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HR Handled Right

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Human resource professionals have a lot to be frustrated about. They have to fight the perception that HR should be at the beck and call of all employees, and juggle roles as diverse as coach and counselor. If that’s not enough, he or she must also be the organizational or interpersonal safety net when there are breakdowns. It’s enough to justify blowing off steam every once in a while.

The problem, of course, is that HR can’t afford to lose its cool, particularly in the heat of employee conflict. Much of human resources’ role in preventing employment lawsuits, for example, rides on their ability to remain calm when dealing with the most difficult or misguided employee. To help you keep your cool, you can use self-regulating strategies in the heat of interpersonal employee conflict to keep your calm and help boost HR’s credibility.

The attribution bias

A manager storms into your office demanding you immediately resolve a grievance about his pay schedule. What are your first thoughts? That he’s having a tough day? That he must really need his wages to feed his family? Or that he’s a demanding, inconsiderate, so-and-so? If you’re like most people, the odds are you’ll lean toward the latter.

All of us strive to understand the causes of events around us, particularly other people’s behavior. An accurate understanding of these causes helps people make appropriate responses. The problem is that most of us err toward attributing other people’s behavior to personality traits or abilities without considering the circumstances.

The more negatively the behavior affects us, the more we are likely to do so. Social psychologists call our human tendency to over-attribute other people’s behavior to internal forces – personality or disposition – and under-attribute it to circumstances the fundamental attribution error.

Here’s how it works. When we are trying to decide whether or not a person’s behavior is because of personality or situational events, we first consider whether the other person’s act was intentional. The act is considered intentional to the extent that the person knows that the behavior will produce the consequences observed and the person has the ability to achieve the consequences he or she intends. So, for example, if you believe your hot-headed manager knows that an angry outburst would upset you and could have behaved differently, you are likely to believe his rude behavior was intentional.

Ironically, we tend to attribute our own less-than-admirable behavior to our circumstances. So, if we are the one called on the carpet for complaining in a loud or offensive manner, we are much more likely to justify our behavior by the circumstances under which it occurred.

There are many psychological mechanisms by which thoughtless behavior toward another can be justified. One can do so by appealing to a higher moral value. Or one can rationalize the behavior – calling hurtful remarks ‘telling it like it is,’ for example. Or one can deny responsibility for the behavior or blame the victim. One can also isolate oneself emotionally or desensitize oneself to the human consequences of hurting others.

How we feel about another person’s behavior is largely a result of how we explain it to ourselves. Being aware of the fundamental attribution bias allows us the opportunity to look for situational causes for another person’s behavior or, at the very least, can inspire us to ask questions before we jump to conclusions.

Call a HALT and take a time out

A friend of mine, who has been involved with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for 26 years, often refers to the HALT strategy of interpersonal relations; never discuss a sensitive topic when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Since self-regulation and self-control take a certain amount of psychological and physiological energy, it comes as no surprise that when people are emotionally stressed, mentally drained, busy with other things, or just plain tired, they find it more difficult to overcome a powerful emotional impulse. This suggests the importance of avoiding potential conflict situations when one is busy, anxious, stressed, or physically tired.

People who have stressful jobs are able to reduce conflict and improve their family relationships by taking brief time-outs after returning home from work. Without a time-out, going straight from a stressful working day to family interactions often leads to argument or dispute. But spending part of an hour by themselves enables these stressed-out wage-earners to calm down prior to dealing with their families, and subsequent family interactions are therefore much more pleasant.

However, even when we’re rested or relaxed, interpersonal conflict is stressful. The situations in which people most need and want to self-regulate and control their impulses as they struggle to resolve conflict tend to be those in which it is most difficult to do so. These are the situations that elicit hot emotional reactions such as intense fear or anxiety.

