Build Better Labor-Management Relationships: Start with your own Team

September 18, 2017

Build positive relationships with the other “side” by first working on the weak links in your own team.

The Down and Dirty: Sometimes negative perceptions, disciplinary issues, and repeat offenders within your team require a different, more calculated approach.

Why Bother? Because the team member, employee, negotiator (whatever the role) won’t be effective unless taught how to manage those perceptions and communicate effectively.

The Takeaway: Consider coaching when there’s that one guy or gal that can’t seem to get along, even after repeatedly told the error of his or her ways and even after experiencing some negative consequences. Anyone can be a conflict coach. Give it a shot before looking to hire it out.

The Story:

We’ll call him Roger. Roger is a good employee and works hard to get the job done. Roger is young and full of fire, though. He also likes to socialize and is relatively informal with senior peers, supervisors, and management.

Minor flaws in performance or style are generally overlooked as long as the most important work is getting done. Naturally, Roger was surprised when he got sat down by his supervisor and chewed out over a pretty minor issue with how he handled a task, even though the result was net positive.

Management seemed to be picking on him. The union was concerned that management was soon to bring formal discipline. Roger came to me upset and frustrated.

No one likes to be attacked or confronted with a statement of guilt or fault. That type of approach is likely to generate anxiety and a defensive response. So how did I get Roger to focus on the solution without getting defensive?

I had Roger acknowledge the facts and perceptions. After Roger told me about a couple of similar situations, I asked him, “Roger, why do you think the supervisors continue with these sit-down meetings about minor issues?” Roger said something like, “Well, these issues are all pretty minor, and I’m doing the work and getting good results!”

“Roger, what if these minor issues are only coming up because of something else. What else might they be concerned about?”

“I’ve heard rumors that they think I’m cocky! But that’s ridiculous! I’m just trying to be friendly! I guess I just won’t talk to anyone from now on.”

Just by getting Roger to acknowledge the perception that he’s cocky, he begins to see a path forward. He sees how his behaviors connect to those perceptions, even though he still doesn’t think they’re accurate. From here, I used coaching and mediation principles so Roger could develop a measurable strategy to reduce the perception of his cockiness. Roger’s plan included measurable body language and verbal communication shifts. Importantly, I encouraged Roger to start with just a couple small changes. Too much change is overwhelming. Building momentum by starting small is critically important.

Here’s the kicker: It isn’t a one-n-done approach. Roger gets to go test out his theory, build momentum, and revisit the issue to develop and test new theories for even bigger results. When you’re perceived as being cocky or arrogant, it’s hard to shake. But people are surprisingly quick to notice change, even a small one. So from the very first action step, Roger was already chipping away at his image and building a new one.

What’s the impact, though?

  • Roger wins at a personal level with reduced stress and anxiety and better work relationships.
  • The union is less likely to represent Roger for formal disciplinary charges, including associated costs like arbitration.
  • Management has a better workplace culture and reduces their chances of grievance arbitration plus associated costs. Not to mention, front-line management can spend less time on conflict and more time dealing with productivity issues.

The true benefit of conflict management lies in time: Less time spent on conflict means more time doing the work and building the relationships that truly matter for business. Ultimately, if you want a better or different relationship with the other “side,” then start from within!

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