SUNY Cortland recently embraced the concept that successful organizations deal with conflict in a way that improves rather than destroys relationships.
A disagreement between two co-workers no longer needs to morph into ongoing spats or a situation where Human Resources needs to step in as a mediator. While Human Resources staff members remain available to guide employees, and even intervene as necessary, the goal is to provide employees with tools to work through these situations on their own.
Employees now have avenues to resolve their conflict amicably and go forward as a close-working team, thanks to a recent collaboration between a volunteer Dispute Resolution (DR) Committee and College Human Resources staff.
The committee has developed a set of dispute resolution policies and programs intended to keep colleagues who don’t see eye to eye from diverting unit managers, human resources staff and labor representatives from more productive, institutional pursuits.
“When we think about dispute resolution, we’re actually talking about putting into place a system,” explained Lisa Kahle, who chairs the DR Committee. “We’re really giving people the ability to know where to go and what components we have put into place to support people. It’s for staff at all levels.”
“The program is not about ‘This is something I’m doing wrong,’” agreed Joanne Barry, the College’s assistant vice president for human resources. “No, it’s about what you are doing right. We’re going to try to give them the tools they need across the campus to respond effectively.”
Besides Kahle, the committee members are: Michael Bersani, Wendy Cranmer (former co-chair and ex-officio), Tim Davis, Karen Gallagher, Molly McGowan, Jill Murphy, Richard Nauseef, Noelle Paley, Lori Porter, Tracy Rammacher, Greg Sharer and David Smukler.
During the past year the DR Committee, working closely with Wendy Cranmer — the former assistant director of human resources — used 15 campus focus groups from a cross-section of types of employees to identify campus needs in terms of workplace conflict alternatives.
“We asked them, ‘What’s been done?’ ‘What’s working?,’ ‘What’s not working?’ and ‘If you could change something about how the campus deals with conflict, what would that be?’,” said Kahle.
The benchmarking efforts with six other higher educational institutions and the SUNY Cortland campus focus groups produced many ideas and Kahle is pleased to share with campus community participants that the College has acted upon most of their thoughtful suggestions.
The College’s administration has adopted most of the policies the DR Committee recommended and has committed the resources to funding specific new and pilot training programs.
The new, proactive approach means that employees take opportunities to train in working relationships, leadership, management and problem-solving skills. Through this front-end effort, colleagues can forge more positive working relationships.
Many of the programs were piloted before the committee’s work was done and will continue to be offered as the result of the positive campus feedback. They include:
- The “Leading with Impact: Your Ripple Effect” program offers intensive training on leadership skills for supervisors at all levels;
- A “Lunch-and-Learn” noon series offers campus leaders and supervisors quick seminars on particular topics, such as “Performance Management is Everyone’s Job” or “Innovate or Evaporate”;
- The adoption and implementation of a bullying policy and procedures is in the works along with the development of civility standards. Employees would be required to comply with a policy that would rein in uncivil behavior between coworkers before it becomes a bigger problem; and,
- A form of communication training called “Crucial Conversations” is intended to cultivate a culture that provides consistent and good service to faculty, staff and students, especially on subjects where emotions run strong and the stakes are high. Initially reserved for supervisors, the program now is open to all campus personnel.
Information about the programs presently is shared through email, although Kahle anticipates that College employees will eventually have a place to find information about them on the Human Resources website.