by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Employees experiencing workplace conflict often feel they have no choice but to file a grievance and rely on a decision-maker, such as a manager or a HR representative, to step in, investigate, and render a decision regarding the resolution of the conflict. Such responses are often unsatisfactory as they take away the employee’s choice regarding how he or she would prefer to address the situation. Conversely, employees may avoid going to their manager or HR altogether because they fear such actions will escalate the conflict rather than provide tools and strategies for managing such situations on their own.
Leaders must develop tools and strategies for helping employees build their ability to address their conflict situations. In The Leader’s Role in Coaching Employees through Conflict, I provide general insights for doing this. In this article, I suggest steps to take in meeting with and coaching employees regarding these situations. These include:
Discover the story. In your initial meeting, give the employee uninterrupted time to share the concern he or she has regarding the conflict. While you will need to understand basic facts, such as who is involved, how the conflict evolved, whether there were multiple incidents or just one, and what has occurred to date and how the individual has attempted to address the matter, you must understand the underlying feelings, concerns, and interests the employee has about the situation, and why the conflict is so difficult. Why is this issue in need of coaching? Why is the employee struggling to address the situation on his or her own? In the process, use your best empathic listening skills to encourage the employee to share the concern fully, honestly, and without fear of judgment or criticism.
Analyze the causes and relative contribution by the employee vs. the “other.” As the story unfolds, guide the employee through a conversation about what he or she perceives to be the underlying causes. What has happened that led them to where they are now in their conflict? What differences in viewpoint, personality, behavior, and expectations have clashed? Along the way, have a conversation about the relative contribution that the employee and the “other” have made to allow the conflict to exist, fester, and escalate. Rarely is a conflict so one-sided that the individual cannot acknowledge something he or she did (or failed to do) that perpetuated the conflict.
Such acknowledgments are not easy, so seek to create a safe coaching environment where self-disclosure of mistakes, misunderstandings, frailty, or simply a lack of skill, knowledge, or aptitude are acceptable and humane. Conflicts often remain unresolved due to our unwillingness or inability to realize our role, or a steadfast conviction that the “other” is solely or mostly responsible. The more you can coach the individual to sort out relative contributions, the more the individual can begin to see the extent to which he or she may need to adopt different attitudes, behaviors, and responses as well as consider how to address the other person regarding matters that are that person’s responsibility.
Identify possible responses to address the conflict and select the most viable response. Once you have analyzed the situation, you can begin to discuss what the individual believes is the best approach under the circumstances. This is an important distinction from a prescriptive approach that you, as a leader, may be used to, or that the employee may expect. Coaching should involve a process of self-discovery and empowerment where the individual decides the best approach for herself. This conversation involves exploring various options and evaluating the pros and cons of each. Note that when the conflict is complex and has developed over time, a single approach, or a one-time implementation of an approach, is likely impractical. This discussion involves consideration of multiple approaches and continual reassessment as the individual takes steps to address the matter.
Common approaches to consider include:
- Do nothing, but monitor the situation. The coached individual determines that coping with the situation is best for now, or for various reasons now is not the time to approach the other person. The individual may continue to meet with you to assess the situation as it unfolds and perhaps identify a more direct strategy for addressing the conflict later.
- Receive advice, and then return later for more coaching as needed. The individual may find a one-time meeting with you sufficient and that he must otherwise think about what to do next on his own. You remain available when the individual feels the need to return for further coaching.
- Continue coaching to develop skills and coping mechanisms. The individual may feel continued meetings with you are necessary before approaching the other individual with whom she is in conflict. You can discuss specific scenarios more deeply and how to handle them, or help the individual develop specific skills in preparation for an eventual encounter with the other person.
- Confront the other person. After one or many meetings, the individual feels better equipped to address the situation directly with the individual with whom he is in conflict. This may require a number of encounters, during which time he continues to receive coaching. Continued coaching remains confidential without the other person’s knowledge of your involvement.
- Seek third-party assistance. The individual may decide after receiving coaching that she would like a third party to mediate between her and the other person. As her coach, you would not be the appropriate person to mediate, but you could help in contacting HR or another representative to arrange for a mediation process with the other individual.
- Pursue a formal decision-making forum. While the goal of conflict coaching is to empower employees to seek resolution on their own, the individual may conclude that formal redress is the best approach. You may help contact HR or another administrative entity to pursue a grievance or other formal complaint, or coach the individual on the process for doing so.
Establish the coaching relationship for ongoing support. The above discussion implies the need for continued coaching beyond initial analysis and exploration of possible responses. You may need to engage in multiple meetings to help the individual implement decisions he or she has made to address the conflict. This includes continued problem solving and scenario discussion, role-playing, and other activities to help the individual develop skills, and debriefing between encounters that the individual has attempted with the other person. While it is a fluid process in which the next step in your coaching may not be readily apparent until the prior step has been implemented, you should establish early on the kind of coaching relationship the individual seeks and that you are prepared to deliver. As noted in my previous article, you must assess your own capability for coaching employees through conflict and identify where you can provide direct support and where you will need to elicit the expertise of others in order to provide the best coaching experience for the employee.