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Resources To Prevent & Deal With Workplace Conflict With Customers and Colleagues
Defusing Hostile and Volatile Situations For Educators - Book Chapter XIV-For Principals & Administrators 
 
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The following is reprinted from our book entitled Defusing
Hostile/Volatile Situations (Ed. Personnel) and is copyright
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Ch. XIV (Defusing Hostile/Volatile Situations (Ed. Personnel)
 

For Principals, Administrators and Managers 
 

  Introduction

In the previous chapters, we have outlined almost fifty tactics
to defuse hostility, but we haven't specifically addressed the
behaviour and roles that administrative personnel can play. Just
to clarify, this chapter will be of specific interest to:

. Principals & Vice-Principals 
. Department Heads
. Superintendents    
. School Trustees
. Supervisors of Support Staff

We are going to use the term, administrator, to include all of
these.

Since administrators deal with hostile parents and members of the
public, what we have already discussed also applies to them.  But
administrators also play other roles in the organization and have
additional responsibilities.  Specifically these additional
defusing responsibilities relate to the following:

1. Reinforcing the use of defusing strategies on the part of 
staff.
2. Ensuring the work environment is as safe as possible.
3. Communicating safety policy to staff
4. Communicating/explaining other important policies to staff.
5. Reversing or confirming staff decisions.
6. Creating a climate of respect for parents, children and staff.

Let's take a look at some specific tactics.
 

  Reinforcing Defusing Tactics

Administrators can influence the degree to which staff use
defusing strategies.  Keep in mind that administrators can take
on leadership roles in the organization.  Staff take their cues
regarding appropriate and inappropriate behaviour from the people
above them in the organization.
 

  Tactic 51: Model Appropriate Behaviour

The best way to encourage staff to use professional and effective
methods for dealing with hostile people is to model the behaviour
you want them to use.  If you treat staff, parents and students
the way you want your staff to treat them, staff will realize
that this is the "standard" of behaviour.  If, however, you treat
staff and employees in ways that increase hostility, staff will
pick up on your behaviour.  And, it is your behaviour that sets
the standard, not just your words. When I worked for government,
we can an expression:  "We can't treat our 'customers' better
than we treat each other."

So, managers have extra responsibilities.  Not only must they
behave professionally when dealing with parents, but they must
also treat employees equally well.  

There is one more area that is important.  On occasion,
administrators are called upon to intervene in conflicts that may
occur between staff.  We call this the mediation role. When you
"guide" employees to use dialogue and cooperative communication,
you are also helping to build skills and establish a "standard"
for internal conduct.  In mediation situations, those involved
will watch you to see how you do it.  If you apply defusing
tactics, staff will realize that this is the "norm" for the
organization.
 

  Tactic 52: Support Skill Building

Apart from modelling defusing tactics, administrators can also
create a climate where skill building can occur.  For example,
administrators can support staff in attending seminars on
defusing hostility and/or parent and community relations.  Or,
administrators can encourage staff to talk about difficult
parents/situations at staff meetings, so that staff can learn
from each other.  The latter can be particularly useful, and is a
practice adopted by some of my clients.

At regularly scheduled staff meetings, a short period of time
(eg. fifteen minutes) can be set aside to discuss a hostile
"case" that has occurred.  One person presents the case to the
rest of the group, and people can brainstorm around other
strategies that can be used.  Or, the case can be a "success
story", where a staff member shares what worked well.
 

m  Tactic 53: Debriefing With Staff

Administrators can play a teaching role by debriefing when
hostile situations occur.  For example, if a hostile parent is
referred to the principal, rather than simply forgetting about
the incident, it makes sense for the principal to sit down with
the staff member to discuss how he/she handled it, and to provide
information about how the administrator handled it.  This need
not be a long process or a formal, unpleasant one.  The best tone
to take is one that stresses learning and prevention.

