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Conflict Management Coaching at the Transportation Security Administration

By Cinnie Noble, Sam Slosberg and Scott Becker

In 2003, the Transportation Security Administration, (TSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, initiated the development of an Integrated Conflict Management System (ICMS), as part of an innovative Model Workplace Program. A Conflict Management Coaching Program (CMCP) emerged early on as one of the many unique service delivery components of this ICMS. This article discusses how this innovative program was designed, and will also address how the CMCP has emerged as an integral component of TSA’s ICMS.

Essence of the ICMS

TSA is responsible for the security of the nation’s transportation system, protecting the flow of people and commerce from Guam to Maine. It was created two months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and was the largest civilian undertaking in U.S. government history. Statutory deadlines required that TSA stand-up an organization to provide 100% passenger and checked baggage screening at the United States’ more than 425 commercial airports by the end of 2002. (Transportation Security Administration, The TSA Blog, Our History) In less than one year, TSA grew to nearly 55,000 employees, most of them working as Screening Officers at airports. This workforce is constantly in the public eye, performing repetitive tasks that require constant training, evaluation, and vigilance.

Conflict is inevitable, and TSA acknowledged that interpersonal workplace conflicts could undermine the effective pursuit of their Mission by interfering with the focus of their employees. TSA decided that it wasn’t enough to improve the environment and reduce the number of disputes going to litigation; they wanted to minimize the discord caused by interpersonal workplace conflict.

The development of the Model Workplace Program (MWP), a component of TSA’s Office of Human Capital, focused on what was needed to create a work environment that enables its employees to recognize and manage their interpersonal differences in proactive, respectful and collaborative ways. The goal was not to eliminate, avoid or suppress conflict; rather, it was to normalize differences and facilitate accessible ways for employees to effectively engage in conflict. To this end, the focus was, and remains, on developing staffs’ competence and confidence to raise and address their workplace conflicts respectfully and responsibly. The MWP began this process by developing an Integrated Conflict Management System (ICMS) throughout TSA. The Conflict Management Coaching Program was implemented as one of the voluntary components of the ICMS.

To understand where the CMCP is positioned within the ICMS and TSA, a starting point is to understand the objectives of the MWP, and TSA’s intention to create an inclusive environment that employs and embraces their diverse workforce. Inherent to these objectives was the goal of building a conflict competent organization characterized by accepting the inevitability of conflict. To further define the CMCP’s position in the ICMS, it is important to note that the ICMS is divided into three major components: Skills, Structure and Support, which are briefly described as follows:

  • Skills: Refers to basic communication, problem-solving and conflict management skills. Skill-building is aimed at the entire workforce. It was the MWP’s intention to teach everyone a four hour course in Conflict Management Essentials (CME), and to instill in them a sense of responsibility for managing their own interpersonal differences. Extra skills for leaders, like supervisors and managers, may include conflict management coaching, group facilitation and an eight hour class, Cooperative Problem-Solving 4 Managers (CPS4M).

  • Structure: Refers to a combination of practices and processes that enable the workforce to raise issues. On one end of the spectrum, there are rights-based processes, and on the other end, there are places and ways that issues can be raised and resolved employing interest-based solutions. Every airport involved in the ICMS is required to have an Employee Council as well as additional confidential and easily accessible options for staff to raise issues. There have been numerous innovative programs developed at many airports. Many sites have elected to include the Conflict Management Coaching Program, which is optional.

  • Support: Refers to organizational support, particularly from Senior Leadership within each airport, and includes strengthening their role in modeling and mentoring conflict management skills. Other related initiatives focus on the alignment and integration of these components within the ICMS and the TSA workforce.

Integral to the growth of the ICMS, and the establishment of a place for Conflict Management Coaching within it, was the development of the ICMS Maturity Model. This provided a five-level developmental model, with a progressive set of outcomes and activities defined by Standards, for the implementation of an ICMS. This Model serves as a road map for ICMS Coordinators, airport staff members that are responsible for the implementation of the ICMS at each airport, to help them assess their progress towards expected outcomes. Before an airport is ready for a CMCP there are a number of steps to complete.

