Managing Conflict in the Comm Center
While there are some among us who seem to thrive on conflict, they are (fortunately) few and far between.
On the other hand, comm centers—and emergency services more generally—tend to attract hard-charging, ambitious, high-energy, “type A” personalities. Add to that the stress and emotion of the job and long hours, and you’ve got a recipe for explosions.
Although they may seem very different, comm center personnel and research scientists have this in common. A single lab may be home to dozens of highly-ambitious, stressed-out scientists and graduate students, all of whom are competing for limited and dwindling resources. Some are obsessively dedicated to their work, while others are burnt-out and cynical.
In both cases, conflict is inevitable. The question is, how can we deal with interpersonal conflicts in these high-pressure environments without damaging the work that is important to us or the people we are there to help?
What Doesn’t Work
According to Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Scientific Research, there are four typical responses to conflict. Of these, three have limited value.
Avoidance is self-explanatory: those who respond to conflict by avoiding it simply refuse to deal with either the conflict itself or with the issues or people that caused it. As the authors of Managing Scientists put it, “The problem with avoidance is simple: ‘Avoiding a conflict neither effectively resolves it nor eliminates it.’” In other words, you can only avoid a conflict for so long; eventually, it will blow up in your face.
Smoothing is an approach in which a person “minimizes the differences between individuals or groups and emphasizes the commonalities.” This can be useful “if the issue is minor,” or if the people involve generally get along very well. If the issues are important, though—especially if they involve seniority, shift selection, processes and procedures, rules, or hierarchies—smoothing is really just another method of avoiding the conflict by pretending the issues aren’t as serious as they are.
Finally, compromise can be effective, but less often than you might think. In a compromise, “each party gives up something or shares a resource equally.” The problem here is that a compromise is often not ideal for any of the parties involved, meaning that the same questions and issues are likely to come up again—and again, and again—until a real decision about the relative merits of each side is made.
Bringing Heads Together
What has been found to work is confrontation. This may come as a surprise, since many of us think of confrontation as synonymous with battles, clashes, and other forms of fighting. Yet as the Managing Scientists authors point out, the term is derived from “the old French term for sharing a common frontier.” Other sources cite the origin of the term as referring to adjoining territories or look back to the original Latin word, which combined com (“together”) and frontem (“forehead”)—so that “confrontation” essentially refers to bringing heads together.
In this early sense, confrontation is about sitting face to face—fronting each other.
More specifically, you may want to try to use confrontation to determine or achieve superordinate goals, or the “’common set of goals and objectives that can’t be attained without the cooperation of the [parties] involved.’” The best way to deal with conflict, in other words, is to try to determine what it is that cannot be done by one person or group acting alone.
In the comm center, this means keeping the focus on (and perhaps reminding the feuding parties about) what’s important about what you do—serving the public—and why no one person can do it alone. That can make a good starting point to confront the issues under dispute and how to resolve them, not only for the people involved, but for the good of the larger mission.
Find the Common Frontier
The concept of the “common frontier” can also be useful in a directly practical way. Think about two people having a fight. The tension and energy are directed at one another, escalating and being reinforced by the direct interaction. That’s why we call it “facing off.”
If the fighters’ attention can be directed to something else, even for a short period, the tension often dissipates.
The same is true of professional conflicts. The people involved become so focused on the conflict and each other that they lose sight of everything else. Simply redirecting their attention, especially toward something that they have in common (such as the larger goal of the center or of emergency services), can allow them to redirect their energies. It may also give them an excuse to “back out” of the fight without losing face.
How about you? How do you deal with conflict? What can you do to turn conflict into confrontation in your center and realign your people to your common frontier?