If you are going to debrief staff, it is important that it become
an "organizational habit", so staff don't feel they are being
singled out.  To work towards creating a learning tone, be
prepared with questions to ask the employee, such as:

1. Describe the parent's behaviour.
2. How did you react?
3. What seemed effective/ineffective.
4. What would you do differently.
5. How do you feel now?

You can also describe the process you used with the hostile
person.  You can make a few suggestions for future situations,
but make sure you are specific, and refer to the staff member's
behaviour, not him/her as a person.  And only make one or two
suggestions so the individual doesn't feel overwhelmed.

Make sure that it is clear that you are working with the staff
member to avoid future unpleasant situations, that you are
playing a support role, rather than a "boss" role.

Finally, the debriefing process is an opportunity for you to help
relieve some of the stress the staff member may be feeling about
the situation.  For this reason, you should be listening more
than talking.
 

  Tactic 54: Recognize Appropriate Behaviour

Administrators don't always recognize or reward staff when they
have defused hostile situations effectively.  Staff need to know
you value what they do, and to feel that you are aware of the
difficulties they face.  It is very important to recognize
effective defusing behaviour.

Recognition can be expressed in individual meetings with staff as
appropriate, or in a group setting, where you can point out
specific incidents that were handled well.  For example:
"Before we end our meeting, I wanted to point out some really
good work by Joanne.  Last week, you may remember, a parent came
in and was yelling and screaming about [whatever].  Joanne was
able to calm the person down by keeping her cool and using some
empathy statements. I know it is very difficult to deal with
these situations, and I think we should congratulate Joanne for
being able to defuse a really difficult and stressful situation."

Another way to recognize effective behaviour is to send a note to
the individual, perhaps posting it where other staff can see it,
and even including a copy in the personnel record of the staff
member.  Wording can be similar to the quote above.

  Work Environment Safety

Managers have some responsibility to ensure that the environment
is as safe as possible.  Often this will involve looking at the
environment to make sure that it is arranged so that it promotes
safety for everyone. 
 

  Tactic 55: Conduct A Safety Audit

A safety audit is a process where you examine your environment
and policies to ensure that they support creating the safest work
environment possible.  Safety audits are commonly undertaken with
respect to a "home base" (eg. the school, board building), but
can also include an examination of how field workers (eg. if
staff do home visits) carry out their responsibilities.  For
example, one client determined that safety for field workers
could be enhanced by making cellular phones available to staff,
and creating a standardized calling process so that the "home
office" was aware of where the employee was, and who he/she was
dealing with.

You can undertake a safety audit yourself, but we suggest that
you make use of law enforcement agencies and the services they
provide.  Often your local law enforcement agency can make
suggestions about how to arrange your offices, and suggest other
things you can do to maximize the physical safety of all
concerned.  A good place to start is with the community relations
division of your local police force.

Remember that a safety audit includes two components -- an
evaluation of the physical environment, and an evaluation of
existing policies and procedures that may impact on safety.
 
 

  Tactic 56: Create Policy On Violence

One of the hardest parts of dealing with hostile people,
particularly those that are extreme in their behaviour, is
determining what one can and should do.  Some of my clients have
chosen to develop a written policy that explains to staff what
they are expected to do in particular situations.  This reduces
the ambiguity and stress experienced by staff. It is a step that
I recommend to ALL organizations that deal with hostile people.
While some schools are developing policies regarding students,
there is a difference between such a policy and one that would
apply to situations that might occur with parents of other
members of the public.

Policies vary, of course, but generally they include some or all
of the following:

. when staff can terminate service
. how staff are expected to communicate this
. when staff should request backup (security, police, etc)
. how staff should request backup
. how threats should be handled
. when management should be involved
. when it is appropriate to use "panic buttons"
. reporting forms (incident reports)

One of the best ways to create your own policy is to contact
other organizations that may have done this.  It is fairly easy
to adapt someone else's policy to your situation.  However you go
about it, your policy should be relatively short, not require
huge amounts of paperwork, and be unambiguous.  And, it should
reflect the experience of those "on the line".  Don't develop a
policy of this sort without extensive consultation with front
line staff.
 

m  Tactic 57:  Communicate Safety Policy

You would think it would be fairly clear that simply creating a
policy regarding violence in the workplace is not sufficient and
that each employee needs to understand it.  Communication is
obviously important.  My experience is that a good number of
organizations that develop excellent policies on the subject fall
short when it comes to communication.  Even in organizations that
have had such policies in place for several years, I find a good
number of people who don't know what the policy means, or have
found that when they follow the policy, they get hassled by
management.