Design of the Conflict Management Coaching Program

TSA chose a model of Conflict Management Coaching that combines coaching and conflict management principles and is based on the concept of self-determination. That is, TSA CM Coaches do not provide advice to the individuals they coach. This is a cornerstone of the profession of coaching, according to the International Coach Federation. Trained Coaches adhere to additional Ethical Standards of Conduct which are also based on those of the International Coach Federation.

There was no known Conflict Management Coaching Program within the U.S. federal government when TSA decided to develop this concept. From the beginning, the plan for the CMCP was to build internal capacity to maintain the Program once it was firmly established. TSA staff members from across the country would be trained to provide CM Coaching. The plan was to also train a cadre of Coaches to conduct the training workshops, monitor the Coaches’ progress, evaluate the usage of the service, promote the Program at their individual airports and provide assistance for other airports. TSA achieved this goal under the auspices of a coordinator who oversees the CMCP and measures its progress.

To improve the likelihood of success at each airport, the MWP decided that it was necessary for an airport’s ICMS to have reached a certain level of maturity prior to their development of a CMCP. That level is ascertained by employing the ICMS Maturity Model, to determine that they have met certain Standards. The Standard measures include, among other criteria, the percentage of the workforce that received Conflict Management Essentials, and the determination that the site’s ICMS infrastructure is sufficiently equipped to administer and deliver a resource intensive service, such as Conflict Management Coaching.

Role of Conflict Management Coaches

The role of Conflict Management Coaches is two-fold. The initial step in the Conflict Management Coaching process requires Conflict Management Coaches to inform a person seeking assistance or the “Coachee” of all the program options that are available at TSA for raising workplace concerns. The Coach thus ensures that the prospective Coachee is in the right place to address their concerns. For example, Conflict Management Coaches do not handle allegations of unlawful discrimination or harassment. These allegations are handled by the Office of Civil Rights and Liberties (OCRL), and must be made on a timely basis. Conflict Management Coaches are also not part of the grievance process. The grievance process at TSA requires a specific and timely response that is up to the individual to pursue. Being coached does not serve as notice to TSA of an intention to file a grievance or an OCRL complaint. In both of the above instances the Coach will notify the potential Coachee about the reporting and timing requirements. Many employees have personal situations that require expert knowledge beyond the capabilities of the Conflict Management Coach, and the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is able to provide confidential referrals for free counseling and other resources.

Before prospective Coachees may proceed to Conflict Management Coaching they sign a TSA Options Acknowledgement Form confirming their understanding of the options and resources available to them at TSA to resolve their issue. If a Coachee decides that they wish to be coached, they sign a CM Coaching Agreement which outlines the roles and responsibilities of the Coach and Coachee and the terms of Confidentiality. TSA has defined several specific Zero Tolerance Issues that, according to the Employee Code of Conduct Management Directive, must be reported by all employees, and are, therefore, not appropriate for Conflict Management Coaching. Zero Tolerance Issues includes allegations and admissions relating to security breaches, theft, drug and workplace alcohol use. If any of these issues are broached a session is immediately terminated, and there is no protection for the prospective Coachee under the CMCP Confidentiality provisions. Once signed, the above forms are forwarded to the CMCP Manager at TSA HQ for statistical aggregation and storage.

On completion of the initial paperwork, Conflict Management Coaches may begin to provide coaching, for one hour, in up to three sessions. These Coaches do not intervene as an advocate or spokesperson on behalf of a Coachee or TSA. Coaches do not replace the role of line management. Conflict Management Coaches help their colleagues to be better prepared to manage their interpersonal disputes, to develop plans of action to resolve workplace challenges, and to enhance their overall conflict management skills. The CMCP is also designing plans to assist Supervisors and Managers to have difficult or challenging conversations around subordinate performance reviews and disciplinary processes.

Selection Process

Coach selection was intended to be a Fair, Inclusive, and Transparent (FIT) process, but this was not always the case. Consequently, Coaches often took a long time to become TSA-Qualified and able to coach, and many dropped from the program. Over time the MWP found the need to develop a more rigorous process for selecting Conflict Management Coaches. This process improved the quality of staff members who were selected to become Conflict Management Coaches at airports, and has dramatically improved the retention rate of Coaches.

