The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Navigating “Stuff:” 5 Strategies for Diffusing Organizational Noise

How often does “stuff” ruin your workday? Stuff like people’s propensity to complain about anything and everything; petty squabbling or personality conflicts; miscommunication; misunderstanding; mistakes.

This is the stuff that gets on people’s nerves. The stuff that makes people angry. The stuff that is distracting and disruptive to people’s daily psyche.

So how can we tamp down that stuff in our workplaces?

In her session at this year’s CUPA-HR Annual Conference and Expo, Kim Kirkland, executive director of human resources at Oregon State University, offered some tips on how to diffuse organizational noise so that we can focus instead on the work at hand.

1) Empowerment/Coaching. Kirkland suggests using this method to enable parties to resolve their own issues. Coaching can provide strategies to enable coworkers and colleagues to engage in difficult conversations and can help set the stage for dialogue and set the tone for these conversations. Often when parties are allowed to hash things out on their own, they feel more in control of their destinies.

2) Facilitated Conversation. When one-on-one conversations just don’t cut it, third-party interventions to help facilitate difficult/uncomfortable conversations can be helpful. Kirkland recommends using this approach when there are power differences at play (e.g. supervisor v. subordinate or status and/or job classification differences) and in emotionally-charged situations. In a facilitated conversation, facilitators should balance their focus on outcomes and goals (attempting to help parties get to a particular outcome/end) and the process (directing the flow, efficiency and ease of the conversation).

3) Alternative Dispute Resolution. Alternative dispute resolution typically includes early neutral evaluation, negotiation, conciliation, mediation and arbitration. Some of these programs are voluntary; others are mandatory. Negotiation, which allows the parties to meet in order to settle a dispute, is a good first step in attempting to resolve a disagreement. One advantage of negotiation is that it allows the parties themselves to control the process and the solution. Mediation is a process for resolving disputes with a trained neutral mediator. (Read more about one university’s approach facilitation/mediation). And arbitration is a simplified version of a trial involving limited discovery and simplified rules of evidence which is headed and decided by an arbitral panel.

4) Formal Investigation. If a workplace dispute or disagreement is severe enough, it may warrant a formal investigation. In this case, HR must provide notification to the relevant parties and decisional authority, as appropriate. This also requires HR to determine if immediate interim action (removal, reassignment, administrative leave, suspension) is warranted. Then, HR must conduct an investigation and provide a written summary of the findings to the decisional authority.

5) Tough Love. Sometimes, only tough love can do the trick. In this case, Kirkland offers some options for HR: a performance improvement plan; demotion; administrative leave; filing a grievance; transfer/reassignment; other HR sanctions (pay decrease, suspension, etc.); or termination.

Says Kirkland, “Unresolved workplace conflict can be costly. It interferes with the team’s ability to perform and/or deliver; it sucks time and other valuable resources; people get frustrated and either quit trying or quit the team altogether; and it can result in poor decisions, missed opportunities, stress, personal illness and more.”

But while conflict may be stressful and unpleasant, it is also natural and necessary. The goal, says Kirkland, is not to eliminate conflict, but rather to learn how to handle it productively.


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