Positive and Courageous Stewards
/ Author: Geoff Dueck Thiessen
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Positive and Courageous Stewards

Do you have a more positive or courageous conflict style? Union stewards need both

By Geoff Dueck Thiessen, Regional Director

A union steward is a pretty special person.

Working alongside employees, stewards are also trained by the union and authorized through the collective agreement to solve problems in the workplace and provide real-time advocacy and support when union members run into trouble.

When I recruit potential stewards, I often describe to them the likelihood that they will prefer either minimizing/reducing conflict (a positive approach), or provoking conflict (a courageous approach). I know that this is a simplification of something likely more complex, but I find it to be helpful in predicting what kind of coaching a steward will require.

For a steward to be effective, they will need to be somewhat good at both provoking some level of conflict through courageously initiating conversations, confronting bullying, and balancing power imbalances. They’ll also have to be good at positively solving conflict by building understanding of common interests and providing a calming presence when tensions rise. They do all this while also having to be good, productive employees themselves.

If it sounds tough, it is. And not just for stewards.

Most of us might be hard pressed to find role models from our own formative years who were both positive and courageous. If we saw courageous traits modelled more, we might find it easy to tell a restaurant server that the undercooked meal needs to go back, or to speak up when we hear someone making racist jokes and comments. If we saw positivity modelled more, we might prefer an indirect way to solve conflicts by keeping things civil, choosing our battles, and building relationships to lower tension.

The downside is that we can overly rely on our preference and neglect the other side.

To be effective, the courageous preference needs to slow down, take a look inside, read the room, see the truth in the other perspective, and remember to focus on relationship.

To be effective, the positive preference needs to check why they might be reluctant to confront and then practice doing it even when it’s uncomfortable.

I want to work with stewards who are open to pushing themselves outside their conflict comfort zones and practice the side that’s tougher for them. When we practice something difficult, we can actually become better at it than the person who naturally prefers it because we have to be more deliberate and careful in our approach.

Stewards in most CLAC workplaces get a lot of practice. They don’t have the luxury of avoiding situations because they are regularly drawn into situations with all kinds of people who themselves have varied conflict styles. With good training, practice, coaching, and an openness to keep learning, they become highly skilled at navigating conflict—and key facilitators in a more just and positive workplace culture.

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