Several years ago the MWP initiated a two day Conflict Management Coaching Overview Workshop for ICMS Coordinators, which is now a prerequisite before an airport may be selected to start a CMCP and send employees for training. In this Workshop, ICMS Coordinators learn the details and requirements of the Conflict Management Coaching Program and they are coached by TSA-Qualified Coaches. This enables them to more fully understand the coaching process. It also helps them to better understand the characteristics and skills of an effective Conflict Management Coach, and discern them in candidates for training.

There is a lengthy application and interview process at the airport for each coaching applicant to be considered for training. Each airport selects their top candidates for consideration. The application process culminates in telephone interviews, conducted by the MWP CMCP Coordinator for those top candidates from each airport. Successful applicants are eligible to attend a Beginning Conflict Management Coaching Training Workshop.

Conflict Management Coaches serve in their roles as a collateral duty. This means that time availability and other related considerations, of necessity, have to be taken into account. Due to the time commitment required to obtain and maintain qualification, the Federal Security Director and direct report Supervisors and Managers for each candidate are required to annually provide their consent for that person to Coach. The average Conflict Management Coach receives permission to spend 3-4 hours per week training and coaching.

Training and Development of Conflict Management Coaches

Most candidates for CM Coach training have neither coaching nor Conflict Management backgrounds. This was taken into consideration in the design of TSA’s comprehensive program of experiential training and on-going skills development. The Beginning Conflict Management Coaching Training Workshop is a four and one half day training program that includes extensive coaching practice. After graduation, the Coaches-in-Training participate in ongoing practices with each other and a member of the Coach Support Team. Each airport has a CST member regionally assigned to them. Coaches-in-Training are also required to participate in monthly hour-long developmental calls.

Conflict Management Coaches are considered “in-training” until they complete the requirements to become TSA-Qualified Co-Coaches or Solo Coaches. They are required to become at least Co-Coaching Qualified within six months from the end of their Beginning Conflict Management Coaching Training Workshop. Typically, within the six month period, Coaches-in-Training also attend a two day Conflict Management Coaching Practice Intensive that may culminate in the assessment of their skills.

When they feel that they are ready, Coaches-in-Training undergo an assessment of their skills according to competencies developed by the MWP CMCP Consultant. These competencies are targeted to the specifics of the coaching model and basic coaching principles and skills. They are based upon the competencies defined by the International Coach Federation. Many Coaches-in-Training reach their Co-Coaching or Solo Coaching Qualifications before the end of the required six month period.

Coach Support Team

The MWP developed the concept of a Coach Support Team (CST), made up of exceptional TSA Solo-Qualified Coaches, to support the CMCP and build internal capacity. The CST provides assistance to the MWP CMCP Coordinator in a number of critical ways. CST members practice with Coaches-in-Training and mentor them to develop their coaching skills. The CST members conduct the competency assessments and provide coach/mentoring and/or training and facilitation at the Basic Conflict Management Coaching Workshops and Practice Intensives. CST members also facilitate the monthly developmental calls and share promotional best practices with the Coaches and airports to which they are assigned.

The CST meets, annually in person and monthly via conference call, for further skills development and to strategize on ways to further grow and support the program. The most recent CST initiative has been the development of a CMCP Manual that, among other things, provides airports with an extensive, structured guideline for developing, promoting, and sustaining their Conflict Management Coaching Programs.

Evaluation Methodologies

The progress and success of the CMCP has been measured both qualitatively and quantitatively. The Conflict Management Coach provides Coachees with an evaluation form and a stamped envelope at the end of the coaching session. The form is a qualitative assessment of both the process and the Coach. There has been an excellent response rate for the evaluations, and the results regarding both the Coach and the process have been overwhelmingly positive. During the life of the Program, the overall ratings for both the process and the Coaches have averaged 4.8 out of a possible 5.0 (1.0 being “Poor” and 5.0 being “Outstanding”). In a fairly recent modification to the Program, Conflict Management Coaches conduct a brief follow-up three to six weeks after coaching has been completed to check on the outcomes and the durability of the results. The results from the follow up are consistently positive, and demonstrate that coaching provides longer-term help to the Coachee. Out of a total of 192 outcome assessments returned to the program to date, the majority of users (58%) report experiencing increased awareness and insights on their issue; (44%) increased conflict management skills; and, (30%) a solid grounding in developing a plan of action to resolve their conflicts independently . (The total percentage is over 100% because respondents are able to select more than one outcome. The responses reported in this article, represent those selected with the highest frequency.)