To understand the processes that enable willpower in executing one’s intentions, two closely interacting systems have been proposed: a hot system and a cool one. The cool system is a ‘know’ system: it is contemplative, slow, rational, strategic, and emotionally neutral. In contrast, the hot system is emotional, simple, reflexive, fast. It is accentuated by stress, whether in the immediate situation or from chronic stress.

The essential ingredient for keeping calm under pressure is to strategically cool the hot system and its impulsive reaction tendencies and mobilize the cool system in pursuit of the long-term goal. For example, while people need to pay attention to their own feelings and to what the other person is saying during times of conflict, this immediate focus can lead to intense arousal and hot responses that are difficult to control. Get caught in the immediate situation without directing any thought or attention to themselves or their own behavior, their conduct can easily stray from their basic goals and intentions. By maintaining focus on these things but focusing on informative rather than arousing features, one may effectively transcend the aggravation of the intolerable present.

When your anger is in overdrive, time outs can be useful, but not if they are used to stew about what was said, to plot revenge fantasies toward the other person, or to replay every stinging comeback that you wish you had said in the heat of the moment. Neither should a time-out be used as a way to avoid the conflict. Before taking a time out, set a specific time to come back to the discussion and resolve the employee conflict.

  • Getting the most out of a time-out can take some practice. Here are four steps that can help you avoid losing your cool when your temper heats up:
  • Learn to recognize the physical signals that indicate you are annoyed or angry; Does your stomach get tight, do your teeth clinch, do you get flushed?
  • If you’re really angry, do a non-aggressive physical activity that gets the physiological response under control before problem solving or revisiting the event;
  • As you cool down physically, begin a cognitive cool down. Remind yourself of the reason you don’t want to lose control, such as wanting to get the problem solved or not wanting to feel guilty; Go back to your original perception of the conflict and look at alternative ways of seeing it.

If you have one person that particularly rings your bell or does the same annoying behavior over and over, plan for your next encounter. Find a way to connect your general goal – resolve the conflict or deal with the person constructively – with a specific implementation strategy – ‘when she complains about her manager, I’All suggest the three of us meet’ or ‘when he spouts off about his performance review, I’ll ask three questions before responding. This helps ensure a preferred response by tying a hot trigger event to the intended response rather than the usual one.

Professional: know and manage thy stress

Especially in times of rapid change – mergers, downsizings, or rapid growth, the HR manager becomes a company cheerleader – or stress confessor. He or she often helps people sustain morale in the face of an uncertain and vulnerable future. He or she may become the messenger, helping employees and supervisors interpret reorganization pronouncements from the management mountaintop.

Certainly it can be emotionally and professionally rewarding to rectify a significant personnel problem. Still, chronically providing service to angry customers can all too easily result in a case of brain strain. Here are four stress-busting strategies that can help ensure you have the emotional energy to deal with tough interpersonal situations:

1. Strike a balance between helper and manager: work hard to develop a capacity for ‘detached involvement’, that is, being sensitive to personnel issues and individual employee concerns while resisting the rescuer role. If you’re always taking work home – literally or emotionally – your personal/personnel boundary will start to erode.

2. Don’t be an island: reach out for expert support such as an Employee Assistance Program counselor, especially with seriously disgruntled or dysfunctional employees. For widespread departmental tension consider using a corporate change/critical intervention consultant.

3. Shift gears frequently: beware of becoming a solitary HR number-cruncher or an employee rescuer. Switch hats; don’t lose the human touch and make sure you have closed-door time to get your administrative work done.

4. Set boundaries: help others not to be so dependent on your indispensable knowledge. Training for employees and supervisors on HR-related procedures, website information, negotiating and self-initiated employee data gathering, for example, is vital in today’s time and task driven environment. Model the stress management mantra, ‘Give of yourself and give to yourself!’

The bottom line

Most people associate willpower with weight loss or smoking cessation. Keeping cool when temperatures rise, however, is a test of willpower that many HR professionals face on a daily basis. In fact, in the world of work, the ability to control your tongue when you feel like childishly sticking it out, may be the first leap to true leadership.

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