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Resolving staff conflicts through team building.

Cooperation and harmony add to a laboratory's efficiency and effectiveness. Unfortunately, it's natural for disagreements, conflicts of personal interest, and competition to disrupt smooth teamwork.

When a supervisor recognizes frequent or serious problems in the work group, it's time to initiate a team building effort. Team building trains the staff to tackle its own conflicts. It involves gathering data to find the causes of the problems, engaging the staff in planning and problem solving, putting the plans into action, and evaluating the results.

Let's take a closer look at the four steps in the team building process.

* Data gathering. Data on the reasons for problems can be collected through interviews. The supervisor or a staff member asks questions of other employees in an effort to pinpoint conditions that may need to be changed or improved:

Why is this section having the kinds of problems it has? What keeps you personally from being as effective as you would like to be? What things do you like best about this department--things you want to continue? What changes would make you and the section more effective? How can the staff begin to work more effectively as a productive team?

As an alternative or in addition to this approach, the supervisor can ask the group to openly share data. This is accomplished in an unstructured group interview--a "sensing" interview. It's another way for the supervisor to learn of staff concerns and needs.

In the sensing interview, a supervisor might ask: How are things going around here? What changes would you like to see? How could this organization be more effective? What does this organization do poorly?

* Diagnosis and evaluation of the data. When all the data are collected, the supervisor and employees should recap it in a priority listing. The summary categories cover issues that can be worked on in the current meeting, issues that specified others must work on, and some issues that apparetly are not open to change--things that must be accepted or lived with.

Here's a list of problems identified by one group of employees.

1. The work output of this section is low.

2. There are many grievances and complaints.

3. We have frequent conflicts between employees.

4. There's apathy and a general lack of interest on the part of the staff.

5. This group lacks innovation, risk taking, imagination, and initiative.

6. There's poor communication. People are often afraid to speak up. They also don't listen to each other.

* Problem solving and planning. Problem solving takes different forms, depending on the nature of the problems identified--meetings for two, family group meetings, or intergroup meetings.

Meetings for two. The pair may be a supervisor and a subordinate, or two co-workers. They will try to improve the way they work together, sometimes with the assistance of a third party. One aim of the meeting is to bring out into the open any personal and interpersonal issues that mar their relationship. The meeting also should specify what each expects of the other and make clear how these expectations are not being satisfied. Then changes can be negotiated, in both the expectations and how they are to be met. This increases the mutual helpfulness of the relationship.

Each participant comes to the meeting with three lists. One itemizes what is valued in the way they have worked together; the second itemizes what is disliked; and the third predicts what the other person's lists contain.

The two individuals exchange their first and second lists and share the third in discussion. From these lists, they gain a better understanding of each other, which puts them in a position to negotiate a better relationship. They consent to plan changes and to decide how to bring them about.

If a third party is at the meeting, he or she records the actions agreed upon. Also recorded are any unresolved issues. The pair may decide how to deal with these issues or agree to leave them unresolved for the time being.

Family group meetings. Here a supervisor and employees explore ways to improve performance. The meeting should take place in an atmosphere that is conducive to candid communication about feelings and opinions. This kind of meeting underscores the need for joint participation to work out problems.

The supervisor first explains the purpose of the meeting and then presents data relevant to the problems the group will talk about. The group next frames an agend, ranking topics in order of priority. Before continuing, the group discards any personal and interpersonal issues that may stand in the way of problem solving attempts.

Often a group won't follow its own agenda. Nevertheless, the participants should produce a list of action items to be dealt with, after the meeting. They should decide who will be responsible for each item and set a time frame for action.

Generally, a family group meeting cannot be conducted within the time normally allocated for a staff meeting. A series of meetings is usually required to review all the issues that may interfere with smooth teamwork.

Intergroup meetings. Very much like meetings for two, intergroup meetings bring together two groups in conflict. Each prepares lists of things it likes and dislikes about the other and predicts what the opposing group will have on its list. A representative of each side presents the data. It is important not to evaluate any of the information as it is being presented. The groups should try to fully understand each other's point of view.

The next step is to develop an agenda consisting of the most urgent problems in order of priority. Subgroups are formed to work on solutions to agenda items. They report their proposals to a reconvened intergroup meeting. Finally, an action list is prepared along with a schedule, and assignments are made to carry out the solutions.

