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How the Army’s investment in dispute resolution is helping to resolve issues before they escalate

25 Apr 2019 By Robert Jeffery

Mediation is garnering fresh attention as an effective way to settle disagreements between individuals

“People,” says Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Buxton, “are the most important part of the Army. You can have the best equipment and the best technology available, but unless you have the people to work that equipment, you will fail.”

It is, perhaps, an uncontentious view, but the work Buxton (pictured) is engaged in is far from run of the mill. As head of the British Army’s Unacceptable Behaviours team, he is at the forefront of combating bullying, harassment and discrimination by rolling out helplines, training and assessment tools to initiate both systematic and cultural change. 

But it is his efforts to embed and improve the Army Mediation Service that are groundbreaking from an HR perspective. The concept of dispute resolution, says Buxton, is natural to the Armed Forces. “Everything we do is about operational effectiveness, and if two people in work cannot get on together, that will be affected.” 

Mediation has been used as a dispute resolution tool for around seven years, but has recently gained fresh investment and attention. Already the effects are being seen on the front line. But making the system viable has involved plenty of tough discussions, and an understanding of what lies behind disputes. 

There is no typical conflict in the Army, says Buxton, although generally it comes down to two individuals being unable to work together pragmatically. In some cases that could be because they were previously romantically involved, but it’s more likely to be due to a personality clash, perhaps exacerbated by different ranks being involved. Often, it is commanding officers who turn to mediation as the answer to an operational issue. However, increasingly, front-line personnel themselves are making the call as an alternative to raising a formal complaint.

The mediation service’s tried-and-tested process is to engage both parties in a detailed explanation of what’s involved – including the fact that mediation is voluntary and cannot be brought into any future grievance process. This is followed by an immersive day involving two mediators who spend a morning working through issues with each individual separately and preparing them to come together in the afternoon to find a resolution.

“Often in the mornings there is a lot of emotion because people are talking in a safe environment,” says Buxton. “If you put the two people together straight away, a lot of the emotion would come out, so by allowing them to understand what they want to focus on, they can get their heads straight.”

It’s made possible by the ongoing investment in a pool of 85 internal mediators drawn from across the Army (every time new positions become available they are several times oversubscribed, says Buxton). Each mediator works on several different cases each year, but there is also a huge effort to draw lessons from successful, and less successful, mediations and share them through a CPD process. 

Maintaining this internal capability matters because fellow soldiers understand the unique contexts of Army life. But it also presents challenges in avoiding any potential for bias: when choosing mediators, they must be unknown to participants and match the ranks involved as closely as possible, and meetings must take place at entirely neutral venues.

It’s also important to emphasise that mediation is only one potential answer to an ongoing issue, says Buxton – but it’s one that soldiers are gradually coming to understand and trust, which is why the number of incidents solved this way is steadily growing. 

“There aren’t thousands of mediations going on every year, which goes to prove we are good at dealing with these things at a low level.

“But when we’re talking to the chain of command, we say the most important thing is when they speak to individuals, they don’t try and sell mediation – they sell the idea of just having a conversation with us. Soldiers are generally very sceptical about mediation. They don’t know what it is.”

In many cases, he adds, commanding officers may already have attempted to mediate, with varying success. 

“The hierarchical structures within the military make things difficult [in dispute resolution], but they are there for a reason. When you’re going to war, people need to turn around and do what they’re told without a moment’s hesitation. But in the workplace – when you’re no longer attacking an enemy position – you need to step back and take longer to make a decision.

“When you are planning a military operation, you always have someone there to ‘red team’ – to provide the opposing opinion. In that way, conflict is healthy. Where it’s not healthy is where it leads to two people not being physically able to work together.”

Thanks to the efforts of Buxton and his team, that is becoming rarer. The service has a success rate of almost 95 per cent positive resolutions, with most cases solved within four weeks and a corresponding drop in the number of formal grievances.

Though the process will be slow, the aim is for mediation to become part of the fabric of Army life. “Hopefully, as the years roll by, mediation will be on people’s lips a lot more, and it won’t just be something that is done in response to complaints. What we find is the units that used mediation will ring up again six months later and use it again because it worked so well the last time.”

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