The call was like many others that our mediation firm has received over the years. A Senior HR leader was calling about a particular department that had been experiencing acute tensions on the team. What had initially started as interpersonal strain between a manager and a few staff had proliferated over time and was now adversely affecting the entire unit. Perhaps some training on respectful workplace expectations and communication skills would be helpful, the HR manager suggested. I agreed that education and skill development is rarely a waste of time. In fact, it can be a defining factor in workplace wellbeing and overall organisational health. However, if you have a torn ACL in your knee, heading to the gym to up your cardio routine may not be the most effective course of action for recovery at this time.
Partnering with outside experts to address workplace conflict is much like working with a medical specialist such as a physiotherapist to address chronic pain or recover after an injury. There is often much that the patient can do and has tried on his/her own – exercise, rest, compression, apply ice, etc. – and there sometimes comes a point where some direct support and guidance in recovery is helpful and necessary. This is where specialized experts can provide insights, practical ideas and hands-on care during a particular phase on the road to health.
When there is something going on in the “body” that is causing pain and diminished capacity it is important to understand that pain as a symptom, an important clue that points to a cause (or sometimes, in complicated cases, multiple causes). Much like my intake call with the HR manager, your physiotherapist will likely ask some combination of the following questions for assessment: When did it you first notice the pain/what do you think caused it? Where is it most acute? When did the pain get worse and what has contributed to its escalation? What has/hasn’t worked so far in terms of attempts to address it? Once the specialist has an appropriately assessed understanding of the situation, it is only then that s/he can offer ideas and make suggestions that can turn the corner on the path to healing.
Here’s the catch. This act of “turning the corner” is something that best happens in partnership. That means that the patient needs to be actively engaged in and even self-directing the healing process. It is the patient who knows his/her body the best and how likely he/she will be to commit to and complete the suggested regimen of exercises and it is the patient who, in the end, actually has to follow-through and do the sweating.. There is no value in setting up a course of action when the patient knows from his/her experience that some of it won’t work. The treatment plan is ideally created together, taking the patient’s own personal wisdom into account and combining that with the expertise of someone who has very specialized training and experience in addressing the acute problem that has presented itself. One of the roles of the specialist is to work him/herself out of a job. Eventually, regular visits will no longer be required and the patient takes on championing maintenance and prevention on their own, informed by what they have learned from the specialist.
Innovative partnerships between internal HR leaders and external third parties with specialized expertise leverage all the available skill and wisdom to address challenging personnel dilemmas. Together these insider-outsider partnerships can optimize organizational health in difficult situations through:
- Early recognition and attention to the concerns. Accessing specialized expertise early on can support steps that have already been taken and help move the situation forward in tangible, practical, new directions. Knowing when to call in outside assistance is key to maximizing the potential of a collaborative partnership. While first engaging organizational resources in an “insider” effort to address concerns usually makes sense, conflict interventions involving “outsider” helpers are always more effective and less intensive (not to mention less costly) when initiated before tensions have metastasized.. Ideally, an internal-external partnership is leveraged before (or early in the process of) any progressive disciplinary action.
- Commitment to understanding and addressing the root causes of the conflict. This means not only understanding what happened (i.e. the facts) but also the perceptions (i.e. the meaning people make of what happened, including the impacts/their feelings). An outside, more objective third party can often play a crucial role in gathering and processing this information. Merging this external assessment with internal, subjective HR/leadership knowledge is critical for a comprehensive understanding of the root causes of the difficulties.
- Development of a co-created action plan that directly addresses the issues and concerns (both “real” and perceived) of the primary parties. Grounded in the expertise of the external third party, options for consideration for next steps in the process (i.e. the elements of what will become the action plan) are processed through the insider-outsider partnership. Decisions about the best course of action are made collaboratively, leveraging all the external/objective and internal/subjective expertise at the table.
- Increasing the capacity of internal leadership, including HR and management, to effectively support and maintain progress. Building internal capacity and organizational competency around the prevention, management and resolution of destructive dynamics in the workplace should always be a primary objective of these internal-external partnerships. It is not enough to simply work at managing/resolving the presenting issues. The collaborative model assumes that, throughout the partnership, internal leadership is developing a growing aptitude with regards to the concepts, models and skills used by the specialists, thereby building in a diminishing reliance on the expert going forward and a sustainable mechanism for supporting organizational health and development in an ongoing way.
For more on leveraging HR partnerships, especially in the context of dealing with challenging personnel dilemmas and workplace conflict, join us at our CPHR Manitoba Conference session, Innovative Partnerships: Leveraging HR Wisdom with External Expertise.
This article, co-authored by Dave Dyck and Sandy Koop Harder, was originally published in
HR Matters, Fall 2017.