One non-educational organization developed a policy, and
installed "panic buttons" at front counters.  The policy stated
that when an employee felt a potential for physical harm, they
were to hit their panic button, and this would summon additional
personnel or security.

Unfortunately, the manager of the installation made it clear that
staff were NOT to follow this policy unless the threat was
immediate and obvious.  He said something to the effect of "You'd
better have a damn good reason for using it." At the same time,
staff were encouraged NOT to file incident reports, or summon the
police when necessary, because these actions created "huge
paperwork hassles". 

Not surprisingly, staff were confused and angry about the
manager's clear violation of corporate policy.  In this case the
problem was that the manager had not understood that he was
expected to implement the policy as written, and that this would
be considered part of his job.  The problem was inadequate
communication to and from the manager.

This is an extreme case.  More often the policy is developed and
circulated in writing, to be forgotten the next week.  We suggest
that the policy be discussed at meetings when it is introduced. 
We also suggest that the policy be discussed in an ongoing way
during the first year.  Managers can revisit the policy during
staff meetings, requesting input, comments, and real-life
experiences about how it is working.  This makes the policy come
to life, and says to employees that management is taking its
safety obligations seriously.
 

  Tactic 58: Communicating/Explaining Other       Policies    To
Staff

An important aspect of defusing hostility is the ability to
explain WHY certain decisions have been made.  We have discussed
this in the chapter on problem-solving, but just to reiterate,
angry people need to know that your decisions are not made
arbitrarily, and that rules and regulations serve some purpose.
So people defusing hostile people need to be able to explain to
clients the reasons behind decisions, and be able to provide
information.

In order for staff to be able to explain things to clients, they
need to understand the reasoning behind policies and regulations.
Sadly, not all staff know why things are done a particular way. 
So it is important that the reasoning behind policies and
procedures be clear to staff so they can convey them
intelligently to parents or members of the public.

Nothing annoys people more than a staff member who can't explain
the reasoning of a decision, or the thinking behind a procedure.

We suggest that staff be periodically "re-oriented" about
policies and procedures, and the reasons for them.  And, of
course, when things are changed, it must be clear to staff, why
changes have been made.

Remember that a well-informed staff member who understands why
things are done will be better able to defuse frustrated clients.
 

  Tactic 59: Effective Reversing of Employee Decisions

There are times when an administrator will reverse a staff
member's decision.  Sometimes it will be because there has been
an error, but more often reversals are a result of a judgement
call on the part of the administrator.  Reversing a decision,
when the reversal benefits the parent, can be an effective way to
terminate a hostile situation.  However, you need to know that
reversals must be done effectively.

First, be aware that reversing a decision may appear like you are
rewarding undesirable client behaviour.  We don't want to grease
the squeaky wheel too often.  So, when reversing a decision, it
should be clear to all players, why you are doing so.

Second, be aware that it can be frustrating for staff to have
their decisions reversed.  A common problem is that
administrators don't take the time to explain why a decision has
been reversed, so employees feel their competence is being
questioned.  Make it clear to the employee why the decision has
been changed.
 

  Chapter Summary

We have discussed a number of tactics related to how
administrators can support staff in dealing with hostile clients. 
Don't underestimate the importance of the management role. 
Non-supportive managers who communicate inconsistently can
seriously affect the ability of staff to deal with difficult
people, while effective managers can be a valuable asset to
staff,  reducing the "fall-out" from mishandled hostile
situations.
 
 
 

 
 
 

 
 

 
 
  

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