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Negotiating among Workplace Dictators

Posted By Chris Sheesley, Thursday, November 30, 2017

By Chris Sheesley, MA


“You wouldn’t negotiate with Hitler, would you?” was Michelle’s response to my invitation to help her address some long brewing workplace disagreements with her supervisor, Kaylie. Michelle was equating her colleague-a woman with management responsibilities, a loving family and friends-with Adolf Hitler. I’ll give you a moment to marvel at Michelle’s talent for hyperbole.


Then I’ll invite you to reflect. Think about employees experiencing conflict within organizations you’re familiar with and how they tend to vilify each other. This demonizing arises naturally from the fact that people in conflict seldom treat each other well. The typical pattern of action and reaction often leads to a belief that each side is intending to harm the other. It’s not much of a leap to believe that the “harmer” is a thoroughly malicious human being.


An In-Accord resolution case adds some dimension to these tendencies. Following a costly and ultimately failed organizational change effort Dan, the CEO, and a senior manager named Kevin were left with deep rifts in their working relationship. Kevin was also married to an employee in a different department which compounded the negative dynamics because they inevitably riled each other up during off hour conversations. By the time they entered the resolution effort with me, they’d convinced themselves that the CEO was a “lying, incompetent phony” who set out to intentionally humiliate Kevin. For his part Dan believed that Kevin was actively sabotaging both his leadership and even the entire organization. As in many similar cases, both sides perceived the other not as they were, but though filtered images they’d created of each other.


As illustrated above, this narrow view of the other side is exacerbated by the way feuding employees seek affirmation for their opinions. Rather than talking to people who might disabuse them of their negative impressions (e.g. Kaylie’s close associates and friends or someone other than Kevin’s spouse) they grumble to people most likely to agree with them. As a result, their complaints become amplified in an echo chamber of sympathy and agreement. The echo they hear most is, “Wow she must really be awful to treat you that way.” The complainer’s blamelessness ascends while the image of the adversary devolves further in to someone really unsavory… perhaps even a little Joseph Stalin. As an organizational leader, here’s where you come in.


Let’s assume these employee conflicts are like 95% of the ones people in organizational life experience. There are different perspectives held by basically good, sensible people (no Pol Pots here). In cases like this your responsibility is to interrupt the negative echoes. Here are five measures you can use to restore perspective.


Understand vilification: A key reason people demonize the other side is to justify their own attitudes and actions. It’s permissible to be nasty if we believe our opponent is Benito Mussolini.


Don’t amplify the echo: Consciously stay above the fray by listening in an empathetic, but neutral, manner. Refuse to add your voice to the negative critique of the other side.


Defang it by normalizing it: Highlight the simple truth that people treat each other poorly when they’re in fierce conflict. It’s more a statement about the

nature of conflict than an indictment of the character of the other person.


Highlight the personal cost: Help each side see the corrosive effect of demonizing the other person. As a client recently shared with me, “Over the course of this fight I’ve become a person I never intended to be.” It’s been said that anger does more harm to the vessel in which it’s stored than the object on which it’s poured.


Advocate direct dialogue: Encourage discussion and negotiation between the opponents. There’s no better way to change the script from “he’s evil” to “he has a legitimate point of view” than through skillfully facilitated, face to face conversation. It was through a constructive dialogue and negotiation process like this that Dan and Kevin reconsidered their skewed perceptions of each other. Among their 12-point final agreement were commitments such as:


·         To discuss controversial topics (e.g. personnel issues, fundamental organizational changes) face-to-face.

·         To engage in conversation about controversial issues… until both are confident we understand the other’s perspective.

·         To debrief any negative exchanges within 24 hours.




Leaders like you can't add your weight to either side of a workplace conflict and expect your partisanship to foster resolution. It’s healthier and more productive to help people see each other, as well as their own role, more objectively.


So, the next time an employee compares a coworker to a despotic megalomaniac, you’ll know it’s time to encourage some perspective. 


About the author


Chris Sheesley, MA, puts derailed workplace relationships back on track. Senior leaders and HR professionals rely on his 26 years of full time experience to transform seemingly impossible internal disputes into cooperation and productivity. His track record of over 1,750 cases, places him among the most seasoned conflict management professionals on the West Coast. Contact: (503) 723-9982 or

Tags:  communication  conflict resolution  disputes  mediation 

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Tools to Use When Peace Comes to Shove

Posted By Chris Sheesley, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Tools to Use When Peace Comes to Shove

Chris Sheesley, In-Accord, Inc. 


The infamous meeting all those months ago teetered on the brink of actual violence. First there was the vigorous policy discussion, then the increasingly virulent disagreement that contributed to the misinterpretation of a raised clipboard and, finally, the blocking motion with an arm… or was that a shove? Regardless of what happened, there was the icy aftermath affecting both relationships and productivity.


While few workplace conflicts get physical, the question of how to find a way back to civility after a flare-up is always there. Here are four techniques I use in workplace resolution sessions to bring employees to an accord. You can try them sequentially until one succeeds, as I did in the case I’m referencing, or use them interchangeably.


1. Small insight, larger con-sequences: “What other explanations might there be for why he raised his clipboard?” Perspective questions such as these can help someone imagine alternatives to their current, preferred theory – that’s the small insight. The larger consequence is that once someone begins to imagine how a single misperception might have led him astray, he can begin to consider that perhaps he has made other erroneous assumptions. A little light… then full sunshine.


2. So many trees, so little forest: “To start with, you were wrong about the new purchasing policy.” “Was not.” “Was too.” We know arguments about minutiae can rapidly get mired in conflicting versions of each person’s truth. Ask a mob of witnesses after the highway pile-up what color the speeding car was and you’ll hear answers across the spectrum. When trying to fix workplace conflict, it’s often more productive to shift away from details and focus on broader themes. A more philosophical conversation such as a shared aspiration for a civil working relationship, or mutual embarrassment that it nearly came to blows, can stimulate great strides. Suddenly the forest pops into view among all those tree trunks.


3. Go for the heart: “You obviously don’t agree with his version of the facts, but what can you say about the impact this has had on him?” This strategy encourages a person to by-pass the details and connect with the human being behind the facts. If he’s expressed an unprecedented dread of coming to work, or having workplace stress affect his home life, then encourage an acknowledgement, and even sympathy, regarding this angle. I’ve seen the words “I’m sorry you’re suffering” change everything.


4. Take a leap: Sometimes when you meet an immovable object (like a stance someone’s taken on an issue) the wise action is to jump over it. So, when it’s evident that resolution efforts – such as numbers 1 to 3 above – have failed, you can shift attention to another point or perhaps the future of the relationship. When everything else is resolved, that original sticking point may not seem so insurmountable after all. As a last resort, agreeing to disagree (often shorthand for never really trying to agree in the first place) is an option. Problems don’t seem as gigantic when we’re flying over them. 


By the way, you might like to know that they never fully agreed on what happened during The Great Clipboard Shove. However, what’s more important is that through facilitated discussions they reached key understandings, tangible agreements and even empathy – which mattered much more to their working relationship and the organization’s ability to get things done. 


About the author: Chris Sheesley, MA, puts derailed workplace relationships back on track. Senior leaders and HR professionals rely on his 25 years of full time experience to transform seemingly impossible internal disputes into cooperation and productivity. His track record of over 1,750 cases, places him among the most seasoned conflict management professionals on the West Coast. Contact: (503) 723-9982 or


Tags:  conflict  dispute  Mediation  resolution 

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