By Kelsey Casselbury 2017-01-31 19:00:10
Conflict in the workplace is inevitable, but every member of the team can play a pivotal part in its resolution. One of the greatest things about the school nutrition profession is the diversity it attracts. When you enter a school kitchen or a central office, you’re likely to see men and women of all cultures, ages, sizes, skin tone, hair color, fashion sense and more. This diversity can spur innovation and teamwork as you bounce ideas off one another and problem solve from different points of view. Of course, diversity in opinions and approaches also can cause disagreements. You might not always recognize the value of your coworker, her ideas or her work ethic, and she might sometimes feel the same about you. In fact, no matter how harmonious your team is most of the time, some workplace conflict is inevitable; one study notes that 85% of employees at all levels, from entry-level to CEO, experience a degree of conflict at work. As with any other human dynamic, conflicts can span a spectrum, ranging from mild disagreements to simmering resentments to passive aggressive responses to disrespectful and disruptive behaviors. For the duration of an active conflict—be it an hour or days—life can be uncomfortable and unpleasant. That’s why it’s commonplace for many of us to choose to ignore conflicts, hoping they run their course without being addressed head on. Sometimes, they do go away. But sometimes, your failure to address—to manage—a conflict in a timely fashion can have far-reaching consequences. It may fester, like an untreated wound, and cause serious problems that affect a team’s morale, productivity, efficiency, customer service and overall success. You might even lose valuable employees. Keep in mind that avoidance is only one poor approach to conflict management and resolution. Heavy-handed confrontation, outsized reactions or punishments, perceived favoritism—these are other mine traps that can challenge supervisors at all levels. Of course, conflict management shouldn’t be the responsibility only of the boss, either. Everyone on the team should be encouraged to handle conflicts with professionalism, maturity and respect—whether they are directly involved or simply doing their best to solve a situation. Let’s look at four common conflicts in the workplace, reviewing how disgruntled staffers on both sides, as well as any mediators, might seek to address these effectively and without dire consequences. SCENARIO #1: PROFESSIONAL ENVY Terri was passed over for a recent promotion. It was given to her coworker Margaret, who has more foodservice experience and has demonstrated leadership skills. However, Terri has seniority within the district, so she thinks the decision was unfair. Terri is upset with both Margaret and the director, James, who made the decision. Although there haven’t been any outbursts yet, there’s noticeable tension in the kitchen, which is affecting the morale and productivity of the whole team. Can James diffuse the situation between the two staffers before the problem gets any worse? What roles should Margaret and Terri play in resolving the issue? THE SUPERVISOR’S RESPONSIBILITY It’s time for a meeting with Terri, but not necessarily for disciplinary action. Chances are, Terri truly doesn’t understand why Margaret received the promotion and she didn’t. She might think that she’s hit a dead-end in her career. Therefore, James should sit down with Terri to explain, without sugarcoating, the specific areas in which she needs to improve before she can be considered for advancement. If James has problems explaining to Terri why she didn’t get the promotion, it might be because he’s not conducting regular performance evaluations. These records should be the basis of any employee’s career movement. They can provide both James and Terri with documentation about her achievements and areas for improvement. James can use these records to give context for his decision why Terri was not a candidate for the promotion and explain what she needs to do to be a better candidate for future advancement. Terri clearly needs an attitude adjustment, but it wouldn’t help matters for James to take her to task for her disappointment—at least not at this stage. Instead, James should focus on reassuring Terri that she adds value to the organization in her current position. He might also consider giving her additional responsibilities as a stepping stone to a future promotion. THE EMPLOYEE’S RESPONSIBILITY There are two employees involved in this conflict. Margaret’s responsibility in its resolution is fairly obvious: She needs to stay professional and treat Terri like any other coworker. She can’t control Terri’s reactions, but she can be mindful about Terri’s feelings and avoid prolonged public conversations about the promotion, beyond acknowledging congratulations and assuming new responsibilities. If Terri’s attitude is emotionally distressing to Margaret, or if she feels physically threatened by Terri, Margaret should approach James or the district’s human resources department as soon as possible. As for Terri, it always hurts to be passed over for a promotion that you think you deserve. But the workplace is not the setting to vent her disappointment or frustration. Terri should make an effort to look at the situation from an objective perspective. Then, in her conversation(s) with James, she should remove Margaret from the equation, keeping the discussion away from why Margaret got the promotion, and focused on why Terri didn’t get it. Applying active listening skills is critical. Rather than simply assuming the decision was unfair, given her seniority, Terri must hear James out, ask questions and take his advice to heart. Then, she must be introspective and make some adjustments to both her work practices and her attitude to position herself better in the future for the job she desires. SCENARIO #2: PERSONALITY CLASH In the central office, two school nutrition supervisors, Charlie and Jennifer, have very different personalities that don’t mesh well together. However, due to the nature of their job responsibilities, the two are required to work together daily. Maria, the director, certainly is aware of their bickering, and she’s growing concerned about how it may be affecting the atmosphere in the office and the quality of their work. But she’s completely snowed under in preparing for an upcoming administrative review and simply doesn’t have the time or inclination to step in and address the problem right now. At what point does Maria need to interject herself into the situation, and how can Charlie and Jennifer work their personality clash out amicably on their own? THE SUPERVISOR’S RESPONSIBILITY “The most common workplace conflicts I experience are truly just personality conflicts,” notes Sandy Voss, MS, RD, SNS, director of Food & Nutrition Services, Marquardt School District 15, Glendale Heights, Ill. “There’s not really a way to ‘resolve’ this problem, but there is a way to keep the conflict at bay.” At the beginning of the year, Voss calls a staff meeting in which she openly addresses the potential for disagreements. “Sometimes we even do icebreaker activities around this,” she recounts. “I then explain that we need to learn to be accepting and understanding of all the people we work with. You do not need to be best friends with your coworkers; you just need to respect one another.” Note that Voss doesn’t tell her staff to be prepared to agree with others, but to accept the differences that arise. SNA Chief of Staff Jean Geraghty, who manages human resources at the Association’s headquarters, affirms that conflicts “can be important teaching and learning opportunities” and advises supervisors to “strive for a culture where differing opinions are welcomed and respected.” Indeed, research in this area suggests that the most effective teams are those in which members feel safe enough to disagree with each other. With such a philosophy in mind, Maria should take care not to micromanage the tendency of Charlie and Jennifer to continually challenge each other. She should, however, keep an eye on the situation to assess whether their dynamic is becoming genuinely toxic to one another and others. Maria must step in if one of the pair threatens to quit, if the conflicts are becoming personal or if the behavior affects the morale and success of other team members caught in the middle. If she feels the need to intercede, Maria should do so after tempers have cooled somewhat and not at the height of a flare-up; although she may be called upon to send the combatants to their separate corners, so to speak. In a kitchen setting, where there is little privacy and time is tight, Voss acknowledges that it can be difficult for her or one of her managers to tackle a conflict in the moment. “However, it’s important that the employees in a given situation are made aware that this is an issue, and they will all be sitting down with the director, if need be, to come to a compromise,” she notes. Even then, it will take some time for Maria to gather and address the specifics of the situation with each employee separately and then to follow up with them together to ensure they both are given exactly the same counsel or warnings or any other steps she’s decided upon in seeking resolution. THE EMPLOYEE’S RESPONSIBILITY Charlie might not like Jennifer’s sarcastic nature, and Jennifer might take issue with Charlie’s bossy attitude, but they both strongly agree with the mission of the department. They should discuss how to put aside their differences to get the work done. If they want to keep the jobs that they love, Charlie and Jennifer will have to find a way to work together, despite their differences. They should do what they can to resolve conflicts on their own, bringing their director in to mediate only as a last resort. Someone will have to make the first move toward a truce. Whomever is ready to prioritize maturity over pride or irritation in finding common ground, she or he should do so face to face, rather than via email. The one-sided nature of email makes it notorious for misinterpretation and for lengthening a dispute by a prolonged focus on each party’s grievances, rather than the effort to find compromise. If Maria needs to get involved, though, both of her employees should refrain from throwing the other under the bus or being a tattletale. And, whatever they do, both Charlie and Jennifer should only address the problem with each other or with Maria, and not other coworkers. “Talk with someone who is in a position to do something about it, rather than with coworkers or friends,” advises Geraghty. “Spreading frustration and possibly gossip and anger to other employees over a situation that they can’t possibly resolve is very damaging to a [team].” SCENARIO #3: THE NEW BOSS Helen was just hired as a cafeteria manager, and she’s incredibly enthusiastic about working in a new school—maybe a bit too much. Her new team reports that Helen constantly checks in on their work status, monitors their breaks down to the second and, overall, goes a bit too far with micromanagement. There are rumors that a few employees might request positions at another cafeteria site within the district to get away from their overbearing manager. How should Helen’s own supervisor, Jody, find the middle path between giving her new manager the wings to fly, without risking a destructive mutiny? THE SUPERVISOR’S RESPONSIBILITY First, Jody should make herself available to speak with any of Helen’s employees who have expressed concern. It’s important to assess whether they have legitimate grievances or if they simply need to adjust to a new style of leadership. Either way, Jody should provide some mentorship to her new manager and establish periodic check-ins specifically