Conflict Coaching: The Why’s and Wherefore’s

Meg complained that her manager was discriminating against her based on her gender. An outside investigator was hired and after multiple interviews, concluded that no discrimination had occurred. Now what? How are Meg and her manager to move forward:? He is angry about her complaint and she feels she was not heard.

This is a situation that may call for conflict coaching.

What  is conflict coaching? It’s a process in which a coach comes in and helps two or more employees work through their differences and move forward. Some practitioners call it mediation but to me that term has a legal connotation that doesn’t suit the process.

So when is conflict coaching appropriate? Typically, the coach is called in when the employer’s efforts to intervene have been unsuccessful and interactions between the employees have begun to negatively affect the workplace. As with Meg and her manager, sometimes it occurs after an investigation has been completed and the complainant and accused need to be able to work together again. Sometimes a coach is called in after the employer has handled the problem less than optimally and fences also need to be mended between the employees and management.

How does it work? First, the coach talks to management and reviews any relevant documents: emails, investigative or disciplinary reports, performance reviews, and the like. The coach then interviews each employee, gathering the facts and the employee’s perceptions and feelings around the issues.

Sometimes I will meet with each employee more than once because the goal is not only to understand the facts and issues. It is also to provide coaching in order to help each employee understand what part of the problem they own, where their perceptions may not jive with reality, and what factors outside the difficult relationship might be contributing to the situation. Most important, the coach should also explore with each employee what they need from the other person in order to move forward – and what they are willing to give in return.

After one or more coaching meetings, the coach then brings the parties together for a facilitated conversation. While the past must and does come up, the focus of the meeting is forward-thinking. The goal is to figure out what goals the parties share, what the employer wants from them, what they want their relationship to look like, and how they are going to act if things get difficult or they disagree.

When facilitating, my approach is not to just sit there overseeing the process – I remind the parties of things they told me and share my own observations and suggestions. I also take notes and prepare a short report summarizing the agreements between the parties which I send in draft form to the employees for review and comments. I then finalize the report, send it to the parties, and with their consent, send it to management. Some facilitators will write up an agreement for the parties to sign right during the meeting. 

Often, this is the end of the process. In some cases, however, the coach will touch base with the employees some time later to see how things are going. If need be, a second facilitated meeting can occur.

Does conflict coaching always work? Of course not. Some employees are too entrenched in the conflict or too committed to being a victim. In other cases, psychological problems may get in the way. In my experience, however, if the parties truly want to resolve their differences and move forward comfortably, conflict coaching can be very successful.

Have you had experiences with conflict coaching as the coach or a participant? How did it go? ~Amy Stephson

One Issue – or a Culture/Systems Problem?

You’re a relatively new manager in a medium-sized division with about 200 employees. Over the past few months you’ve noticed some disturbing things:

  • One day, you heard a few men gathered together in the breakroom laughing, but they stopped and looked down when you walked in. You never found out what they were laughing about, but it all felt pretty uncomfortable.
  • One of your newer female subordinates whose last name is French tells you some of the guys are referring to her as “Frenchie.” She doesn’t like it, but tells you she’s not sure if it’s just the guys being friendly, or it really has sexual overtones. She doesn’t want to make a big deal of it, but…
  • You know that a pretty talented junior staff member has been applying for promotions both within and outside the division, but isn’t getting them. You’re not sure why, though you’ve heard some rumors about him living with another man. You don’t know if there’s a connection, but…
  • One of your male subordinates (he’s a pretty conservative, rather religious fellow) brought you a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, told you it had been in one of the restrooms for a few weeks, and asked you if that was ok.
  • A supervisor who reports to you tells you that a couple of the men on his staff got into a heavy (and loud argument). “F-bombs” were flying, and one told the other he was going to “punch your lights out.” The supervisor stepped in to end the confrontation.

Any one of these might be just something that sometimes happens in the workplace: you need to address it, but just treat it as a “one off” and be done with it. But you’re this new manager. You’re seeing a number of disturbing things. What’s going on here?

If you find yourself with a laundry list of “people issues” in the workplace, you clearly need to address the individuals involved and find out what’s going on. However, if this is what you’re seeing, you also need to take a broader, culture and systems perspective. You need to look at them as a totality to see whether there are cultural or systemic issues at work here.

