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Recognizing and working with different conflict resolution styles, and serving as a sole human resources professional, were among the topics covered at the Massachusetts Municipal Personnel Association’s second annual Fall Conference, held in Lenox on Sept. 27 and 28.
In the interactive session “Exploring Intersections of Conflict and Culture,” MMPA members learned from panelists as well as each other about four styles of conflict resolution and how a person’s background and culture informs how he or she approaches conflict.
Attendees answered self-assessment questions, compared answers with one another in small group discussions, and then separated into groups to discuss the strengths, challenges and strategies of their self-identified approach to conflict resolution: discussion, engagement, accommodation, or dynamic.
Panelist Margaret Arsenault, director for workplace learning and development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, pointed out how these styles arise from beliefs and values that can come from someone’s family, ethnic background or the region where they grew up.
“I grew up with my culture here in New England, in Worcester, an Irish Catholic family. [The] culture I grew up in was my father yelled, we all went to our rooms, and we never spoke about it again – so I bring that to the workplace,” Arsenault said to laughter.
But when Arsenault worked with an Israeli woman who had a different, expressive and direct style of conflict resolution, she thought the woman disliked her for a few years until they sat down, talked and understood where each person learned their norms and styles.
“Common sense isn’t common,” she said. “It’s common to your context and your culture.”
Panelist Mary Arcadi, a senior associate at the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston, noted that human resources professionals face the challenge of not only having to be aware of their own conflict style, but having to answer for their town manager or administrator’s style as well, while working with the styles of employees.
Panelist Melissa Scheid Frantz, an employee and organizational development specialist at UMass Amherst, said that working with people who have different conflict resolution styles requires HR professionals to increase their “cultural competency.” This means having an awareness of different conflict resolution styles and not reflexively judging an approach because it differs from your own.
When you’re aware of your thought process, she said, you can catch your own assumptions about different styles, and, rather than judging them, work with them to reach resolutions.
“There’s no one way to say, ‘This is how different cultural styles and groups should get together and get along,’” she said.
Flying solo as HR director
In another conference session, Buckland Town Administrator Andrea Llamas and Ashburnham Town Administrator Heather Budrewicz discussed their experiences also being the sole human resources professional in town.
In order to keep pace, Llamas said, solo HR professionals may need to take what other communities have done and adapt it to their town’s needs.
“It’s all beg, borrow and steal,” she said.
Budrewicz said that she and the chair of her Personnel Board look to MMPA trainings and the MMPA listserv for guidance, since they usually don’t have enough time to write their own policy and then disseminate the information to each department head and train them.
Llamas said many department heads only oversee one to three employees and have never been trained in human resources. She said she stresses the importance of consistency, progressive steps for discipline, and the need to “document, document, document.”
Budrewicz said collective bargaining agreements can be helpful because they detail, “to the letter,” the steps that must be taken when dealing with a human resources issue.
For someone in a small office, Llamas recommends setting aside one month, with a firm deadline, to finish updating all policies and making sure they are included in the town’s book. For procedures she may not implement frequently, like the Family and Medical Leave Act, she includes “cheat sheets” in her folders so that she does not have to rely on memory when they come up again.