This is part two of what ended up being a super long post that I broke into three pieces. I suggest you read the other first, found here. But if not, that’s cool. I’m just a person on the internet, not the police. You do you, rebellious boo-boo, you do you. Anywho, onto the next three bullet points!
3. Problems are going to happen. Don’t take it as a personal attack, don’t over-regulate people’s behavior, and set the right precedent.
This is about five closely related points rolled into one, so bear with me while I unpack it.
It is incredibly important that everyone understands that problems are going to happen in any organization. They are absolutely unavoidable, and in roller derby, where people are competitive and cycle in and out of the league, there will be more problems. There are an infinite number of reasons for conflicts that no amount of discussion will ever capture adequately. Sometimes it can be stupid personal culture things (like me not saying hello or goodbye because I came from an abusive ‘you should be not be seen or heard’ household). Sometimes problems come from a difference in priorities (is your priority as a league recreation or competition?). Or difficult personalities. Or unrealistic expectations (we all know that freshie who thinks she should skate on the A-Team). The point is that human psychology and human conflict are complicated and unavoidable.
Because this is an incredibly important point, I am going to reiterate it. Taking conflict as personal feedback and therefore as personal motivation to do better is great. Taking conflict as a personal attack and becoming defensive, frenetic and assuming negative intentions about the other person is bad. When I say not to take things personally, I am referring to the latter.
In Buddhist philosophy all frustration comes from the issue of false expectations. If your expectation for conflict is that it shouldn’t happen, you’re going to be continually frustrated and be defensive about it. Conflict is an inevitable function of a group of people working together towards a goal, and should be dealt with openly by leadership.
Conflict is something you as a leader should be prepared to turn into a positive, because every conflict is a chance to demonstrate your competence and value as a leader and set a positive precedent. You can be simultaneously frustrated by aspects of the conflict but excited by the prospect of going forward to resolve it, because they’re not mutually exclusive. Again, league culture is a top down process, so if you handle conflict in a way that makes everyone feel heard and respected, people will mimic you and handle future conflicts similarly, ultimately reducing your stress in the long term.
Over-regulating people’s behavior is a quick way to cause hurt feelings and to stress yourself out. It is unavoidable that people will be upset about things and talk amongst themselves. As a league there needs to be appropriate channels for communication. Skater representatives are an example, but they have to be independent of the board and can’t mete out punishment (because at that point they’re board representatives). If a member is using inappropriate channels of communication or complaining excessively, then a leader should figure out the root of the problem, listen to the member, and then define an appropriate way to express that. There have to be venues of expression outside of the official league channels, though. Members should be able to confide in close friends, as long as it stays confidential or they use appropriate channels to communicate a shared concern. Expecting people to not vent to each other is unrealistic, and reacting to it in anger will cause the problems to go deeper and multiply with resentment.
Sometimes it is unavoidable that feelings will be hurt. I get that. Before any conflict gets to that point, there should be multiple attempts at communicating standards on an individual basis by defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior. This gives you a chance to figure out what’s actually a problem and what’s just misunderstanding before an individual feels attacked. Furthermore, problems should never be taken personally. Even if someone is shit talking you in extreme ways, don’t take it in anger. Take it as a symptom of unmet expectations by the skater and un-communicated expectations by leadership. Communicate that the negative commentary is not acceptable behavior, that it doesn’t actually solve the problem, and that you want to figure out together how to solve the problem. When you take things as an attack and respond in anger, your judgment is clouded, you stop listening, things get heated, and the problems multiply. No matter how personal and upsetting it feels to you, how you handle it is about the league and a reflection of the league. To make my point I’m going to detail two different problems and two very different approaches with two very different results. They’re going to be long, so skip ahead to the TL;DR if you’re not up for it.
While coaching the Maniac Monsters Mainz we at one point had someone email our league asking if our coaching position was still open. It wasn’t, because I was the coach, but I wanted her as a trainer because more help is always appreciated. We had problems almost immediately with this person. Despite coming in on a trial basis, and having this explained to her, she introduced herself to the FM as the coach during her second practice with us. She made skaters feel awkward by staring without participating during warm ups, not coming prepared to lead practices as I had asked and gave incorrect, unsolicited advice to skaters. I reiterated my expectations in person and one-on-one multiple times, and sent clarification emails that were approved by the board each time she didn’t respond to my talks. Eventually I let her know that being a trainer was not a role we wanted for her at that time, but were open to another try the next year under the same trial terms and that she was welcome to stay in the league in the meantime. She didn’t take it well, and fired off an angry email to the board resigning from the league entirely.
The second example comes from my experience in the other league concerning me and my choice not to bout. Unfortunately the problem was myriad and complicated, because the league chose to bring up years of unaddressed frustrations that often were miscommunications. The main issue was my choice not to bout and my reasoning was anxiety. I chose not to detail my reasons because I consider it a personal issue. It took me a while to build up the skills and confidence to volunteer for a bout, but I eventually did for two bouts. League leadership took this as me refusing to play with certain people and had a meeting with me where they sought out and charged me with individual complaints from the previous three years. Things like me refusing to skate under certain trainers (which was a single instance of me forgetting my mouth-guard and going home without saying anything), refusing to skate with the A-team (never mind that I volunteered for an A-team bout first), saying negative things about league members (exclusively to a board member, because I had legitimate grievances but didn’t phrase them well), and so on. This is a simplification, because there was a lot of stupid shit and some legitimate shit I take accountability for.
