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Measuring Conflict Coaching

by Cinnie Noble
May 2008 Cinnie Noble
Those of us who work in organizations are aware of how managers and staff are generally, reactive rather than proactive, regarding the interpersonal conflicts that arise in their workplaces. Unfortunately, by the time conflict and disputes come to the attention of mediators and others who may help, perceptions and positions of the disputants have become increasingly entrenched. There has usually been an escalation of emotions and thinking, to the point that the people involved, are interacting in counterproductive ways.

Increasingly, ADR practitioners like myself are adding conflict coaching to our toolboxes, to assist people to engage more effectively in disputes that arise and to help prevent the escalation of unnecessary conflict. Briefly stated, conflict coaching may be defined as a one on one technique for helping people to enhance their skills and abilities to manage conflict. In addition to assisting people improve their conflict management skills, this process may be used as a pre- or post-mediation tool and as part of conflict management training.

Long before the concept of conflict coaching became part of the ADR lexicon, ombudsmen and others who work internally with employees, have been assisting staff, both before and after things escalate. Indeed, they have been providing various forms of conflict coaching for many years. As it becomes a more defined technique in the ADR field, those who provide conflict coaching will be increasingly discussing its many applications and also, the ways to increase its legitimacy, as a distinct mechanism. This article suggests that to successfully increase conflict coaching’s credibility, it is important that practitioners together with the organization for which they work (or for which they provide external services), consider how this process may be measured as a mechanism that increases conflict competence and short circuits the unnecessary escalation of conflict.

Measurement Variables

Among other things, measurement provides a way to observe and assess the progress of coachees (people being coached) with respect to the way they approach and engage in conflict; it provides organizations with benchmarks for assessing the cost benefits; and, it also gives the workplace general information on the general nature of disputes and the numbers of people who use the service.

The starting point is that it is optimum to measure conflict coaching, whenever the process is to be instituted individually, or as part of a conflict coaching program or Integrated Conflict Management System. In this regard, the following considerations provide possible variables to be used for surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, interviews and other assessment methods, for measuring success, on an initial and on a periodic basis. These considerations of course, will vary according to the identified needs, interests and criteria of each organization and whichever stakeholders participate in the assessment.

Variables Organizations May Consider

Commonly, organizations’ primary goal regarding services being instituted, is to conduct a cost-benefit analysis, to determine whether there is a Return on Investment (ROI). Establishing what criteria to use to measure the ROI for each organization is the foundational question to be answered. Is it to see if as a consequence of the use of conflict coaching, there is higher productivity and/or morale? Is there less litigation? Is there increased retention and less attrition? Is there less absenteeism? Is there less stress/medical leave and so on? All of these variables will of course, provide ROI, provided any changes may be properly linked to the use of the process. In any case, finding out what coachees may have done if it were not for coaching, is a significant and related question, when measuring ROI.

Another way to measure success for organizations may be to assess whether there is an increase in the use of conflict coaching, mediation and other ADR processes. I am not the first person to suggest that increased use of options for addressing conflict in the workplace is a cost benefit, as compared to the high cost of litigation, medical leave and so on, that may result from poorly or non-managed conflict. Whatever the variables are to be used in this analysis, some measurement of ROI is needed, that provides a cost-benefit perspective.

Variables to Consider Regarding the Coachees

The bottom line when measuring the usefulness of a service is not only the fiscal one, of course. As important as that is to the organization, it is also necessary to consider other variables, such as whether coachees’ desired outcomes regarding their conflict interactions are reached. Examples of coachees’ objectives for instance, range from preparing for a difficult conversation, to controlling a tendency to become defensive, to shifting destructive responses to conflict, to learning constructive ways of providing feedback, to being more collaborative, to improving conflict management skills, to obtaining support during a difficult time, to being empowered to handle a situation on their own and so on. Such common examples have both subjective and qualitative indicia to be measured and reaching such goals has the potential for having a wide-reaching impact on the organization.

Determining coachees’ goals before coaching, their progress during coaching and the durability of their learning after coaching, are pivotal for determining and measuring success of the process. It is suggested that to effectively measure variables of this nature then, two of the first questions to ask coachees before beginning the process is: “How will you know if conflict coaching is successful for you?” and “How will your manager, reports, co-workers, etc. know?” When the process is over, questions that further assess success are to the effect of: “How was coaching successful for you?”, “How was it successful for your manager, reports, co-workers, etc?” and “How was it not successful?” Three to six months post-coaching (and even periodically, after that), the suggested questions are: “How do you continue to apply your learning from conflict coaching?”; “What learning has not been sustained?”; and “For what reason may that be the case?”

Variables to Consider for Other Stakeholders

It is also helpful to measure the process by directly surveying other stakeholders who are able to assess coachees’ progress. For instance, perspectives of the organization (HR or other person who refers the staff member to coaching) and those who are in positions to observe changes in the coachee, are possible stakeholders. Confidentiality of the content of coaching sessions is primary, but does not preclude cooperative discussions between a limited number of major stakeholders and the coachee, about measurement criteria, to be used. Being brought in early on to share their views with the coachee and coach about how they will measure success and then, post-coaching, to provide feedback about the stated variables, serve to provide both qualitative and quantitative measures. Observable factors include such things as the ability to observe positive shifts in the coachee’s interactions with other staff, increased productivity, improved attitude, less absenteeism and other such variables.

Summary

As conflict coaching evolves, measuring its usage is an important way to develop its credibility. It is firstly, necessary to identify the significant stakeholders besides the coachees and determine what constitutes success for them. Success may include variables such as the number of people using the process, levels of satisfaction from the coachees’ (and others’) perspective, how conflict coaching may have precluded costly and less adversarial action, the application and sustainability of each coachee’s learning, the impact on the work unit or specific members and so on. Consideration of the interests of a range of stakeholders and the fact that many times, progress and success will be expressed and experienced subjectively too, require both qualitative and quantitative measurement. In any case, measuring the impact of conflict coaching is integral to determining its breadth and depth and its legitimacy as a mechanism, that will contribute in many ways, to the ADR field.

Biography


Cinnie Noble is a lawyer, mediator and certified coach. She created the CINERGY model of conflict coaching in 1999 and coaches, consults and trains the CINERGY model in Canada, the U.S., Ireland, Australia and Europe.  Cinnie is also the author of Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY Model.



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