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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
Volume 4, Number 1, Oct. 2003

Developing Departmental Communication Protocols

Protocol Process: Subsection Two

Once the discussion of the didactic material is complete the second subsection begins. As a group, attendees are asked to respond to a series of three questions. Each question is followed by a discussion of the attendee’s thoughts and perceptions. The remarks are written of a flip chart for all to see and reference as the discussion unfolds.

The questions are as follows:

  1. If someone is having a problem with you, how would you like them to handle it?
  2. If a coworker comes to you to complain about someone else in the department, what should you do?
  3. If you have made a “good faith” effort to follow what was developed in #1 above, but you can’t successfully address the issue, what is your next step?

The group’s answer to the first question is always “come talk to me”. The dialogue that follows allows each individual in attendance to discuss what must be included in the “Protocol” to insure a safe and respectful discussion process. Typically, the items listed identify a comprehensive set of “rules of the game”, or ground rules, that allow individuals to get past process issues and on to substance. Sample agreements are provided in attachments #1 and # 2.

The answer to the second questions allows the group to develop alternatives to “camps”. It also identifies an alternative role to that of “gossiper”. Individuals can remain good friends with their old “campmates”, and evolve into coaches for developing their friend’s communication and conflict management skills.

The outcome of the discussion of the third question leads to a change in management’s role in the department’s informal problem solving process. Often the supervisor self identifies as the point for initiating complaints. This often creates an atmosphere where individuals give up personal responsibility for problem solving, instead “tattling” to the supervisor, who becomes a sort of ultimate parent. This tattling approach often evolves to the point where the “tattler” insists that the supervisor resolve the problem in such a way that the person “tattled” about will be unable to identify the “tattler”. This frequently evolves into a no win situation with the supervisor being unable to be sufficiently clear about the problem to insure the problem individual understands either the problem, or the expected outcome. Often the result is that the problem behavior continues, and the “tattler” now is able to further complain “management never does anything!”.

Typically, the outcome of this discussion leads to a change in role of management from “parents” to quasi mediators, who bring the parties together and helping them manage their conflicts directly.

Not surprisingly, the “protocols” developed by various groups are very similar. Attachment #1 and #2 are good examples.

Protocol Process: Subsection Three

The third section of the session focuses on the implementation of the protocol. In this section attendees are divided into small groups and asked to discuss assigned questions. As the small groups report back, their reports are written on a flip chart. The whole group then determines an implementation process that meets individual, organizational and institutional needs. Questions that need to be discussed are a follows:

  1. Should the Protocol developed in the session be kept in draft form for additional review and comment by the group, if yes, how long?
  2. When implemented should the “Protocol” be seen as a regular part of the departments operational expectations, or should it be a “ pilot program”?
  3. When and how should the “Protocol” be evaluated as to its usefulness, need for revision, etc.?
  4. When implemented are there any organizational changes that need to be made or overcome?
  5. How does the “Protocol” link to either the mediation or formal grievance processes?
  6. (Optional for groups with union contracts) Are there any formal notice requirements for any of the unions.
  7. Can or should the “Protocol” be a performance expectation for faculty, staff and graduate students of the department?
  8. What do I, as an individual need to do differently if the “Protocol” is to be effective?
  9. How are individuals new to the department to be oriented to the “Protocol”?
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