The Conflict Management Coaching Program tracks the number of people who participate in the CMCP, and provides a statistical report to the included airports on a semi-annual basis. There has been a steady increase in the number of people choosing Conflict Management Coaching as a means of resolving workplace conflict. In 2007, 102 employees participated in CMC and in 2008 the number increased to 119. Thus far in 2009, 169 employees have participated in CMC. Since 2007, the program has experienced a 66% increase in the numbers of individuals seeking this service. The increase seems to reflect the increasing confidence in the Program and the Coaches, and is a measurement of the ongoing success of the CMCP. This confidence is also reflected in the fact that the list of airports that have expressed an interest in CMCP is lengthy and growing.

Learning Points

Creating an unprecedented service process such as the Conflict Management Coaching Program is not without its challenges, and TSA continues to learn from these. In a series of Site Profile Visits in 2007 by the CMCP Consultant, the CMCP and MWP learned that the most successful programs had at least, the following characteristics:

  • A united and strong team of Coaches who support one another in their development;
  • Strong support from the Federal Security Director and his/her staff;
  • Supervisors and Managers who understand the CMCP and appropriately refer staff members; and
  • Promotion of the CMCP is done on a regular basis, employing a variety of media.


There is a tremendous amount of anecdotal and statistical information available about the Conflict Management Coaching Program. The numbers of employees that choose Conflict Management Coaching as an ICMS Structure option to resolve a workplace conflict has grown exponentially. It appears that the number of cases coached will come close to doubling this Fiscal Year over last, while the approval rating for Coaches and satisfaction with the process remains extremely high, 4.8 out of 5.0. Anecdotally, numerous Coachees have reported they would have left TSA, due to the effect of workplace disputes, had it not been for benefits received in Conflict Management Coaching. This is of great significance from a cost-benefit point of view. Similarly, it is a testimony to the Conflict Management Coaching Program and its Coaches to hear that many Coachees report significant qualitative changes in their work relationships and their ability to manage conflict.

There is also a benefit to Coaches. Many Conflict Management Coaches have reported that becoming a Coach has positively changed their professional lives. A significant number have advanced to supervisory and managerial positions, and they attribute much of that progress to their experience and training as Conflict Management Coaches. This is not just a personal benefit, but a benefit to TSA, as a whole. The fact that a significant number of people with extensive conflict management training and experience are moving to higher positions in the organization is important to TSA’s conflict competence on a daily basis that extends well beyond just the Conflict Management Coaching sessions. This redistribution of talent contributes to a snowballing effect of organizational conflict competence. As a tribute to the Coaches, Consultant, and Program management, Conflict Management Coaches trained across the country are united in a community of practice. They have established a collaborative practice, helping each other to learn and promote this service to the workforce.

The Program continues to grow and evolve and learn what it takes to reach and sustain these significant outcomes. It also continues to polish and refine its structural processes in an ongoing effort to ensure that Conflict Management Coaching remains an integral part of TSA’s Model Workplace, and contributes to the growth of a conflict competent organization.


Cinnie Noble

Cinnie Noble is a certified coach (PCC) and mediator and a former lawyer specializing in conflict management coaching. She is the author of two coaching books: Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY™ Model and Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You. MORE >


Sam Slosberg

Sam Slosberg has worked in the field of ADR since 2000 and is currently a Conflict Management Specialist with the Transportation Security Administration’s Office of Collaborative Strategies (OCS) based in Arlington, Virginia.  One of his primary areas of responsibility includes TSA’s Conflict Management Coaching Program. MORE >


Scott Becker

Scott Becker has been an Officer at the Transportation Security Administration for nearly seven years and is currently a Manager at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.  Scott has been a Conflict Management Coach at TSA since March, 2005 and is a member of the Coaches Support Team. MORE >

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