* Implementation and evaluation. If the actions planned at team building meetings are to make any difference, they must be put into practice and the supervisor must be committed to them. Without such commitment, it is unlikely that a supervisor can hold his or her subordinates responsible for assignments agreed to in the groups' team building effort.

In dealing with intergroup problems, the supervisor of each group must make sure that team plans are carried out. It is vital that the supervisor continually evaluate staff progress toward implementing the actions.

We now can examine some case histories of team building.

Case 1. Ever since Jane joined the immunology section, she has experienced difficulty with Helen. Jane is quiet and reserved, preferring to "do my own business and be left alone." Helen, on the other hand, is aggressive and extroverted. She tends to interfere in the affairs of her colleagues. Most of the others in the immunology section have learned to live with Helen and usually ignore her interference.

The immunology supervisor was aware of the situation between Jane and Helen but did not take any action until the conflict got so bad that they could not work with each other. The others in the lab were affected by the conflict, too.

The supervisor held a meeting with Jane and Helen after work. She asked them to negotiate around such questions as: What do you want from each other in connection with your work? How do you feel you can and want to help each other with your work? What do you want from each other personally--friendship, respect?

Helen predictably did most of the talking at first. But with the supervisor's support, Jane slowly revealed her feelings. As Helen learned about the kind of grief she was creating for Jane, she could see why Jane tended to avoid her. By the end of the meeting, the two had agreed to a working relationship they both could live with comfortably.

Case 2. Morale in the serology department of a large independent laboratory was very low. A profit improvement program had led to staff dismissals, a salary freeze, and an increased workload for remaining employees.

Marie, the supervisor, told the laboratory chief that serology and most of the other sections had a morale problem. The laboratory chief listened to her but was unwilling to take any kind of corrective action.

Finally, the situation became serious enough for Marie to take matters into her own hands. She scheduled a meeting, and during the week leading up to it she talked to each member of her staff individually. Not everybody had the same concerns. Some were worried about losing their jobs. Others felt the pressure of the heavy workload and the need to work longer hours. The salary freeze particularly disturbed one employee whose annual review date was near.

At the meeting, Marie asked each staff member to prepare a list of likable aspects of working in the laboratory and a list of current grievances. She then asked employees to discuss what they had written, starting with the things they were unhappy about. After a complete airing of grievances, they proceeded to discuss what they liked about the laboratory. Since all had been quite content before the profit improvement program, they were able to talk at length about the positive aspects of the laboratory.

Finally, Marie asked the staff to discuss the consequences of continuing to live with unresolved grievances. She pointed out how unhappy everyone had become and how unpleasant it had become to work in the laboratory. She also explained that the worst part of the profit improvement program had passed. There would be no further terminations, and the wage freeze would not go on indefinitely.

Marie asked the group to turn its efforts to problem solving so they could work more comfortably with the present workload. By the end of the meeting, staff members were feeling better. Those positive feelings persisted, and morale in the laboratory improved markedly.

Case 3. A recurrent problem between two factions in the laboratory was about to boil over. The clerical staff accused technologists of being inconsiderate, overdemanding, and surly. The technical staff called the clerical workers lazy, incompetent, and unprofessional.

The laboratory chief decided to call an intergroup meeting. But before meeting with each group, he interviewed individual representatives of both staffs to explore their grievances.

At the start of the session, the laboratory chief explained that interpersonal problems between the two staffs were disrupting laboratory operations. The purpose of this meeting, he told them, was to resolve primary issues. He then listed the issues as they had been described to him in the personal interviews.

The laboratory chief asked the group to review the list and add, delete, or modify items. Then they were to arrange the issues in priority order.

This done, the lab chief divided the technical staff and the clerical staff into separate small groups of three. To each small group he assigned one of the complaints listed by the other side--clerical groups took up technical staff grievances and vice versa.

The groups were told to think about concrete actions to resolve each issue. The lab chief emphasized the need to develop workable solutions--that is, solutions mutually acceptable to both staffs. By the end of the meeting, a long list of helpful actions were agreed to, and in subsequent weeks they were acted on.

These case histories demonstrate that it is difficult to avoid disharmony in a laboratory. Both individuals and groups may run into conflict that will disrupt the lab and threaten its effectiveness. But the case histories also demonstrate that harmony can be restored and problems solved by the staff through team building.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Roseman, Ed
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Mar 1, 1984
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