of work, but it is not so bad. With a good mediator, this is two two-hour conversations, while the situation unresolved costs hours, days and weeks of illness, stress and sleepless nights. When the organization and the employees want it, this way the relationship and peace can be restored.

With the ICT’er and his supervisor, it worked perfectly. The ICT worker was able to explain well what had happened and what effect it had on him. The supervisor found that difficult to accept at first, it frustrated him and he felt powerless. And at that point, the supervisor started exhibiting exactly the behavior that bothered the ICT worker: he started leaning forward, talking louder, talking with his hands, turning red. The mediator named it and they both recognized it. The supervisor was then able to connect his feelings (powerlessness) to it, making it less threatening for the employee. And the supervisor was also able to understand exactly what the employee meant. They walked out the door stronger together.

Can all transgressive behavior be resolved with mediation?

Can mediation for transgressive behavior solve everything? No, of course not. We recently did a mediation where a manager had started an extramarital relationship with a colleague. The moment she (the manager) ended the relationship he did not accept it and started stalking her. This went so far that he knocked on her door drunk at night, where her husband opened the door. The latter reported the incident to the police.

Our mediator sat down with the director, the manager and the employee. It was a complicated situation in which there could also certainly be a discussion about who exhibited transgressive behavior: the manager, by starting the relationship, or the employee by stalking? In the mediation, the situation and the different sides were discussed. For the manager, it was finally established that both had exhibited transgressive behavior. It meant dismissal for the stalking employee and demotion for the manager (who a short time later resigned himself). So although a respectful conversation did take place in mediation, the boundaries had been crossed too far.

The other person’s perception also counts

In many of the “new” situations where mediation for transgressive behavior is used, it is about old norms against new norms. What was allowed versus what is allowed. And that is largely related to power. Who has the power and how does they handle it. Long ago, power was in the hands of a small group of nobility. Their norms and their perception was leading. That this was not pleasant for others was secondary. And this was also accepted by those others.

Now we live in a society in which, even if you have the power, you are expected to take into account the perception of others. And that perception may be completely foreign and unexpected to you. This is difficult and also makes those in power feel unsafe. As long as you keep talking to each other, for example with mediation in cases of transgressive behavior, a new balance will emerge.

Another example of mediation for transgressive behavior

Another mediation involved touching. The male director had been sued by a female employee for touching her all the time. This was transgressive to her and she called it sexual harassment. It WAS sexual harassment to her.

The director was unaware of any harm: he had been doing this his whole life, but, he added with a wink, “only with beautiful women.” This was meant as a compliment but fell (not entirely unexpectedly) completely the wrong way.

Before they could proceed together, two things had to happen: the story and the employee’s perception had to be heard and accepted by the director and the director had to get the feeling from the employee that she was not condemning him as a person (“you are a bad man”), but that it was only about the behavior (“I am bothered by that behavior”).

Again, the mediator went through an event using the 4 steps. This created the space for understanding. It happened gradually. There is not a moment when the button flips and they are completely understanding. No, throughout the conversation the tone slowly changed. And there were still some relapses (when the director made a “joke” or when the employee refused to listen to him), but after two 2-hour conversations, they could still honestly say to each other that there was trust again. And for them, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Three months later, the mediator was in contact with both of them and they told that things were going well and that the atmosphere within the whole company was better as a result.

Result Mediation and mediations in cases of transgressive behavior.

We do about 1200 mediations a year and in all those cases everything comes up. Including cross-border behavior in the workplace. Our mediators share experiences and strengthen each other in dealing with these sensitive matters. You can discuss with our case management which mediator best suits your situation. This can be important. Therefore, it is also always possible to have an online introductory meeting with a mediator to see if he or she is the right person for your situation. And should this not be the case, we will simply continue our search!

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With professional mediation, we resolve more than 90% of conflicts. Quickly and to the satisfaction of both parties.