Jon Aikman's Blog

Thoughts on Mediation and Project Management

  • Recent research from Zurich Zoo on chimpanzees resolving disputes within their group highlights the long association we have with mediation. The research notes how an elder chimpanzee will come between two others to encourage a dispute to be settled peacefully. A very good demonstration of mediation. The researchers studying the group of chimps surmised that in evolutionary terms there is an advantage to the chimps that can co-operate and work as a group over those that can not work with others. Just like us humans, whether we are co-operating as a group of hunters or working together in complex business environments, there is a need to protect group interests in order for the individual to prosper.

    Somewhere back in our and the chimps’ common ancestry we gained the ability to work in groups and resolve disputes that threatened to damage the group interest. Humans became the masters of this ability and we continue to practice and refine this skill as our environment and group dynamics become more and more complex.

    Throughout our history there are references to mediation. Laws differ between societies and throughout time. The application and recourse to law varies from strong to virtually non-existent at different times and locations. However the human desire to trade, build, survive and prosper is constant and the instinct to resolve disputes rather than mutual destruction prevails.

    Mediation is referred to in relation to Phoenician trading around 3,000 years ago. In Ancient Greece Plato and Aristotle write about mediation. The Romans saw mediation as a fundamental part of the legal process and traditional tribal societies use a “wise elder” to help feuding individuals to settle disputes peacefully.

    This is all very interesting from an anthropological or historical point of view, but can we learn anything from this research? What I learn is that the desire to work together in harmony and co-operation, to settle the inevitable disputes at a personal level and to balance the interests of individuals with the interests of the group is fundamentally human. Whether we have a society with a strong rule of law or not, whether there is a detailed and enforcable contract or not, the basic human instinct is to work and do business together. Clear and fair laws and well drafted contract documents help us to work together, reduce missunderstandings and allow more complex business arrangements, but they can’t replace the necessity to work together at apersonal and human level. Mediation is relevant in all societies, in all legal sytems, whether there is a legal system or not and whever humans (or chimps) work together.