Here are some questions you might want to ask:

  1. What is it about our culture that is creating these issues? (Dig deep! Keep asking, “why?”)
  2. What does our culture tell employees about how they should behave at work? How do I know?
  3. Do we have clear expectations for employee behavior? If yes, what are they?
  4. If yes, do we continually communicate those expectations?
  5. If we have clear expectations, do our leaders demonstrate those behaviors – or do we live in a “do as we say, not as we do” world?
  6. Do our leaders talk about their expectations in a supportive, coaching way – or do they use them as a club with which to hit employees?
  7. Have we trained managers, supervisors and employees so that everyone is on the same page concerning our expectations?
  8. Do all employees feel safe to bring issues to their supervisors and know they will be heard, and not punished or ridiculed, and that the issues will be addressed?
  9. Do employees (and supervisors and managers) have the communication skills to address issues when they come up?
  10. How do we involve managers, supervisors and employees in addressing workplace issues? Is it the boss’s responsibility – or everyone’s responsibility?

These are just a few of the questions you should ask to determine what’s going on. Remember that if you do have systems or culture issues, addressing individual employee behaviors will likely not make a dent in changing the culture/system. That requires a larger, more comprehensive effort. Know that doing so will be hard and long. But if you find yourself with a workplace that requires a culture or systems-level change, remember that you didn’t get here overnight. It can be changed for the better – but it will take a serious commitment and lots of time. That commitment starts when you identify that you have a culture or system that needs changing, and identify the evidence you have (like the list of issues that have been brought to you) to prompt you to go down this road.

Have you faced multiple issues in your workplace, and seen that those are the result of the culture or systems you have? Let us hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider

Setting Expectations: Moving Past Barriers  

Every manager and supervisor knows that a key part of performance management is setting expectations for subordinates. As they also know, this is often easier said than done.

What gets in the way of this necessary task? First, the manager or supervisor may not feel comfortable being so directive. They need to get over this. It’s their job. If some introductory talking points will help, here are a few ideas:

  • “Sue, I want to sit down and be sure we’re on the same page about your job duties. Let’s meet on Thursday and discuss them.
  • “Joe, I think things will go much smoother for both of us if we sit down and get clear on your job duties and how I want you to do certain tasks.
  • “Chris, I’m sensing that things are not going smoothly for you in the workgroup. Let’s meet and see how we can make things better. [Regarding relationship or behavior issues.]

 Second, many managers and supervisors don’t really know what an effective expectation looks like. The general rule when creating expectations is that they should be S.M.A.R.T:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Results-oriented/Relevant
  • Time-bound

Third, some expectations are easier to write than others. If you’re discussing a time and attendance problem or specific aspects of job performance, it’s pretty straightforward. But setting expectations for behavior or more complex problems can be harder:

  • It does not help, for example, to just tell an employee that her “attitude” needs to change. More helpful: “Employee needs to improve her attitude. Specifically, she needs to stop rolling her eyes and sighing loudly when she disagrees with her supervisor or others, to stop using profanity when she is frustrated, and to only criticize others, if necessary, in private and not in front of others.”
  • Similarly, it does not help to just tell an employee that he needs to improve his “communication skills.” What exactly does that mean? What does it look like? More helpful: “Employee needs to improve his communication skills. More specifically, he needs to initiate conversations with colleagues and managers, answer questions when asked, maintain appropriate eye contact, speak clearly, and not walk away in the middle of conversations.”
  • Poor writing is another tough one, especially since most managers and supervisors are not skilled at identifying what’s wrong with an employee’s writing; all they know is it’s bad. It may be necessary in these cases to consult with someone who can analyze the writing errors so that you can set expectations that address them. E.g., “Your written reports need to be easier for others to read. A few tips: Use shorter paragraphs and shorter sentences. Avoid excessive underlining and use of capital letters for emphasis. Avoid unnecessary history and other details. Use bullet points to make important information clear and succinct.”

Next, managers and supervisors may fear that the meeting with the employee to discuss the expectations will be difficult and uncomfortable. It may be. But if the manager takes an approach that is calm, friendly, and non-accusatory — but firm — that is less likely to happen. It is also helpful for the manager to approach the meeting as a coach (explained here), not a disciplinarian.

