Introducing conflict coaching to the workplace—Part 1

Addressing unwelcome behaviour in the workplace can often be very daunting for various reasons and, in many cases, mediation is not the answer. Mediation is only an effective intervention if there are willing participants interested in repairing a fractured relationship. So what can be done to assist colleagues in a workplace when there is a conflict, but mediation will not or has not worked to resolve the issues?  How should we respond to our colleagues with high-conflict personalities? What types of interventions exist to deal with low-level bullying and harassment in our workplaces?

As a workplace mediator, I’ve found that mediation may not always be the best approach when dealing with inappropriate behaviour. The types of behaviour I’m referring to usually don’t meet the threshold of harassment, but can often lead to conflicts and potential discipline. These behaviours may include:

  • Gossiping about another colleague
  • Taking credit for another’s work
  • Sabotaging/obstructing another’s work
  • Dragging one’s your feet
  • Always pointing out the negative
  • Disrespecting colleagues through comments/actions
  • Demanding tone
  • Constantly late/leaving early for meetings with colleagues
  • Disregarding feedback
  • Picking fights

The first question that comes to mind is: How do we help a colleague on the receiving end of this behaviour? Let’s assume that mediation is either not an option or has not been effective….

In any well-written workplace harassment policy there should always be reference to ensure that you ask the person to stop the unwelcome behaviour. Although this seems like a simple first step, I wonder how many of us feel equipped to know how to safely handle this. This crucial intervention is often the missing transformative step to stemming workplace conflict. In order to address a colleague on their inappropriate behaviour, we need the proper tools and training to know how and when to do this in a way that safely de-escalates the situation. Too often this step is either avoided altogether, which allows the behaviour to continue, or it is handled in a way that escalates the situation. If we all were properly skilled at confronting our colleagues with strategies to de-escalate at this initial stage, we would see a break in the conflict cycle.

For those who are faced with confronting a colleague, here are some thoughts on how to handle those difficult conversations:

  • Address your colleague in the moment and state your purpose
  • Describe the behaviour that you saw in a diplomatic non-accusatory way
  • Explain how this behaviour has impacted you
  • Allow for a response and engage your colleague in how you would like the behaviour to change

As in any situation where we see bullying around us, failure to not address it is paramount to condoning the behaviour. The key is to always be respectful (as difficult as this may be), separate the person from the problem (be specific about the behaviour you want changed), and try to concentrate your energy on problem solving. I find it’s also helpful to look at what you are doing and be introspective. Are you misinterpreting or over -reacting? Have you contributed to the situation, and if so how? Try to understand why your colleague is acting in such a disrespectful way—behaviour is context driven—if the context changes, often the behaviour changes accordingly. The context of this unwanted behaviour should be examined. Is there anything you could do differently? Is there anything in your workplace that could be changed that might help change the behaviour?

What happens if these steps mentioned above do not work and the unwelcome behaviour continues? What kind of intervention should be attempted to help the colleague who continues this unwelcome behaviour?

Mediation may be suitable. However, mediation is only appropriate when the parties are willing to look at things from another perspective and consider how their actions have impacted the other. How can an organization help someone with a high-conflict personality who is not interested in mediation. This is where conflict coaching comes in, an intervention used to help break the revolving door of high-conflict employees by building skills and understanding that can help them from repeating the same destructive patterns of behaviour. This intervention is confidential and voluntary and focuses on assisting individuals improve their communication skills as well as their competency in de-escalating conflict. These one-to-one sessions may also explore the member’s triggers/drivers of conflict and how to mitigate their impact, their conflict management style, preparing for/resolving disputes, and self-reflection. One of the goals of conflict coaching is to help the individual adjust their communication style and look at alternative ways of approaching conflict. These ‘coaching’ sessions can happen either pre- or post-mediation, or can often take place on their own to help the member from entering conflict in the first place.

Organizations should consider the opportunities here and explore these interventions for employees in conflict. Not doing so leaves us vulnerable to nebulous pathways of conflict intervention. Mediation is only one of many possible methods along the conflict intervention continuum—and it can be very effective—however, mediation is often initiated only after conflict is already firmly entrenched. Many times conflict in our workplace has been building for long periods of time, pulling in multiple players and poisoning our workplaces before being referred to mediation. There needs to be a more timely approach to correcting these unwelcome behaviours before they turn into complex, full-blown conflicts.

Addressing unwelcome behaviour in the workplace should not be an option—in fact, it should be an expectation of our job—now it’s time to work together to figure out how best to do it.

About Paul Wesley
Paul Wesley is a Chartered Mediator (C. Med.) and has a background in human rights, family, civil, health care and workplace mediation. Paul is a teacher at East York C.I. in District 12, Toronto and is currently Chair of OSSTF/FEESO's Mediation Services Resource Bank (MSRB).

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