TL;DR: The point of these two comparisons is this: One was taken as an unavoidable problem and was dealt with as it happened, thus setting positive precedents, the other was taken as a series of personal attacks and went unaddressed for a stupid long time, thus setting terrible precedents. The problem skater I dealt with in Mainz was an unavoidable situation, but we gave her every chance to change by talking to her and emailing her multiple times about our expectations and consequences of failing to meet those expectations. The consequences were never punitive, only whether or not she would be a trainer. At every step of the process I communicated with the board, and also with other trainers and the whole league as appropriate. Nothing I said was sudden or unexpected, because it was always building on what was previously established in crystal clear terms. As a result, the entire board and training committee and league was in agreement. There were no conflicts about things being handled poorly. If anything, we grew closer as a league and bolstered an inclusive atmosphere, because despite this person clashing with the training committee and skaters, we gave her a lot of chances and communicated clearly about those chances. Furthermore, being a part of the league was never taken away or threatened; it was only what that person’s role was within the league.
The other league did the opposite, where nothing was addressed until it built into a conflated personal attack against people, and the matter became punitive. It’s similar to a year-end review: if this is the first the employee is hearing of a negative review, you as a manger or leader are doing your job really fucking wrong (Collins, 2014). If expectations are continually unmet then that needs to be addressed as it happens, and often it will be revealed as miscommunications and not personal attacks. If it’s not addressed as it happens, then that’s your fault as a leader and the first course of action, however delayed, should not be punitive unless someone was in danger. If a punitive first step is what happens, as in the case of the other league, it sets an authoritarian culture and problems will never really go away. I decided to leave the league because I was so unhappy with the culture, and it’s highly unlikely that the league’s problems were solved with me leaving.
This difference in process is, I think, the largest reason why our skaters are happy with our league. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from skaters about the league, and it includes comments like this league being the first that feels like home, or how the high level of supportive comments encouraged skating development, or how we are able to talk about tough, contentious problems without it being a huge conflict. I pride myself on that feedback because being a leader is sometimes tough, but it means I and the other leaders are handling it well enough to create a positive culture and environment for our members.
4. People just want to be heard
I once heard a saying about how a smart person never misses a good opportunity to shut up. I say once, but really I mean every other episode of Dr. Phil I watch. Whatever, it’s some bomb ass sage wisdom, so I’m focusing on it here and you can suck my dick if you don’t like it. The television doctor’s advice is something that many leaders, including those with a lot of experience, don’t realize the importance of. A commonality among most poor leaders is an inability to listen and a proclivity to deflect and defend every criticism that comes up. When a leader is busy deflecting and defending, he or she is missing an opportunity to shut up and listen. In an academic or conflict resolution context this is called active listening. Instead of preparing a response while the other person is talking, you follow up their statements with questions in order to fully understand the points being made and to gather more details. You can restate their points to ensure you understand them (Chastain, 2013). It doesn’t matter how right or wrong someone is, because unresolved hurt feelings will only come back in the form of other, potentially worse conflict. In conflict resolution emotional engagement with someone is actually more important than rational reasoning. It predicts whether someone walks away with positive or negative feelings about their experience, and a negative experience is often a contributor to later conflict (Eilereman, 2008). The negative experience will often justify their anger about problems in the league, as well as other peoples’. That negative feeling spreads and causes a lot more problems later on.
Sometimes problems solve themselves with just a little active listening, and it’s leadership’s job to provide that and a cultural context that allows for it.
5. Be clear about expectations
It is really important for leagues to have an established code of conduct on which to fall back when issues come up. It is also important that leadership addresses conduct issues as they come up. Leaders should never hold anyone accountable to expectations that were never communicated, eg, ‘you should have known this because it was common sense.’ The only exception for punishing without precedent should be in cases where a member broke the law, such as assault, theft, drinking and driving, ect., because those expectations are communicated by social law and don’t need to be reiterated by the league.
For issues that are not clear violations of a code of conduct but are problematic, a meeting needs to be had in which the skater is asked about the reason for the behavior and informed of future behavior expectations, with a commitment from leadership to address the reasons for the issue as necessary. If the problematic behavior persists despite leadership upholding their commitments, then a formal warning can take place, with signed documentation. If the problematic behavior persists then, a suspension can be issued. If the problematic behavior still persists, the player can be expelled. Each time, however, the same active listening, expectation communication and commitment needs to happen.
Chastain, A. (Dec 2, 2013). Use active listening skills to effectively deal with conflict. Michigan State University. Retrieved from http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/use_active_listening_skills_to_effectively_deal_with_conflict
Eilerman, D. (January, 2008). The significance of emotional engagement in conflict management. Everything Mediation. Retrieved from https://www.mediate.com/articles/eilermanD10.cfm