I’m almost certain that I’m supposed to have my own robot by now. Like Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot maid. My robot would wear a uniform and come wheeling up to me as I walked through the door after work. She would take my handbag, laptop bag and jacket on one robot arm while presenting a tray with a drink and a snack with the other. I wouldn’t have to make small talk with her about her day and I wouldn’t need to tell her about mine. I wouldn’t even have to tell her “thank you,” although I probably would because I’m from the south and just have good manners like that.
There was a time when we all thought we would have robots and flying cars by now. I even read last year about plans to replace journalists with robots. I kind of laughed about it because I don’t think robots actually could report news. Yes, of course, they could gather facts and report them accurately, but no one would read them. We wouldn’t want robot stories because they would be emotionless, the same way my Rosie-like robot would be. They could give us exactly what we needed, but nothing more. There would be no story… no emotion, no empathy, no real understanding. Robot stories would be pretty boring.
Our humanity is one of the things that makes us great journalists. It’s makes us worth reading, and it makes us worth knowing. But our feelings, moods and emotions also are what make us have good days and bad ones, and they dictate our response to situations. They are at the heart of a lot of workplace conflict.
Until we’re all replaced by robots, which likely will be never, conflict will be part of life. We have conflict at home, at work and in our social circles. Conflict is natural and not necessarily a bad thing. Conflict can result in stronger relationships and unprecedented creativity. But conflict only results in positive outcomes if you handle it appropriately. Your job as a newsroom leader is to create a culture where conflict is resolved positively. To do that, you need to understand the types of conflict, your alternatives for conflict resolution and how to professionally deal with workplace conflict.
The four types of conflict
There are four types of conflict, according to Amy Gallo from Harvard Business Review, who wrote Managing Conflict at Work.
- Relationship conflict – Conflict between people who feels personal, usually because someone feels disrespected,
- Task conflict – disagreeing on what should be done,
- Process conflict – disagreeing about how work should be done, and
- Status conflict – disagreeing about who is in charge.
Understanding what type of conflict is happening helps you know how to begin resolving it. It also may help you know whether you need to get involved.
I was chatting about conflict with students during #EditorTherapy when Jeff Licciardello, the student editor-in-chief for The Reflector, wrote that he tends to avoid conflict until it “reaches his desk.”
I admit to being bothered initially by Jeff’s answer. I asked him some follow-up questions, and he said he figures most conflict will work itself out on its own without him getting involved. I told him I felt like it was his job as EIC to deal with staff conflict, but the more I thought about it, It depends on the type of conflict. Jeff also later said he wasn’t sure when to become involved, which seems true for a lot of us.
When to become involved in staff conflict
It is your job, as a student media leader, to resolve task, process or status conflicts.
You should provide guidance immediately if your staffers have conflict regarding what tasks should be done or how they should be done. The help you give your staff in these situations should come from:
- your previous experience,
- your journalistic training/education,
- your understanding of newsroom routines,
- your publication’s operations manual,
- a meeting with other editors where you determine the best approach to take to an issue, and/or
- advice from your adviser.
If you run into an issue that hasn’t been tackled by your staff before, it may be worth writing policies and procedures on how to deal with similar issues in the future and including them in your publication manual. This is how you guide future editors and help them learn from your experiences.
If you don’t have a publication manual, you need to create one. This post on publication manuals will help you understand why you need one and get you started on crafting one for your staff.
Many status conflicts can be solved simply by looking at job descriptions. Whose job is this task? If it isn’t assigned to a job description, make a decision on who will take the lead and add it to that job description for future reference, or have staffers collaborate on the task.
If you don’t have job descriptions, you should write some. This post on writing job descriptions will help.
Relationship conflict is where I think Jeff is right not to step in. It isn’t necessary for newsroom leaders involved in relationship conflicts unless they affect other staffers outside of the conflict or the quality of the publications. If this happens, it is time for editors to become involved. If the conflict is between editors, the editor-in-chief should get involved so it doesn’t affect the entire staff. The only other time the EIC should become involved in relationship conflicts is if he/she is asked to do so by the staffers involved. In that case, it is the EIC’s responsibility as the staff’s leader to mediate the conflict.
The tricky part is that we think almost all issues are relationship conflicts. Remember that part where we’re not robots? We tend to get our emotions involved pretty quickly. That’s why it’s important to look at the heart of the issue. What started this conflict? If it’s something as simple as a task conflict, dealing with that issue likely will cause any relationship problems as a result of it to fizzle.
Once you’ve determined what type of conflict is happening, then you can decide how best to deal with it.
How to resolve workplace conflict
There are four different options on how to resolve conflict, according to HBR’s Gallo.
- Do nothing – we discussed above when this might be an appropriate and strategic method.
- Address it indirectly – ask for help or discuss something “hypothetical” that is similar. We also discussed this above. If you address another type of conflict, you may then indirectly address a relationship conflict. However, you have to be careful that indirect conflict resolution doesn’t seem passive aggressive or look like you’re trying to manipulate the situation.
- Address it directly – I think this is the best approach. Leaders should be trained how to address conflict directly and professionally when it’s necessary. The rest of this post will discuss this type of resolution.
- Exit the relationship – You should use this one rarely and only after other options were explored. But there may be times when the best way to stop an ongoing conflict is to either terminate a staffer or leave the situation yourself. I recommend you have policies for how this is handled.
