A comparison between The Office’s “Conflict Resolution” and real-life mediation.
If you’ve ever watched “The Office,” you know Michael Scott as the hilarious but grossly incompetent and inappropriate manager of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company Scranton branch.
From his “that’s what she said jokes” to constantly distracting his team from work, Michael does not paint the picture of professionalism.
However, this show is so relatable because we have all had a “Michael Scott” in our office at one point or another. Someone who is inexplicability good at his job yet gets away with all the shenanigans.
Conflict Resolution Episode
I want to ask you to watch (or re-watch if you were a regular viewer) the “Conflict Resolution” (Season 2, Episode 21) episode—super funny and a great “what not to do” as a mediator reminder. It is on Netflix so easily accessible.
In this episode, Michael overhears the HR representative, Toby Flenderson, in a closed-door meeting with an employee (Oscar Martinez from accounting) who was VERY upset.
Michael goes to investigate and finds that instead of addressing employee’s interpersonal problems head-on, Toby opts to just let folks vent, write notes down, and does nothing more with the matter. Toby explains that most of these issues just play themselves out and never need intervention.
This angers Michael, as he thinks it’s Toby’s job to confront the coworkers who have problems with each other and resolve the issue.
So, on this day, Michael takes it upon himself to lead “conflict resolution” workshops and mediate each problem disclosed in Toby’s files.
When Michael starts his first mediation session, he goes over the various outcomes that could occur using the “Mediator’s Toolchest,” (A big binder with colorful pictures that Michael reads for the first time while in the mediation.)
The first option is Lose-Lose, where both parties do not get what they want.
Michael skips over the second options (likely Win-Lose).
The third option is Compromise, in which each party cedes part of their issue and finds an agreeable solution.
The fourth option is Win-Win, in which both parties get what they want without having to compromise.
The fifth option is Win-Win-Win. In this case, not only do both parties win, but the mediator also wins for having successfully mediated. Apparently, the Mediator’s Toolchest sees the need to feed the ego of the mediator, too.
Mediating Employee Disputes
Most of Michael’s mediation is focused around Oscar and Angela, who sit next to each other in accounting.
Oscar has a strong dislike for a poster Angela has on display in her work area. The poster in question has two babies dressed up like Jazz musicians and playing saxophones.
After going over the possible outcomes, Michael asks both parties to use “I feel” language instead of “you emotion” language. This is something Michael does well, as any mediator or therapist will tell parties in conflict to use this type of language.
Oscar states that he feels the art is insulting and terrible and makes him worry for the well-being of these kids who were put up to it by a stage mother.
Angela says the poster is playful and makes her think God has a sense of humor. Both have strong feelings about it.
After Angela describes her perception of the poster, Michael visibly shows his shock and explains his disbelief. No, no, no! As the mediator you must listen with empathy and not share your personal opinion at this initial stage. Maybe, later, when asked you might share your view but when shared you risk losing the perception of your neutrality.
Next, Michael prompts them to come up with possible solutions to their problem, and Pam, the receptionist, chimes in they could rotate days Angela has the poster on display. This solution isn’t good enough for Michael as it would be a compromise, and he feels the mediator (himself) would not “win” in this solution.
I love this example because I throw out suggested compromises all the time and when rejected by the parties, as they often are, I move on. After all, this is the parties’ dispute, not mine, and they will need to implement any solution we devise. The ego of the mediator should be the least important factor in this equation.
You’ll notice throughout the rest of this discussion, Michael follows his own instincts and judgements instead of listening to the needs and feelings of his employees.
He steamrolls them with a solution mandated by Michael: Oscar wears the poster as a T-shirt so he NEVER sees it and Angela can ALWAYS see it. Both parties do not like this idea; however, Michael insists this is the only solution in which all parties (himself included) win.
While the comedy writers for the Office hit their mark in writing a funny episode, Michael missed the mark as a mediator.
He breaks employee (client) confidentiality
Most employees in the office were unaware of problems their coworkers had prior to Michael bringing out the employee complaint files.
He publicly reads aloud some of the issues. A real mediator would hold private files in confidence and only bring them to light when both parties have agreed to a mediation in a private setting (the conference room).
He doesn’t listen to his employees (clients)
Michael seemed more set on checking boxes on the list for coming up with solutions than actually coming up with solutions that satisfied his employees.
He himself wanted to be seen as a successful mediator, but in doing so, became unsuccessful because his clients were left unhappy.
Any mediator will tell you – the key is active listening and working towards creative solutions that BOTH parties agree to.
He is not an objective outside party
Mediators should be a trusted outside person. That means, the mediator does not have a bias or power over one or both of the parties.
Since Michael determines the salaries and working conditions of the employees and is an over-involved boss who considers himself everyone’s friend, he would not be the best person to mediate the dispute.
However, having an HR rep from corporate or an outside consultant could be a workable solution.
Choose a Competent Experienced Mediator for Your Next Conflict Resolution
When choosing a mediator, you want someone who has years of training in the legal field and in alternative dispute resolutions.
While yes, they may have access to a “Mediator’s Toolchest,” they will not be reading from a workbook. They will come into the session with some background knowledge from both parties and years of developing similar solutions.
KIM L. KIRN has over 20 years of experience mediating disputes for a variety of conflicts – employer/employee, financial, commercial real estate and more!
Book a consult with KIM L. KIRN today.