to address personnel management, rather than foodservice-specific issues. As a coach, Jody can temper criticism about Helen’s management choices with praise for her enthusiasm and desire to do a good job. While ensuring that Helen is aware of any complaints and concerns from her team, Jody should inquire as to the reasons behind Helen’s management choices. What her employees perceive as undue scrutiny may be proper supervisory responses to inappropriate behaviors and practices that have gone unchecked by her predecessor for far too long. All employees should feel heard about their concerns, but this does not mean either Jody or Helen should feel compelled to make changes simply to keep the peace or be “liked” by the team. Both levels of management should ensure that the door is open for ongoing discussion with employees, being open to appropriate compromise while allowing for a suitable adjustment period to the new dynamic to take its natural course. THE EMPLOYEE’S RESPONSIBILITY In most cases, an employee should follow the chain of command in the workplace, recommends Carol Gilbert, SNS, a consultant and trainer in K-12 school nutrition. “However, there may be times when situations arise in which you don’t feel you can discuss the problem with your immediate supervisor,” she notes. If you feel it’s important to take a concern to the next level of supervision, “Be prepared to share facts, details and what you would like to see resolved,” Gilbert suggests. To be taken seriously, you need to be prepared to make a case and not just a complaint. Employees should be aware that this approach is not a conflict avoidance tactic. Let’s say Sophia, a fellow coworker, has decided things are so intolerable that she must go over Helen’s head and bring concerns directly to Jody. Making Jody aware of her grievance does not mean that Sophia won’t have to deal directly with Helen about this and other issues. Jody won’t wave a magic wand and make the problem go away. Voss says that she sometimes coaches an employee on how to go back to the manager and communicate more effectively about the concern at hand. “I tell them that it is very important that they are the ones communicating with the manager, as that will build trust and a relationship.” SCENARIO #4: THE GENERATIONAL MIX Vivian is in her mid-sixties and is a classic member of the Baby Boomer generation. She’s been working in the program’s central office for three decades now. Kyle and Kate are new to the profession and the operation, having been hired right out of college after successful internships—they’re part of the Millennial generation. The differences in their ages show up repeatedly in approaches and perceptions to job responsibilities and the culture of the workplace. How can the trio work out their frustrations with the other generation’s working style, and when does their supervisor, Rhonda, need to referee? THE SUPERVISOR’S RESPONSIBILITY Unless one of the three is about to quit, disagreements have become personal attacks or concerns have been expressed by other members of the team or even outside the department, then Rhonda should stay out of things, beyond giving a general pep talk on respect for coworkers. This is clearly a situation where the individual employees need to work out matters on their own. One tactic that Rhonda might consider is deliberately pairing members of each generation to work together on a particular project or assignment. By compelling this type of teamwork, she is facilitating an opportunity for the different generations to gain perspective and understanding—and even learn from one another. Providing periodic training on generational differences may help employees look at their colleagues with new appreciation and understanding. THE EMPLOYEE’S RESPONSIBILITY “This is the first time in history where there may be four generations working together,” Gilbert muses. In fact, Forbes magazine predicts that soon there will be five generations in the workplace. Gilbert acknowledges the reality of workplace conflicts that stem from generational differences and recalls a recent kitchen visit in which she observed younger staff derisively referring to an older colleague as “Grandma,” because her performance seemed too slow to them. It’s likely that Kyle and Kate are impatient with Vivian’s inability to multi-task or adjust to new technology. Vivian, on the other hand, might consider the younger pair lazy—particularly if they’re not always on time or seem to always be seeking the next shortcut. To a certain extent, all three simply need to get over it. All members of the team must remember that they are just that—a team—and each individual brings different skills to the group, whether it’s advanced technological skills, the patience to complete detail-oriented tasks, the willingness to work late when asked and the flexibility to work well with others. Each employee needs to be more considerate in remembering the value of the other people on their team. The proverbial golden rule certainly applies in this scenario. We must demonstrate mutual respect and patience to earn it from others. TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK This phrase might be a bit of a cliché, but that’s only because it’s true. School nutrition is a diverse profession that requires all position levels to work in tandem to support their shared mission of feeding hungry children. Doing so relies on another cliché: “Communication is key.” It’s simply the single best way to avoid conflict, Geraghty declares, specifying the value of “specific job descriptions, frequent and clear communications between managers and employees and supervisor facilitation to address potential conflicts with work style and personalities.” Kelsey Casselbury, based in Odenton, Md., is a contributing editor for School Nutrition, and its former managing editor.
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