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Five Steps to Resolve Workplace Disputes

Public Health Management Certificate instructor, Jim Reid, MPA, shares five tips from his Conflict Resolution course.

Public Health Management Certificate instructor, Jim Reid, MPA, shares five tips from his Conflict Resolution course.

June 16, 2014

NWCPHP instructor, Jim Reid, MPA, teaches the Conflict Resolution course in the Public Health Management Certificate Program. He is the founder and principal of The Falconer Group and a senior lecturer at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Administration at the University of Washington. Reid specializes in organizational and leadership development, strategic planning, and dispute resolution. He gives us a sneak peek into his Conflict Resolution course, offering five tips to help you resolve disputes in the workplace:

1. Make employees both responsible and accountable for the process. Whether it involves 2 people or 22, the process of resolving a workplace dispute should deepen understanding, respect, and trust while improving communication, decision making, and teamwork. Success is most likely if the feuding employees are responsible for designing and managing the process. While a neutral third-party might be helpful, the employees must "own" the process to ensure they implement the solutions. Supervisors should resist the temptation to "save the day" or dictate changes in practices and behaviors (although they may have to inform the employees that there will be consequences if they fail to resolve their dispute).

2. Build solutions on common interests. Too often we enter negotiations advocating "hard" positions on how to end the conflict. "My proposals will work. I've given them a great amount of thought and consideration. They'll benefit me, and probably you, too." This only leads to impasse. The negotiation process should begin with the parties identifying their common interests—what they want to achieve, not how. They may be surprised to find they have anything in common. This discovery could be the breakthrough to resolving the dispute. I've witnessed cases in which the parties' only common interest was "keep my job." That was enough to motivate them to negotiate in good faith and agree on solutions that resolved their dispute, and kept their jobs.

3. Expand the negotiations beyond the parties. People embroiled in conflict often neither recognize nor understand how it is affecting the organization or others. Expanding their horizon so that they see, hear, and understand how their conflict is hurting or inhibiting the organization, colleagues, and customers provides greater incentive for resolving it. In one negotiation involving two high-level managers, some of their employees talked candidly to them about how their continual "backstabbing" had divided the employees and caused many to lose respect for both of them. They also gave examples to illustrate that the managers' behavior had undermined the organization's goals. Of equal value, they pledged to help implement the solutions the managers agreed to—if the solutions also reflected the interests of the organization and its employees.

4. Define problems objectively. Early in the process the parties must agree on the problems they are trying to resolve. It's more likely they will agree on a definition of the problem if it is stated neutrally or as a goal. What if the problems were defined this way? "The process is intended to change John's authoritarian leadership style and make Rob less indecisive and more assertive." That definition would put both fellows on the defensive, and the negotiations on freeze. Defining the problems this way would more likely lay the foundation for agreement: "This process is intended to strengthen our communication, collaboration, decision making, and leadership." It implies there are problems, but is goal- and future-oriented. And because of the use of "our," it unites the parties behind a common pursuit.

5. Focus on the future. Once the parties have identified and agreed on the problems they are trying to resolve, the process must turn its focus to the future. Continually raising past transgressions moves the negotiations backward. Focusing on the parties' common interests and using them to assess proposed solutions ("Which of our interests will this possible solution achieve?") is positive and forward-looking. It helps create a new dynamic in the parties' relationship—working together to solve a problem. And it does so without repeating the problems of the past.

Interested in learning more about conflict resolution? The Public Health Management Certificate program is currently accepting applications for the 2014–15 cohort year. Discounts are available for organizations that send a group of three or more people. For more information, contact Janell Blackmer, Program Coordinator.


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