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Better choices will help us out of the destructive cycle

Many large organizations are trapped in a cycle of reactive, formalized conflict management. It’s time to break the cycle. Here are 3 stories and a provocative proposition.

3 Stories

Story # 1. I know an overwhelmed HR business partner. Her days are taken up trying to keep up with a flood of requests crossing her desk – by email, by instant messaging, by phone. Each requires her time.

Each caller is frustrated or fed up – with their boss, with a colleague, with their workload. She wants to find out, what is their real concern? What can she do to support them? She knows they each deserve more of her time than she can give them.

She defaults to her systems so she can get through them all – Investigate! Ask what happened? When did it happen? Coach to file a grievance. Fill out the paperwork. She knows she can do better. The system helps her get through them all. But does it work for her? Does it work for them?

Story # 2. I know a busy executive who must respond, with a personal signature, to each anonymously submitted webform complaint from staff across the company. The accountability is one-sided. The questions are sometimes banal “Are we going to have that extra day off at Christmas like we did last year?”  Sometimes they are serious “Our VP has alcohol on his breath.” Often, the complaints are inexplicable “Our performance management system is unfair.”

Interrogate! But how?  The complainant is protected by anonymity. What is the real concern underneath each complaint?  The complaint is a symptom. What is the cause? An executive’s time is expensive. The executive knows there is a better way.

Informal conflict resolution systems will increase productivity in your workplace.
Danger! The cycle of reactive formalized conflict management is destructive.

Story # 3. I know a board of directors grappling with some serious allegations about an HR manager. The investigation has been expensive. The process has stalled. Trust has eroded.  Everyone is back at work wondering, now what?

This situation has highlighted the need for somewhere employees can take their concerns that is private, confidential, safe and independent of the organization. They know there is a better way.

We are trapped in a cycle. Interrogate! Investigate! What happened? What did he say? What did she do? When was this? Hesitate! Before you fill out that form, hesitate!

Why hesitate?

The cycle of investigations and grievances is costly: lost productivity, increased absenteeism, manager time tied up with poor behaviour, employees stressed with uncertainty, unfairness. Count the costs to HR – hiring. Managing. Counseling. Count the costs for the organization-  reputation, lost customers, lost knowledge and skills and a suffering reputation that hinders hiring.

Why hesitate? The cycle is destructive. Employers are good at collecting complaints – from whistle-blower lines, respect lines, web-forms. But these systems aren’t so good at identifying underlying issues.

Why hesitate? We don’t know how to define what to fix. What is it? Make him stop pestering me. Make her work harder. Make it fair. Make it respectful.  What is it? How do we do it? What is the real problem? Are you the one to fix it?

How do we break the cycle? How do we shift accountability back to the person who can decide to act differently? A grievance process is important. It is how we hold the employer to account. When the system is over-worked, it can’t do its real work. It is time to take the pressure off.

A Provocative Proposition

I know one way to take the pressure off. Maybe it is disruptive: listen first. I know! You are a good listener! But what are you listening for? Tell me frankly, are you listening for a solution? Or are you listening for greater understanding?

Are you asking – What happened? What can I do about it? Or are you asking What is going on for you? What can you do about it? Who has the will and the skill in your organization to have that kind of coaching conversation? It takes time and resources to listen actively.  It takes patience, compassion and skills.

Is this the job of HR? If not? Whose job is it? Who really has the time to listen deeply and with curiosity to ensure clear understanding of the real problem? Are you impartial enough? Do you have the capacity?

Open the door to better choices with a channel that is independent, impartial and confidential.  Start with building capacity for your staff to solve their own conflicts. Open the door to informal conflict resolution.

Your productivity will go up. Your engagement will go up. Your job satisfaction will increase. Your absenteeism will go down. And best of all, your staff will thank you.

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