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

Developing Departmental Communication Protocols

Implementing Issues

There are several issues to consider prior to the implementation of a new “Protocol”. They are as follows:

  1. If you are in a unionized environment, the union may see the implementation of the “Protocol” as a change in working conditions requiring at a minimum official notice, if not bargaining. This would be particularly true if employees were to be evaluated on their adherence to the “Protocol”.
  2. The “Protocol’s” value is that it reflects communally developed “ rules of the game”. Some managers see the end product as useful and simply impose it on other parts of their organization. This approach is inconsistent with the notion communal ownership and understanding, and typically leads to the imposed “protocol” being largely ignored.
  3. The “Protocol’s” value is related to its being a document that reflect group norms and expectations. It must be periodically revisited and if necessary revised, or it will pass into oblivion as just another flavor of the month management project.
  4. The “Protocol” is meant to address basic communication and conflict management issues. Participants should understand that certain issues such as allegations of sexual harassment, violence and “whistle blowing” are not covered by this process.

The First Protocol: A Case Study

The Davis Mediation Program came into official existence in 1994. The first actual “Communication Protocol” was developed in1996 in the department of one UC Davis’ volunteer mediators. The mediator brought to the attention of her management group that she had observed some of the indirect communication and non-productive problem solving problems she had both learned about in her mediation training, and had observed as a mediator. She discussed the matter with the management team, who in tern advised staff of the process.

This department consisted of approximately 25 individuals including four management personnel. The entire group fully participated in the three hour session, and in a post session process of further editing and refining the material generated in the class. The “Protocol” was distributed to participants and posted on the department bulletin board. The “Protocol” is also used to orient new staff to the department’s behavioral expectations for effective communication and productive conflict management.

The “Protocol” has been in effect for seven years. Management of the unit describe the “Protocol” as “highly effective” and “has led to much more direct communication and depersonalized problem solving”.


The Communication Protocol has been a useful tool at UC Davis. This year Mediation Services worked with nineteen departments to develop their unique “Protocol”. It is a tool that mediators are invited to use and give us any feedback which may help us with the evolution of this tool. Comments may be forwarded to


 Attachment 1

Communication Protocol

The following principles and ground rules have been agreed upon for communication and conflict management.

  1. Deal directly with the person involved, unless it is a supervisory matter, in which case you should talk to the person’s supervisor. If, after dealing with the person directly and you are unable to resolve the matter, then bring in the supervisor.
  2. Appreciate that different communication styles exist.
  3. Be civil – no yelling and no profanity.
  4. Stick to the issue at hand – no “kitchen sinks” or irrelevant issues should be brought up.
  5. Be aware of the work environment; use a private office when the situation calls for it.
  6. Be honest and trustworthy.
  7. Be consistent, especially when delivering your message to more than on party.
  8. Don’t undermine by griping behind other’s backs. If you are brought into this type of situation as a third party, support our protocol by reminding the person to talk directly to the appropriate person.
  9. Do your fact-finding, especially when representing the position of others in a critical manner.
  10. Be willing to be identified if you have a concern or complaint; anonymous complaints will not be addressed.
  11. During all aspects of communication, conflict management and decision-making, separate the issue from the person. In other words, don’t personalize an issue when delivering or receiving.
  12. When receiving a message, demonstrate verbal acknowledgment that you have received the message; avoid withdrawal, passivity or passive-aggressive behaviors

The following protocol for decision-making was agreed to by staff.

  1. Solicit input from the appropriate parties at the appropriate time. Different levels of involvement and responsibility will determine who is ultimately involved in the decision-making process. This step should be a proactive, information-gathering one without pre-judgment.
  2. Acknowledge opinions/input and express appreciation for ideas. If information is known that has bearing on the decision, that information should be shared at this time, using language such as “Yes (acknowledging input), and (sharing information)….” A good faith effort will be made to address serious and legitimate disagreement.
  3. When decisions are announced, provide information as to why the decision was made, including what the department/program/person’s needs are.

    Note: Information is communicated through a variety of channels including through the Program Coordinator and/or through supervisors, e-mail, individual meetings, etc.

  4. If an individual has questions, s/he is responsible for seeking answers from the supervisor or Program Coordinator

    Note: Factors that go into decision-making are often numerous and complex, and information will be shared to the appropriate extent. Recognize that there often exist constraints in decision-making including time, scheduling, budget, management prerogative, etc.

  5. After seeking clarification, the individual staff member should express any remaining concerns or complaints in a timely (two-week period) way to the decision-maker(s). Anonymous complaints will not be considered.
  6. Staff are expected to support the decision.

    Note: It is important for everyone to trust that input was weighed in the final decision and for staff to be able to “get on with it” rather than always wait for consensus which may never be achieved. Consensus is not only not always possible, it is also not always desirable. It is also important to “let go”. If an individual finds him/herself in a pattern of disagreement with decisions and philosophies of the department, s/he can always pursue other available options.

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