Finally, some managers and supervisors are hesitant to write things down — it seems too authoritarian or they may not be great writers themselves. The bottom line, however, is that the expectations need to be documented in a writing that is given to the employee at the meeting or sent via email afterward. If it’s not a performance review or formal memo situation, setting out the expectations in a few clear bullet points is sufficient. Just be sure to date it.

Any other thoughts regarding expectations?  ~Amy Stephson


The best (and worst) of supportive workplaces

What’s the right balance between an appropriately friendly/supportive workplace, and a too friendly/supportive workplace?The best (and worst) of supportive workplaces

The Great Company, Inc., started some years ago as a small, forward thinking company. They were like a family: employees and management supported each other through the joys (births, weddings) and trials (divorces, illnesses and deaths) of life. Employees spoke freely with each other about what was going on in their lives. Formal support from management included flexible scheduling, accommodating employee tastes in clothing and cubicle decoration, great training for upward mobility – as well as a sympathetic and compassionate listening ear. As the company was successful and grew, new employees were hired, aspects of this culture remained…and others evolved.

Fast forward a few years. Over several months, top management has been receiving some complaints, and they are concerned:

  • Several employees complained that they can’t get the work hours they want, while other employees are granted the hours they want. They allege favoritism.
  • One employee complained that she doesn’t want to hear about the issues in her coworker’s marriage, especially the more intimate ones, but says that the coworker keeps over-sharing.
  • Another employee was interested in what a coworker was telling him about his father’s health issues (he was dealing with his own father’s issues), until the details of his malodorous intestinal troubles became too much. But his coworker wouldn’t stop talking about his dad’s troubles.
  • A new employee complained (very reluctantly, for fear of losing his job or being labeled a troublemaker) that a coworker kept asking him about his tattoos, which he didn’t want to discuss because they are from an earlier part of his life of which he is not very proud. He says the coworker just won’t stop asking.
  • Some middle-managers complained that no matter how much they try to help and support their employees, it never seems to be enough. They feel they are taken advantage of, and end up agreeing to things that may not be in the best interest of the company.

What is happening here?

It is not at all unusual for small companies to start out feeling like a family. However, as the company grows, structures and parameters need to be put in place, even as a culture of compassion and caring remains. Some of the people who were there at the beginning, and who knew the founders, leave or retire. New employees are hired who don’t necessarily understand or share those early values – and who seem to always want more and more and more. The culture of sharing everything, like a family, ends up being very difficult to maintain in a positive way with all the new employees who are hired and have no history.

What to do?

The Great Company, Inc, needs to do a number of things to keep the culture and values on which they were founded, but clarify appropriate behavior as they continue to grow:

  1. Define and share their values with all employees. Regularly discuss these with employees at staff meetings to ensure common understanding. Talk through difficult or challenging ethical or other situations that have arisen.
  2. Define expectations for employee behavior. These should include expectations for appropriate levels of workplace conversation about personal matters or controversial issues. Such conversations should always remain PG (from the movie rating): no sexual topics, no violence, no “adult” themes, no swearing. Regularly discuss these expectations at staff meetings. Bring up any concerns or difficult situations that have arisen. Create scenarios for discussion. Build common understanding over time.
  3. Work with management to define acceptable parameters for employee conduct, attire, decorations, benefits, etc. to ensure clarity. Frequently discuss these issues at manager meetings until common understanding and consensus are reached. Then discuss them at staff meetings with employees.
  4. Ensure that managers use criteria to grant requests for flexibility and other perks, make sure those criteria are known to all and that they are equitably applied.
  5. Teach all employees how to tell coworkers they don’t want to discuss a topic or hear about a topic – without being offensive or offended. Make it acceptable to tell someone you don’t want to discuss a particular topic, whether it’s because personal, political, religious or for any other reason.
  6. Act quickly when concerns are brought to management, and document those actions.
  7. Teach all employees how to intervene when they witness inappropriate behavior, without being offensive.

It takes work to find the “sweet spot” between supportive/flexible values and expectations, and allowing a workplace to drift into oversharing of personal experiences or opinions and overindulgence in response to employee wishes. It takes practice, regular conversations, and an ongoing recognition that these tough issues will continue to come up. Management must be willing and able to address them without becoming either too lenient or too defensive, and they may also need to gain the skills needed to have the hard conversations.

