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Collaborative problem solving; a supervisor and an employee at odds with each other can come together in search of a mutually acceptable solution.

Personality conflicts are inevitable when people work together closely. Job-related problems lead to clashes in emotions, values, and needs. Here's what might typically happen.

Edna has been Mark's supervisor for about a year, and until recently, they got along well. Then both began reacting to an increasingly heavy workload.

As a result, Edna has become frustrated and short-tempered and tends to vent her feelings by getting angry at Mark. Although Mark appears to be more emotionally calm, he is actually very anxious and depressed about the situation.

Besides this conflict of emotions, there's also a conflict of values. Edna recognizes that a problems has developed in her relationship with Mark. She has tried to talk it over with him because she believes in expressing her feelings openly. The trouble is, Mark's family background taught him to avoid confrontation and keep his feelings to himself.

Their needs are in conflict, too. Edna has a strong need for achievement and is intent on getting the work done. Mark has a strong need for approval and functions best in a relatively stressfree work environment. Unfortunately, as Edna pushes harder for an increase in productivity, Mark feels more stressed and produces less.

Mark reacts to Edna's escalating demands by trying to deny that any problem exists, thus avoiding confrontation. He capitulates, allows Edna to dominate, and attempts unsuccessfully to satisfy her.

Neither individual's behavior will resolve the workload problem or strengthen their strained relationship. Denial, avoidance, capitulation, and domination can't solve problems.

They must collaborate on a way out of their difficulties. A five-step approach can minimize the harmful effects of personality conflicts and help a supervisor and an employee focus on real problem solving.

1. Define the problem in terms of needs, not solutions. Edna needs a rpdocutivity increase to handle the heavy workload. Mark needs Edna's approval and longs to have a comfortable work environment once more.

2. Brainstorm possible solutions. They should generate as long a list as they can, without evaluating any of the solutions until the list is completed. In fact, they should agree in advance that neither will say, "It will never work" or "That's a dumb idea" or "We've tried that already."

Edna and Mark might prepare the following list of potential solutions: Work longer hours, request temporary assistance, ask the laboratory chief to hire more staff, eliminate nonessential work activities, negotiate with the laboratory chief for a more reasonable workload, apportion the workload more evenly, batch tests as much as possible, ask for volunteers to work extra hours for overtime pay, allow longer turnaround for all tests except those requested Stat, scale down productivity expectations, ask other work groups for temporary assistance, buy faster fully automated instruments, and have the supervisor pitch in at the bench.

3. Select the solution that best meets joint needs. Those affected by the problem--Edna and Mark in this case--should review the proposed solutions. They should identify their individual preferences and give reasons for these preferences.

The aim is to come up with mutually acceptable choices. It's unlikely that the two will agree on their frist choice, but a common solution will often show up among their top three suggestions. What's important is that each person feel her or she can live with the solution, even if it is not entirely to one's liking.

4. Implement the solution. Plan who will do what, where, and by when. Make these assignments in writing and be very specific. Most of the solutions on the list prepared jointly by Edna and Mark require supervisory implementation or a request by the supervisor.

5. Evaluate at a later date how well the solution worked. While both parties may prefer a particular solution, it might not deliver the desired results. Follow-up assessment is essential in the collaborative problem-solving process.

If the implemented solution falls short of expectations, the collaborative problem solvers should determine why. If nothing can be done to salvage the situation, they have to go back to their original list of solutions and select a new alternative for implementation.

In collaborative problem solving, success depends on how fully you accept the following beliefs:

* You are important to me. I want to understand your needs and will try to satisfy them. In return, I expect you to try to understand my needs and try to satisfy them.

Edna is determined to run the section smoothly, regardless of the workload. But she must accomplish this without making Mark feel overwhelmed and stressed.

* I value your creative thinking. I want your help in generating possible solutions to our common problems and believe that we can jointly develop innovative and superior solutions.

Even if Edna thinks she already knows how to solve the problem, she would be wise to listen to Mark's ideas. Mark is the expert on solutions that will satisfy his needs.

* We can work together effectively. We are willing to make joint decisions and develop a coordinated plan to help each other meet our needs.

Edna must be prepared to give more than lip service to Mark's suggestions. To reach a solution they can live with, the two parties have to act in concert.

* We can change our behavior. We don't have to let our disagreements affect how we treat each other. Regardless of any differences in opinion, we can enhance our work lives and improve our relationship. To do so, we must try to be friendly, cooperative, understanding, and respectful when working together to solve our common problems.

Edna's displays of temper detract from problem solving. Likewise, Mark's anxious and depressed behavior does little to improve the workload picture.

* We want to improve as problem solvers. We are not locked into any one solution. If our decision is not as good as we hoped, we can work to make it better or adopt an alternative approach.

Collaboration simplifies the task of picking up the pieces. Neither Edna nor Mark loses face in abandoning a shared solution.

Beware of several pitfalls, however. Take hidden agendas, for example. Effective collaborative problem solving depends on openness. If either collaborator has already decided on a solution and is determined to force it through, an impasse is likely.

Suppressed emotions block the process. You can't solve problems when you harbor strong feelings and resentment. Clear the air before you start problem solving.

Faulty problem definition confuses the process. Unless you define a problem in terms of needs--yours and the other person's--you won't find solutions that are mutually satisfactory.

We cautioned earlier against evaluating proposed solution as soon as they are voiced. That seriously impairs brainstorming. List all suggestions without question, no matter how "way out" they sound at first.

Once you agree on the best solution to the problem, pay close attention to working out all aspects of implementation. Good solutions can fail if you don't pay sufficient attention to the details.

You or your collaborator may have second thoughts about points agreed to during a problem-solving session. If these thoughts aren't aired, the solution may be jeopardized. It's critical to check periodically with each other on individual progress in implementing the solution and to address any difficulties encountered.

If you avoid these traps, you can make collaborative problem solving work for you. It will help protect your relationships with co-workers and also enable you to resolve the inevitable problems that arise when people work together closely.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Roseman, Ed
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Feb 1, 1985
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