American Factory, 2019, won an Oscar in 2020 for Best Documentary. I recommend it to everyone who chooses the path of mediation or alternative dispute resolution. The film’s authors Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert and Jeff Reichert approached the story as true mediators. They represent impartially and objectively the different points of view, let the characters, real people, tell their stories openly, without editting them, providing equal weight for all parties in the story.
The same skill lies at the heart of successful mediation. The impartial acceptance of opinions in the two different poles of conflict by the neutral mediator leads first to building trust between the disputers and him. This, in turn, is the premise of reaching a seemingly impossible unification of divergent claims in a common interest. But where’s the secret of such high level of pilotage?
The film tells of a factory owned by a Chinese corporation that opened its doors to the site of a desolate General Motors plant in Daytona, Ohio, which left thousands of American workers with no livelihood, no roof, and no means for normal living. However, the relaunch of the factory, besides being exciting news for the community in the city, also creates numerous and diverse conflicts on many levels- conflict between different cultures, American and Chinese, conflict between managers and workers, conflict in communication, conflict between American workers themselves on whether to have a syndicate in the plant or not, conflict between personal and corporate interests, even hinted at a conflict between Chinese management operating in the U.S. and the higher corporate management requirements in China. Inside the film itself, there is a scene in which the Chinese manager requires something from an American worker that is impossible to perform on her own until a manager comes and does mediation in motion, in which both sides express their concerns precisely and there is no simple solution to provide her with an assistant. This example shows how easy a dispute is to arise, but often the solution is not difficult, as long as there is open communication about the interests of the parties, their concerns, but also common goals.
The film shows the most intimate viewpoints of all participants in the conflict. There’s no black and white in it, there’re a lot of nuances. At some point, the parties manage to empathize with each other, especially when communicating as human beings outside the context of business. It turns out that Chinese managers are not demanding or disrespecting their American counterparts, as the latter accuse them. They just come from a different culture, where work at 12 hours a day is normal, people are led by collective goals, living with complete commitment and loyalty to the company, neglecting personal interests for the sake of the common, holding values like loyalty and gratitude for having work and earning money. Besides, those Chinese ex-pats left their families in China to live for 2 years in America and train their colleagues to work with high efficiency. The Chinese, on the other hand, educate themselves about the typical characteristics of American culture in order to learn to communicate effectively with their colleagues. Respect between them comes naturally when they are aware of all these nuances.
The purpose of the mediator is precisely that- to find the human aspect of the conflict and to set the two arguing parties to a common vibration wave. The client has its claims to compensation for emotional and material damage, and the company cannot comply with any ungrounded demands that are too detrimental to it. In general, the final conclusion is that in order for traders to improve their services, they need to hear the criticism of their customers, and the latter to receive fair compensation that satisfies them. The ultimate aim is to stimulate the trader towards development, not to undermine it. Finding a common solution inevitably leads to strengthening relations and maintaining a long-standing fruitful partnership.
The mediator has another challenge ahead of himself- this fine balance of interests must be achieved in a relatively short time, which the parties are willing to give to the dispute resolution procedure, so as not to lose their confidence.
It’s an open-ended movie. We don't know how the story continues or whether the conflicts end. By the end, it became clear that very soon automation would solve many of them, i.e. robots would replace humans.
The role of mediators will always remain to resolve conflicts between people, where emotions, different viewpoints, joy and pain are mixing together. Mediators will always have the ultimate task to balance between all ingredients of this mixture- everything that the machine can't calculate.
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