Have you been at The Great Company? What did you experience? We’d love to hear. ~Daphne Schneider


Work Group Culture: Be Intentional

Every organization has a culture. It may be hard to describe but everyone feels it. Culture is the organization’s character and personality. It is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes. It is affected by leadership roles and actions, organizational systems, management philosophies and practices, the physical environment of the workspace, and so on. It is pervasive.

Work groups also have a culture. These are created by the overall organizational culture, of course, but also by the group’s individual leader. While group leaders often won’t be able to totally control their group’s culture, they can have a significant influence.

Among the many decisions leaders make– intentionally or not – that affect culture are:

  • How will group members communicate with each other: by email, in person, a combination of both?
  • What kind of work hours will be required – and when?
  • How must employees manifest their “commitment” to the job – by doing good work, working long hours, something else?
  • Is input on management decisions discouraged or encouraged?
  • Can employees speak frankly to management about their concerns?
  • What kind of behaviors are allowed – frequent swearing, expressions of anger, gossip, cliquishness?
  • What is done to make everyone on the team feel included and appreciated?
  • Is there overt or subtle favoritism on the part of management?
  • Are employees accountable for their actions or is blaming others the norm?
  • Are different approaches and personalities respected?
  • Do people laugh enough — in a good way?

If you’re a leader, it is well worth your while to take some time to answer these questions and others that come to mind. If things are not going as well as you hope, the underlying culture of your group may be a part of the problem and once identified, you can work on it. Don’t hesitate to bring team members into the discussion — just involving them will be a start to improving the culture.

One caution. Sometimes, leaders and employees will refer favorably to their workgroup as a “family.” This is a nice idea, but has its definite perils. As an idealized concept, family brings to mind a friendly, casual, and supportive workplace. However, families also have a host of behaviors that are not helpful or appropriate in the workplace. Within their families, people can be emotional, behave badly, discuss very personal issues, retain grudges, and so on. Families have very different boundaries than those required in a workplace. More bluntly: a family is just not a very professional environment!

A different paradigm is needed: one that includes the positive aspects of “family,” without bringing in those aspects that are not appropriate in the workplace context.

What other questions should a leader ask when evaluating his or her work group’s culture?

~Amy Stephson


The Case of the Reluctant Manager

Henrietta was an ace software engineer: developer, problem solver, speaker at conferences. She was known throughout the industry for her brilliance. She was so brilliant, in fact, that the Company promoted her to manager because they thought so highly of her and were afraid of losing her!

At first, Henrietta was thrilled to be recognized and rewarded for great work in this big and visible way. She loved getting to take on the toughest, most interesting challenges. And now, as manager, she was able to assign work – so she got to assign the most interesting and challenging projects to herself. She also loved making sure that everyone on her staff did things the right way (her way). She was excited that she finally had the authority to make it so. And that’s when the trouble started.

Henrietta repeatedly told her staff members what to do and how to do it. Some of these people had been doing the work for a very long time and were also considered to be experts. She figured she got to tell them what to do since she was the boss. But for some reason, her staff members seemed to resent her direction and advice. She corrected them when they did things wrong (not her way) – and they really took offense. That wasn’t what she had expected. She had assumed they’s appreciate or at least accept her management. But, she figured that since they resisted learning from her, she’d just let them fail on their own. She withdrew from supervising or managing them at all, and just did what she considered her REAL work: tackling those tough challenges that she really loved. After all, wasn’t the whole point of getting promoted that you were able to do more of the things you loved and tackle the toughest tasks?

Well – no. That’s actually not the whole (or even the most important) point of being the manager. Unfortunately, too many times people get promoted just because they have outstanding technical skills and the employer doesn’t want to risk losing them. And too often, they don’t actually want to do the #1 job of a manager (or even supervisor): to manage and supervise people. When someone is promoted into a managerial position, they are paid more – because they are expected to take on that really tough job of people management.

So, how should an employer think about filling that all-important manager position? Consider these points – in this order:

  1. Clearly define the job requirements – placing people-management skills at the top.
  2. Use selection criteria that emphasize the ability to supervise and manage people. Technical skills should come second (even if it’s a strong second.)
  3. Once the person is hired, clearly state job expectations: people management should come first.
  4. Then, ensure that the manager’s performance is evaluated first on his/her ability to manage and supervise people.

