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PT Notes

Leadership Skills for PHA Facilitators - Managing Conflict - Part 2

PT Notes is a series of topical technical notes on process safety provided periodically by Primatech for your benefit. Please feel free to provide feedback.

Approaches to managing conflict between PHA team members were discussed in the PT Note, Leadership Skills for PHA Facilitators - Managing Conflict.

This PT Note addresses the special conflict situations of coalitions and sabotage.

In coalitions, people on a PHA team may take sides in a conflict. Rather than focusing on the issue at hand, they focus instead on whether people are for or against their position. Facilitators must avoid favoring either side in such situations, regardless of their own views, to avoid creating the appearance of favoritism and bias as well as winners and losers. Moreover, if coalitions are allowed to form and prevail, they likely will become established and each issue that arises in a study will be fodder for conflict.

Facilitators should manage coalitions by looking for solutions that address the issue at hand rather than the positions that have been taken by the coalitions. For example, coalitions may disagree over whether a particular safeguard should be credited in a study. Perhaps one coalition is dominated by design thinking while another is dominated by operations thinking. The design coalition believes the safeguard should be credited because the designers included it. The operations coalition believes it should not be credited because of its failure history. Initial discussion of the issue by the team may be collaborative but once coalitions firm up, the discussion can become argumentative and unproductive as team members dig in their heels on the position taken by their coalition. Before this point is reached, the facilitator should intervene. In this example, the facilitator could suggest addressing validation of the safeguard outside the PHA study. In this solution, the responsibility for determining if the safeguard should be credited is transferred to others and the conflict between the coalitions is defused.

Sabotage on a PHA team is conscious or unconscious behavior that undermines the ability of the team to accomplish its purpose. It can occur in various ways. Usually, it involves an individual projecting their distress onto other team members, for example, as a reaction to critique of their ideas.

Sabotage cannot be allowed to occur and facilitators need to intervene to prevent it. The key to addressing sabotage is to find out why it is occurring by asking questions, possibly privately, to determine what is going on. Once the reason for the sabotage has been determined, the facilitator must decide how to address it.

For example, a team member may harshly criticize the suggestions of other team members, regardless of their merit. On a break, the facilitator could engage the team member and explore the basis for their criticism. The team member may state that their understanding of PHA is that all suggestions must be criticized. The facilitator could then address with the team member the issue of how and when criticism should be made. Perhaps a reminder briefing on the rules of the road and ground rules for studies would benefit the whole team.

In another example, a team member may attend PHA sessions but not make any meaningful contributions. Once a facilitator has realized that a team member is not participating, usually they will find the opportunity to pose an open-ended question to the team member that is within their area of expertise and that they could be expected to answer. Perhaps, the team member responds by replying that they think PHA is a waste of time and don’t see much point in participating. This situation can be addressed by PHA facilitators in various ways. For example, the facilitator could describe major issues that were found in previous studies they have facilitated or they could call on other team members with prior experience and commitment to PHA to offer their views on its value. Also, the facilitator could ask the team member to be patient and wait to see how PHA proves its value in the study.

Coalitions and sabotage are two special types of conflict situations that can arise in PHA studies with the potential to adversely impact study results. They must be managed by PHA facilitators.

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