Rebellious Practices: Handle Conflicts with the Accountability Process
In this episode of our Rebellious Practices blog series we discuss the topic of conflict resolution. A proper and honest way of handling conflicts is of vital importance for an engaged workforce. In some of the progressive organizations we visit there are no managers around to act as conflict mediators, so there should be a process in place to handle conflicts as soon as they arise. More and more organizations we encounter handle conflicts based on processes that successfully tap into employee responsibility and accountability.
What is it?
The *accountability process* is extensively described by Doug Kirkpatrick in his book Morning Star.
The Morning Star Company has put lots of unique practices in place to optimize their rebellious organization. To deal with conflicts, they have set up the so-called accountability process. As Doug is an expert in the process, we'll let him do most of the talking.
Why would you do it?
From The Morning Star Company Colleague Principle: "Differences between human beings are a natural and necessary aspect of life, especially in the pursuit of excellence. Differences may vary from how to answer the phone, to what type of oil to use in a gearbox, to what equipment to purchase to improve operations, to whether one is following our Principles or advancing our Mission, to how a person combs their hair."
Doug: "When circumstances require a serious discussion, there should be a process in place in order to continue to achieve the mission of the company. To uphold colleague accountability, I propose a process for resolution of differences that is sound, considers the needs of all parties, and is designed to uphold the mission. If you’ll take the initiative to hold each other accountable, it has the potential to make everyone happier and more prosperous."
In case of self-management the benefits of a conflict-handling process might be very clear. However, more hierarchical organizations can clearly benefit from such a process as well. I remember from my previous job the time, effort, and frustration it took to resolve a conflict. You had to "escalate" the situation to your manager, the manager had to find the conflict important enough to handle it on short notice or escalate it even further.
Then it had to be discussed between my manager and the manager of another team or department, who both had no full understanding of the conflict. So many times they had to come back or plan a meeting to resolve the conflict. At such meetings, half of the company staff was invited and everyone had to have their say. You can imagine how slow and frustrating this process was. I (and probably my manager too) would have loved to have a clear *accountability process* in place.
How does it work?
Doug: "Here is how it would work. If anyone perceives any action on the part of a colleague that is not supportive of the mission, or is counterproductive to the work of other colleagues, he or she will be obligated to directly speak with that person about the issue. But I want you to keep in mind that we’re not just talking about reprehensible conduct here. Any business issue that comes up, which, in the perception of any colleague, is counterproductive to the fulfillment of the mission, can and should be discussed with the other colleague as soon as possible.
Speaking requires listening. It's always possible that the person receiving an issue doesn’t have all the facts, or is mistaken in their perspectives. So be it. That’s why I’d like to have an initial face-to-face discussion. Get all the facts out and see if your perceptions are correct. See if you can resolve the issue up front. Remember, no one has any command authority in self-management. So if you’d like a course correction from a colleague, it has to be in the form of a request. Make a request! Be direct and tactful. Remember the golden rule: treat others the way you would like to be treated. Give the other person a chance to respond."
The Accountability Process
Step 1. Have a direct conversation with the person
Anyone noticing performance or integrity issues with another colleague is required to directly discuss the issue with that colleague. Anyone not willing to initiate such a discussion should just have to tolerate the situation. Either put it up or shut up.
Step 2. Third party mediator
One-on-one discussions do not necessarily resolve a difference of opinion. If two colleagues don't resolve the issue, there should be a fresh pair of eyes to examine the facts and circumstances, hear from both colleagues, and express their thoughts about the points being made on both sides. The mediator needs to be someone trusted by both colleagues, and has an obligation to hear both sides and articulate their own thoughts about what they have heard. The mediator, however, does not have any power to resolve the issue. That power still belongs to the two colleagues themselves. But the mediator is in a superb position to keep the discussion on track, and see that the colleagues stick to the facts.
Step 3. Panel of colleagues
It is possible that even a mediated discussion does not result in a resolution of a difference of opinion. This is especially true, for example, if one colleague were to ask another colleague to terminate their employment for reasons of performance or integrity. Few people could be expected to voluntarily quit their jobs without a strong difference of opinion. If any difference of opinion could not be resolved by direct discussion or mediation, then it is necessary to convene a panel of colleagues to hear both sides and stay in the conversation until a resolution is reached.
Step 4. Designated arbitrator
If the discussion becomes deadlocked, then a designated arbitrator participates in the debate and renders a final decision. At some point, all disputes must come to an end.
In practice at Buurtzorg
Buurtzorg, one of the organizations on our Bucket List, is a home-care organization based in The Netherlands. The organization has attracted lots of attention for its innovative way of working. The organization employs over 9.000 nurses and has reached this size in less than 10 years. The nurses work in independent teams that focus on delivering high-quality, relatively low-cost care in their neighborhood. There are no managers as the teams themselves are fully in charge.
One of Buurtzorg's initial trainings include a technique for conflict resolution and nonviolent communication. The method, which is developed by Marshall Rosenberg, focuses on working out conflicts collaboratively within the team. When conflict arises, the trained process at Buurtzorg is as follows:
The team tries to find a mutually agreeable solution.
If the conflict is not resolved, the group calls in its regional coach or an external facilitator to mediate. In almost all cases, the conflict is resolved in this stage. Potential solutions, often after some deliberation, include:
- The person and the team decide on mutual commitments and jointly give it another go;
- The person comes to see that trust is irrevocably broken and he/she understands it is time to leave the team or organization.
In case still no agreement can be found, the final step is to ask Jos de Blok, the founder, to mediate. In the very rare case that even his mediation fails, the team can ask him to end the person’s contract (legally, he is the only one who can do so).
Try and fail, but don't fail to try
The beauty of this process lies in its simplicity. It is something that employees, managers, or CEOs can easily implement to smoothen their internal conflict handling. It improves the working lives of all people involved. It puts employees in charge and reliefs the job of managers.