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Conflict management helps set goals and reduce stress

December 10, 2011

Clearly understanding roles and goals greatly contributes to stress management in many situations, whether in a family or organization. Uncertainty is stressful and becomes blame, confusion about who does what, and feeling what work you do is unappreciated. In one case I mediated, the manager and employee had such different ideas of what each one’s role was, that their goals were constantly clashing. By the time I was invited to help, the manager’s goal was to find a way to get rid of the employee, while the employee’s goal was to undermine the manager whenever possible. They were both very stressed and mistrustful.

By asking opened-ended questions to frame the conflict management approach in the mediation, we were able to reopen the communication about what was underlying the conflict:

1.Determine the particular reason for having a goal.

In this case, it didn’t take long to discover that the reasons for the two goals made sense to the two parties. They’d been tripping over each other because of unclear roles and expectations. Once they saw that as a shared goal, they could discuss the hurtful things they’d done and said to each other.

The reason for a goal is fundamental to the approach to setting the goal. If the reason is to meet a target, such as sales, then setting the goal might have quantitative questions: how much, what size, which territory, who is responsible etc. If the reason for the goal is to support someone’s personal growth and development, the questions might be more qualitative: what feelings, whose perspectives, when in time, is it in the job description etc.

2. Discover the nature of the relationship between the people involved in setting the goal.

Power played a big part of their mistrust and enmity. The manager had lots and wielded it in ways the manager thought appropriate to get the work done; the employee felt abused. When that was on the table, the employee could commit to working in the clarified job duties without needing to be whipped to do it.

The context for the goal setting influences the process. Is there a power differential that might set of tone of the more powerful person dictating goals to the less powerful person? Is the relationship so strained that the people involved might never be able to agree on who has what role or responsibility? Is it peers who are collectively setting a team goal that all will be asked to meet?

3. Delve into how empowered the people involved are.

The company shared some of the responsibility for the conflict because it didn’t have clear job descriptions or expect regular performance evaluations. In other words, the manager had also felt abandoned in trying to do a good job in management. The employee became much more obliging when it was apparent there were opportunities for both to grow in their jobs.

A common scenario might be a supervisor, who we’ll call R, giving a yearly performance review to a staff member, who we’ll call D. In this scenario, R and D may have a distant relationship based on past history of irritating each other, or a friendly relationship because they think on the same wavelength. R must still reflect on what his/her intentions are for the meeting with D to set her/his goals. The choices for R would range from: having a friendly conversation because all is well with D’s work, to having a disciplinary tone in which consequences are set out if D does not meet R’s expectations, or anything in between.

4. Develop a clear intention for the process of setting goals

One of the outcomes both were particularly happy about was the decision to meet more regularly to discuss their shared goals and set new expectations. They each wanted more structured goal setting and mutual support.

If you intend to set achievable goals, have an understanding of the power dynamic and options for how to frame the conversation. Some questions to ask yourself before going into the goal setting meeting might be: what assumptions do I have about the reasons, goals and employee; are those assumptions skewing my intention; if I change those assumptions do the intentions change?


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