Managers should coach staff to sort their own conflicts

Leadership in the job

By Kate Southam

In their private life, the average employee is an experienced negotiator dealing with a myriad of issues from securing a home loan to a toddler who doesn’t want to get dressed for day care.

What trainer and coach Joe Moore wants to know is why employers feel that these same people cannot resolve a conflict with co workers on their own.

A director of ProActive Solutions, Mr Moore believes that managers should not step into the middle of disputes but rather support their people to work things out by themselves.

Speaking at the Network Central breakfast in Sydney, Mr Moore said employees should be trained on how to speak to one another and then left to do just that. He says the benefits to the employer-organisation include greater efficiency, productivity and continual improvement as employees feel supported to speak up about areas that need changing.

When managing a conflict between two colleagues, a manager should take on the role of coach to persuade direct reports to use Straight Talk” with each other. ProActive Solutions has developed six simple steps to help people use “Straight Talk” (see below).

Mr Moore recommends people approach a colleague using straight talk if a poor interaction was still top of mind two days after the incident took place.

He says an environment where employees feel supported to speak up is an important sign of a respectful workplace. Encouraging open communication was also an effective way to prevent behaviours on what ProActive call the Workplace Conflict Ladder.

Of the 10 behaviours listed on Workplace Conflict Ladder the top three are violations of criminal law – Homicide, Physical/Sexual Abuse and Intimidation. The next three are violations of human rights law – Sexual Harassment, Intolerance (racist comments, bigoted joking or teasing) and Discrimination (favouritism, prejudice or bias).

The last two, Disrespect and Social Isolation, are violations of workplace policy. Disrespect includes gossip, rudeness, insubordination, ridiculing, teasing, spreading rumours, arguing and lying. Social Isolation involves ignoring, excluding, not responding and withholding information.

Mr Moore said most complaints made by employees fall under Disrespect and Isolation but they were also the complaints people were most likely to do nothing about.

“We ignore the behaviours at the bottom of the ladder at our peril as to ignore them acts like a golden invitation to [offending employees] to climb the ladder. At work everyone who has attacked you started out by ignoring you. Patterns of behaviour are more important than single events,” says Mr Moore.

Mr Moore says there was nothing wrong with conflict at work where differences of opinion were expressed in a respectful way. However, where people “relentlessly” feel bad about one another they then could take any opportunity to exercise their feelings of ill will and that was bad for everyone.
An example might be a work unit trying to figure out answers to a group problem but failing to reach agreement. Over a period of time, they could find themselves not getting on in all their interactions.

Mr Moore says the approach should be to repair the harm and bolster staff morale by getting co workers to resolve matters themselves.

“As a manager, if someone comes and tells you a story [about a colleague] you don’t use straight talk because you did not hear what happened directly but only second hand.

“Your job as manager is to get the people involved to talk together. When you become a manager your heart changes. You go from having an Aorta to an ‘oughta’ [with staff telling] ‘you oughta do this and you oughta to do that’.”

“Don’t fall for that. It could cost you a day a week to sort things out.

“Surely team members can have a conversation with a colleague. It is not an unreasonable expectation. Don’t take the problem off them; make people responsible for their interactions at work.”

“Managers have a responsibility to make the work environment conducive to resolve the day to day issues locally.”

Six Steps of Straight Talk

1.    State the purpose of the conversation. “I want to talk about …”
2.    Describe the behaviour specifically. Focus on what you witnessed the other person do.
3.    Describe the impact of the behaviour. “I thought…I felt…”
4.    Give the other person an opportunity to respond. “What were you thinking about at the time?”
5.    State what you would like the other person to do differently. “I need you to …” “I’d like you to…”
6.    Return responsibility to the person – and offer support. “Will that work for you?” “What can I do to support you in this?”

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