#4 One-to-One Conflict Resolution

Conflict is inevitable where ever people are involved. It is normal and healthy. Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the presence of respect and equality. Unresolved conflict, however, that continues to ferment under the surface, is not healthy, but all too common. In the business setting, complaints about co-workers often are left unresolved and become just one more irritation that makes going to work a drudgery and at best is a distraction to doing one’s best work. The next most popular option is to report the co-worker’s irritating behavior to the supervisor in hopes the she/he will take care of it. Most supervisors will report that far too much of their week is taken up dealing with conflicts between personnel. I have been in that situation myself and the he said/she said conversations that ensue rarely lead to a satisfactory solution. It may get quiet, but not peaceful.

In our practice, a large radiology group with multiple practice sites, we adopted a plan to encourage and train people with minor work-a-day conflicts to actually talk to each other privately and create their own resolution. This is not for things like sexual harassment complaints and such, but simple things like a misunderstanding blown out of proportion, or a radio too loud in the next cubicle etc.

Studies have shown that 90-95% of people prefer to be approached directly if someone has a problem with something they have said or done. Only about 30-55%, however, say they would be willing to talk directly to a person with whom they have an issue and discuss it. There is a fear factor here that is easy to understand, and it is amplified if the issue is with a supervisor. Getting people in conflict to talk respectfully to one another is challenging. To make this work at all requires an accepted flat playing field for work behavior ground rules (see previous blog about laying ground work). This means that their is an accepted understanding throughout the organization that everyone is permitted to talk with anyone, regardless of status, about interpersonal conflict issues, provided it is done respectfully and privately. If a technologist comes to a radiologist and says…”Could we find a time to talk privately about what just happened here a few minutes ago? It is bothersome to me and I would like to clear the air.” The response will be…”Certainly! Give me 5 minutes to finish this case and I would be happy to hear you out.” Any kind of retaliation is, of course, completely unacceptable is this culture.

Supervisors need to be trained on how to not easily accept a “hot potato issue” dumped in their lap. Supervisors are trained to coach and encourage an employee to try a one-to-one resolution privately on their own. In our experience, this approach has been very successful. The advantages are many.

1. An employee willing to get over the “fear hump” of going to the other person usually finds it was much easier than expected and is much more willing to do this again in the future if needed.

2. The resolution is usually a much better one because the second person does not feel “reported” and has an opportunity to participate in the resolution directly.

3. The employee choosing this process gets a burst of self confidence for having actually done this on their own and being successful.

4. Generally the relationship between the 2 people is surprisingly enhanced by the experience. Respect is built between them going forward.

5. Supervisors are relieved of much of their conflict management load.

Admittedly these one-to-one resolutions do not always go so smoothly and can require some more extended resolution and intervention. This is just reality. On the whole, though, we have been pleased with the results.

Below is an algorithm we worked out, along with our consultant, as a teaching tool for employees who are trying to figure out what course to take in working out a conflict at work. Key points are avoiding gossip about the issue and getting confidential coaching as may be needed. Also included are examples of How to start a one-to-one conversation and how to conclude it. There is also a definition of a coach.

If you decide to try this at your own place, remember these points.

1. I would recommend doing some ground work on healthy and harmful behaviors first, as described in a previous blog.

2. Everyone needs to be aware of this conflict resolution program - how it works - why it is in place and what the group expectations are for them if asked to engage in a one-to-one resolution conversation.

3. Each firm, company, office should collectively create its own algorithm to fit their own work culture. This creates buy-in or ownership.

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