As people are drawn together in the workplace, their beliefs, values, and practices are bound to create differing opinions and attitudes. Keeping silent about these differences as though they do not exist—adding them to the list of unresolved issues—erects artificial barriers, stifles fruitful dialogue, and drives well intentioned people apart.
The longer the list, the more tense and anxious people will become. An effective way to get these unmentionable topics on the table is to gather people together on a regular basis to resolve those issues on the list.
Begin by asking each participant to anonymously write down on 3 x 5 index cards those issues he or she would like to see resolved. Compile a master list and then have each person rank the issues in the order they are ready to discuss. Next, work through the list together one item at a time beginning with the lowest priority. Schedule the first session for about ninety minutes in order to give the participants ample time to learn how the process works.
The heaviest, more serious issues top the list. Heaviest meaning an issue so sensitive that no one has dared mention it for fear of what might happen. Such unresolved issues have been on the list so long that they take on additional weight and unwarranted significance.
It is best to start at the bottom of the list with the least sensitive issues and save the heavier issues for later. This process often exposes those in opposition to the possibility that they may not “know the truth” and that they may not be able to uncover the facts without help from their peers.
As participants work their way through the unresolved issues list, they learn how to express their concerns without prejudice or judgment, how to ask difficult questions, and how to bring up the issues that are keeping them collaborating with their coworkers.
When a festering issue is liable to pit one person against another, consider using an outside facilitator who is not involved and has no personal interest in the outcome.
Here is an example of how a facilitator helped to resolve a longstanding feud between two critical care nurses in a large metropolitan hospital.
According to the Director, the discord started when nurse Swanson supposedly complained that she did not want nurse Martin taking care of her mother who was a patient at that time.
The implication from Swanson was that Martin was incompetent; at least that is how Martin perceived it. Over the ensuing months that the conflict dragged on, the rumormongers had embellished the story, adding unfounded tidbits that inflamed the situation.
The truth came out when the two antagonists were brought together and surrounded by a caring team of colleagues. Swanson’s objection was not a question of Martin’s competency, but rather one of averting a conflict.
Swanson was concerned that her overly critical mother would pose a problem for Martin who was known and admired for her soft spoken and caring nature. Even though Swanson admired Martin for her gentleness, she felt it was not a good match for her mother.
Swanson was actually concerned that Martin would be overpowered by her mother and wanted to spare her colleague, who she regarded highly, from a potentially negative experience. Once both parties recognized the truth, they sort forgiveness and agreed to communicate honestly in the future.
No one enjoys working in a tension-filled environment. Research on employee turnover shows that the Doers are the first to flee a stress-producing workplace. Consider what it would mean, then, should your best people leave to seek peace elsewhere; you would be surrounded by overly sensitive underachievers.