In one of the workshops I teach, Professional Conflict Resolution and a Culture of Conflict Acceptance, I ask everybody to write about a conflict they have had recently that elicited strong, uncomfortable feelings. One of the most common conflicts I hear about involves the writer not being able to meet a deadline because a coworker does not complete their piece in a timely manner.
I think everybody has experienced this scenario, either from the perspective of the writer or the perspective of the subject. It is extraordinarily frustrating on both ends, and also very common, because a key feature of an organization is interdependent work, and we are all human. On the surface, it seems like a simple problem – many of us would say “just do your work and meet the deadline.” However, there may be several complex challenges associated with this problem, and if we take a human-centered, systems-thinking approach it may take some work to untangle. The steps below will take you through the process.
Step 1: Assume that everybody is doing the best the can with what they have and what they know. When we become frustrated, our first instinct is to figure out who “did it”, and then place the responsibility for our upset squarely on their shoulders. First of all, the anger we feel will almost always be a combination of old hurts that have been agitated by the situation, emotions associated with recent experiences, our mindset, and then – finally – what just happened. We can maintain an open mind, as well as our serenity, by practicing the belief that everybody is doing the best they can, which means that there must be a good reason that they are not meeting our expectations. We just have to figure out what it is.
Step 2: Ask questions from a place of curiosity. If we assume that the person who is not getting their tasks done on time is doing the best they can, and there is a good reason for their tardiness, then we just need to figure out what it is. If we can ask about barriers from a place of curiosity – being genuinely interested in the challenge and wanting to collaborate – then it is much more likely that we will get honest answers. In all likelihood, the challenge will be some combination of communication, environment/cultural, and relationship issues. I have done many such investigations, and I can guarantee you that the answer is never “because I don’t want to” or “because I don’t think it’s important.”
Step 3: Collaborate on the solution. Once you think you and the other individual have identified all of the issues, take them one by one and figure out a solution together. This is where mentoring and coaching become very important. The best solution will always come from the person who is experiencing the challenge. Therefore, encourage your coworker or employee to ask questions to gather the information they need to figure out what works best for them and the organization. This can take some work, but the solution will be an improvement over the current process. If it’s not, then keep working on it.
Step 4: Record the new process in writing and keep track of progress. This can be as simple as asking your coworker or employee to send you an email summarizing what you decided to do differently, accompanied by a timeline. Schedule a check in date to talk face-to-face about how the solution is working. You will also need to agree on next steps if the solution doesn’t work. This could be bringing in a supervisor to assist, or a workplace mediator or ombudsman. A neutral third party can level the playing field in cases of mismatched levels of formal authority and can also create a safe space for honest conversation. You may want to bring in a mediator at the very start if this has been an ongoing issue or you are already having relationship issues with your coworker and Steps 2 and 3 are not a possibility without outside assistance.
Step 5: Embrace natural consequences. If you have been through the previous steps and the situation does not seem to be improving, you may be tempted to take on responsibilities that are not yours to get the project or task done on time. If you do, you will be perpetuating the problem and contributing to organizational dysfunction, as well as to your own moral injury (burnout). If you can’t complete your work because your coworker cannot get their part done on time, do what is yours and nothing else. When you are asked why the work is not done, you have a written record of your conversation. By doing somebody else’s work, you are stepping on their autonomy and allowing them to continue in a position that may not be right for them.
Step 6: Follow through. This process can be very difficult and emotionally fraught, especially if the culture in your organization does not encourage this kind of deep conflict resolution. Don’t give up. Stick to the plan you and your coworker developed, while maintaining an open mind. It may be helpful for you to have a work ally or a mentor as you work through the process. Be prepared to encounter resistance, but know that you are doing the right thing, especially if you do it with kindness and respect.
This article is based on Leadership Principle #11, part of the Human Systems Organizational Health series: 15 principles that relate to the overall health of your organization. Other Human Systems Leadership Principles are contained in the Change Management, Community Embedding, Mutual Empowerment, and Ethics categories.
HS Leadership Principle #11: Ensures that employees work interdependently towards common goals.
Contact Human Systems to learn more about conflict management solutions for your organization.