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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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