Technical expertise is great – but that’s not the primary responsibility of managers. If you have a Henrietta on your staff, this employee with great technical skills, and you want to reward her or keep her from going elsewhere, what can you do other than promote her to manager? You can

  • Create a Senior position, or an Expert position, or an in-house Consultant position where that person’s special skills can be used to their maximum advantage without putting them in a position where they are required to supervise and manage people – something they don’t want to do and that is not their strength. (Yes, every once in a while there are technical experts who love and excel at people supervision and management as well. If you find one of those, do what you need to do to keep them!)
  • Give the technical expert lead technical work – where she can be the lead on those complex projects without being saddled with people supervision or management.

Why is it so important to ensure that those whose strength is technical work (and not people management) not be placed in people management positions where they will fail? Here are just a few reasons:

  • When Henrietta becomes a manager, she becomes a toxic employee: she makes herself miserable, and likely makes her staff members miserable.
  • As a result, her work is very likely to suffer (even her technical work), and certainly her employees’ work will suffer: they’ll be thinking and talking about how awful she is – rather than spending all that energy on the work.
  • Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, and isn’t good at it, she’ll likely spend more time (emotional time and real time, and work and outside of work) fretting about that, and so be prevented from doing the job at which she excels.
  • Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, staff members who need a manager’s support, guidance, and supervision – or correction – won’t get it, and the employer will suffer.

Finally, if you do find that you have promoted a Henrietta who can’t supervise or manage people – all is not lost!

  • First, have an honest conversation as soon as you realize the problem exists. Admit your part of the fault in her hiring/promotion (if you were involved.)
  • Encourage her to learn a new set of skills – people supervision and management. Offer classes, coaching, and support.
  • Establish a clear set of expectations and a reasonable timeline to meet them.
  • Document. Document. Document.
  • If it doesn’t work out, figure out how Henrietta will leave her position with dignity,  perhaps to return to a purely technical position where she can save face, go back to loving her work, and to making positive contributions to the Company.

Check out this great recent blog by Vu Le, “Nonprofit with Balls”, on the subject of dealing with employees who aren’t making it. Even if you don’t work in a not-for-profit organization, it’s a great blog!

We’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve ever worked with a Reluctant Manager. Let us hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider

Just Say Hello – and Goodbye

Six years ago I wrote a post about the importance of employees saying hello to each other, particularly of supervisors and managers saying hello to subordinates. And you know what? In both my coaching and investigation practices, the issue still comes up.

Recently, for example, it arose when I was coaching two co-workers, trying to help them resolve their many conflicts. One complained that the other didn’t talk to her for days and didn’t greet her in the morning. The other said: “Well, I come in a back door and don’t pass her desk.” Oy.

The issue also comes up with goodbyes – though the offense is somewhat different: “He just leaves and doesn’t tell anyone.” She never tells us where she is going.” “She sneaks out so we don’t know when she leaves.”

So what is this about? As I stated in my previous post, “All human beings need to feel acknowledged. When a supervisor, manager, or co-worker greets an employee, the message being communicated is that the employee has value and importance. When there is no greeting, the opposite message is communicated.”  I think the same principle applies to good-byes, though to a lesser extent. There, practical problems are also involved: you think someone is around but they’re not, or you think they’re cheating on their time in some way (even if they’re an exempt employee).

I also think it’s an issue of power – particularly positional power. In another post, I discussed research indicating that, “If you have positional power, “the sense-making of people who work for you will be determined less by the facts and more by their internal story. … Every action and utterance can be scrutinized for meaning those with power are suspect until proven trustworthy.” In the hello and goodbye context, the power differential increases the “offense” felt by subordinates. They feel that by ignoring them and not exhibiting basic courtesies, the boss is holding him or herself above the others.

The main way to solve this problem, of course, is to make it clear to employees, particularly leaders, how important these seemingly small touches are. But what about the manager who is not a “Hi, how are you?” kind of person in general – particularly in the morning? I’ve coached managers like this and the challenge is for them to figure out how to acknowledge others in a way that feels authentic and not phony. Maybe they can’t give a “big” hello, but anyone can say, “Mornin’” as they walk by their subordinates.

And if the subordinates are not normally in the manager’s path (“I come in the back door”)? Change the path. Or at least send an email, “Good Morning All!”

Any other thoughts on this topic? ~Amy Stephson