The employer’s chair in workplace conflict

Posted on Jun 2, 2023 in Communication,Conflict Resolution . 0 Comments.

Often, we focus on the two employees who might be in conflict, but there’s always a third-party in every workplace relationship. That’s the employer. 

This year I have started playing Cardio tennis. It has been great fun and great exercise! It reminds me of youthful summers. And yes, I still believe my tennis improved just by watching the Aussie Open!

Playing tennis got me thinking. You know when you are watching tennis, and you intently watch the two players on the court slug it out. Then, all of a sudden there’s this voice and then the umpire steps in. The umpire isn’t in the shot, but they are fully present.

You know at that moment that the umpire’s voice and opinion have more gravitas than anyone else’s, even though for us onlookers they are out of sight. It’s a bit like that when we look at the employment relationship. Often, we focus on the two employees who might be in conflict, but in every workplace relationship the employer is there, often just out of shot.

The employer is obviously a legitimate party to any workplace relationship. They have expectations and needs from this relationship.

At times of conflict the employer often seems to be just off screen, yet they have a voice that wants to tell employees: “I expect that you will make a genuine effort to work things out” andyou should live our values through appropriate behaviours. And it’s you who may need to reflect on and adjust your behaviour to truly make things betterandyou’re expected to collaborate over work tasks.

Sometimes the challenge when we are facilitating conversations is helping the employer to voice that view, and for the impacted employees to accept that voice as relevant and important.

Empty Chair technique for workplace conflict

Recently, when working with two Sales Executives in a multinational, Rafael and Novak (I’ve changed their real names), all they could see were the two of them in the room. They went back and forwards entrenched in telling the other they had miscalculated forecasting and budget. This was causing considerable personal stress, reputational damage and extra work for their respective teams.

To help change the course of their conflict I brought in a chair, literally I moved a chair from ‘off-screen’ into our circle. I asked them to pretend that the chair was filled, and in the seat was their employer.

Then I asked them what the employer would say to them right now. I said “imagine the Board Chair just joined this discussion, what would they say to shift your current thinking? What would they say to try and resolve the issue?

It was a transformative moment. Novak said, “they’d tell us to get over ourselves, we have sales to make!” Rafael said that the Board Chair would say “we aren’t being great role models for our teams and how disappointing that is to her, given all of the support, time and resource she’s provided us”.

All I had done was stop them from slugging it out from the baseline by bringing in a trusted and authoritative voice to help influence their thinking. What made this powerful and work was that I had allowed the space for Novak and Rafael to verbalise, in their own words, the needs and expectation of their employer. They had been able to gain a valuable new perspective.

I brought the employer from the background to the foreground. This was a slight adaptation on the empty chair coaching technique that helps people see the situation from a different perspective and gain insight into their feelings and behaviours. In the past I have also used it to help parties move towards truth-telling and self-reflection.  Amazon use it to keep customers front of mind.

It’s a pretty powerful idea to stop, think and recall, that in every workplace interaction there’s an invisible third-party. The employer is a party to those interactions and relationships, and there most definitely is a place for the employer on the court when we are working to resolve issues.

Need to prepare for or facilitate a difficult conversation? If we can help, please reach out.

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