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Help employees learn to deal with conflict on their own

Coach's Corner--April 13, 2009

The Client
Name: Adrienne
Age: 38
Title: Director, member services
Industry: Telecommunications 
Issue: Helping team deal with conflict
Q. Several members of my new team think there’s no conflict too small to involve me, and they don’t talk first with the colleague with whom they’re having a problem. This doesn’t seem to be age- or gender-specific, and working case by case hasn’t helped. How can I promote more constructive conflict resolution with the whole team?

A. People avoid conflict because it scares them, and they don’t know how to deal with it. Provide skills and support to change this behavior.

The inner game
Look at yourself. Start with your own approach to conflict. If you avoid conflict, think about how you can change. If you’ve changed this in the past, remember how you broke the avoidance habit. Assess your overall management style. Do you encourage healthy independence, or do you generally make the decisions and solve the problems? This would reinforce your team’s conflict problems.

Define your expectations. Know how you’d like people to communicate. When should issues be brought to you? Think through specific situations so that you can articulate your expectations. Then, check the gap between your ideal and the current situation.

Anticipate the challenges. Consider how much resistance you’ll encounter, and begin to plan for it. This likely won’t change overnight, so be ready. Plan how you’ll manage your feelings, how you’ll help your team learn new skills, and when you’ll step in (as well as how you’ll restrain yourself, if needed).

The outer game
Get their perspective. Ask your team about their past experiences. Their prior manager may have promoted this type of behavior. Or, the reluctance may be more about the individuals involved. Understanding this will help you find the right solutions.

Set expectations. Let your team know that things are changing. Without scolding, lay out your expectations. Focus on the positive steps you’re looking for and the great effects this’ll have on your workplace. Be clear and specific, and encourage questions and discussion. One tip: Prepare yourself so you don’t get defensive if people push back.

Provide lessons. If people are uncomfortable addressing conflict, help by giving them skills. There are many good feedback tools. Choose one and have the whole team learn it. Take advantage of programs your company offers, find an external coach or trainer with a model you like, or do the training yourself. “SBO” (Situation, Behavior, Outcome) is one simple, effective approach: Define the situation, describe the behavior, and explain the outcome. Practice your chosen approach together so that you’re speaking the same language.

Support each other. Your team needs to work together on this, taking the personal risk of confronting disagreement and being open when others do. Set it as a team goal, and check in at staff meetings. Help each other succeed in changing behavior.Don’t back down. It’s up to you to help your team stay the course. If people bring problems to you, don’t revert to past behavior and solve them — coach them on dealing with them themselves.

The last word
Everyone on your team can learn to deal directly and appropriately with conflict. Set expectations and provide resources to turn this situation around.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted April 12, 2009
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