If you don’t have employee disciplinary policies, you should write some. This post on employee discipline will get you started.
Addressing conflict directly and professionally
Resolving workplace conflict almost always means addressing it, probably directly. While addressing conflict head-on is necessary, it also makes us pretty uncomfortable. That probably is why a lot of us tend to put it off. But, remember, addressing conflict before it becomes a bigger issue is your job as a newsroom leader. Also, failing to address conflict won’t make it go away; it probably will make it grow bigger.
These are the steps I recommend to address workplace conflict:
Step 1: Research the issue
You need to gather the facts and be informed to make rational, intelligent decisions. This may mean gathering outside information, reviewing your staff policies/procedures and/or meeting with your adviser.
If you are angry about the conflict or issues involved with it, you probably should avoid discussing it. You need to work through it in your mind so you can remain calm and professional.
This may be a good time to remind yourself that, if you think other people are being totally irrational, chances are that you are too. Calm down until you can consider the issue in an unemotional way.
If you need to vent to someone, do so to a trusted professional outside of the newsroom. I’m sure your dog would love to hear all about it and won’t judge you for being annoyed.
Step 2: Determine a goal
Once you understand the facts, decide what outcome you think is best, given what you know about the situation. Determining your goal or ideal outcome will help you frame your message and decide the best way to address the issue. However, don’t be married to this outcome. You still have to be open to listening to others, compromising and/or changing your mind completely.
Step 3: Call a meeting
Schedule a face-to-face meeting with each of the staffers involved to discuss the conflict. It may be best to have these meetings over coffee or just outside of the office. This is especially true if there isn’t a private meeting place in your newsroom or the newsroom environment is breeding the conflict.
Step 4: Set ground rules
Open the meeting by reminding the staffer why you wanted to meet. Tell the staffer that you are concerned, both about him/her and about the issue. Explain that you really want to understand what is going on and resolve the issue. Tell the staffer that you understand that conflict creates strong emotional responses, but that this meeting is fact-based. Explain that you intend to behave as a professional and you expect the same or you will take that as a sign that he/she is not interested in resolving the issue.
If the meeting is the staffer’s last chance to change behaviors before he/she will be fired, you need to say so clearly. Make sure the critical message is understood.
If, at any time during the meeting, the staffer begins to get angry or raise his/her voice, reinforce the ground rules. If it happens again, you may need to end the meeting and consider his/her employment.
NEVER become unprofessional at any time during the meeting. You are the leader. You set the example. You need to be honest, fair and even mannered. State facts calmly, avoiding opinions or emotionally charged arguments. And, honestly, you should be fine because you already vented to your dog.
Step 5: Really listen
Really listen when you meet with the staffer. Hear his/her individual feelings, arguments and concerns. Understand that the staffer has valid points that must be considered. Take notes. Don’t interrupt or listen just to speak.
Step 6: Ask why
During your meeting, ask the staffer why repeatedly. Repeatedly asking why after statements helps you get to the heart of the issue, which will result in a stronger resolution.
Step 7: Don’t make promises
Promise nothing during the meeting other than that you will get back with the staffer. You want to give yourself time to meet with other parties involved and consider all of the options. You may even seek advice from your adviser again.
Step 8: Move quickly
You need to resolve the conflict quickly. You don’t want to leave conflict lingering out there longer than necessary.
Step 9: Revisit your goal
What did you hope to accomplish when you began this conflict resolution? Is it still the outcome you seek now that you have more information? It’s ok if it isn’t. You don’t always have to be right from the beginning or feel like you have “won.” The most important thing is that the conflict is resolved and no one ends up agreeing to a watered-down compromise that makes them unhappy.
Step 10: Communicate the outcome
Communicate with all parties involved the decision you’ve made as a result of your discussions with them. This still should be done face-to-face, but could be done in a group meeting with those involved. Explain your process of meeting with each of them and considering everything they said before making your decision. Ask them whether they can work with your decision. Do not allow them to negotiate the outcome. The time for negotiation passed.
Step 11: Follow up
One way that you let staffers know you really care about them, not just their role in the organization, is to follow-up after the conflict. A week or so after the conflict is resolved (when you think they’ve had time to see the resolution in action), have a brief one-on-one with each staffer involved to see how things are going for them. Are things progressing positively now? Show staffers that you really care about their workplace happiness.
Step 12: Look in the mirror
Good leaders evaluate themselves often. This doesn’t mean being self-critical. But, when a conflict arises, you shouldn’t forget to take a look in the mirror. What role did you have in creating this conflict or the environment that bred it? Is there something you should do or change to prevent this type of issue in the future?
Step 13: Let it go
After the conflict is resolved, let it go. Don’t keep coming back to it, questioning your decision or holding grudges. What’s done is done.
I understand that 13 steps looks like a lot, especially since you have to actually put out publications and go to classes. You can’t spend all of your time managing conflict, I get it. You are an editor, not a babysitter. All of that makes perfect sense. However, you are a newsroom leader. Managing the staff well is a huge part of what you do. You can work through these steps in just a few days, eliminating the conflict and creating a more positive environment for everyone involved. The alternative is letting the conflict grow, losing good staffers because of a negative culture and having the reputation of being a weak editor who the staff didn’t respect.
In the end, learning to manage conflict professionally is one of the benefits you receive from being a newsroom leader. It’s one of the skills you leave the job with. And, given the alternative, what choice do you have? You don’t have to love this part of the job, but you have to do it.