Myth of the “toxic” Manager

At a recent presentation, someone asked me about “toxic” managers. You can see my response in this video.

Here’s what I didn’t have time to say:  I don’t like the term “toxic manager” or “toxic employee.” My work is all about helping people resolve their differences respectfully. Coming into a conflict with a mindset that one of the parties is “toxic” is simply not helpful.

More importantly, calling someone “toxic” puts the emphasis on individuals when the problem is usually organizational structure or culture. People in an organization are “toxic” only when they are allowed to be this way – when their behaviour is ignored, tolerated or (I hate to say this – but it can be true) encouraged.

So let’s stop calling people names and try instead to understand the underlying factors that contribute to disrespectful conduct.

(I say more about this in an old blog post on bullying.)

Workplace Harassment v. Bullying

At a recent question-and-answer, someone asked me about the difference between workplace “harassment” and “bullying.”

“Harassment” is conduct that is bothersome or unwelcome. It can be one single, very bad incident or a number of smaller, less significant acts. Shouting at someone is harassment, as is name-calling, cracking jokes at their expense, and making sexually suggestive remarks.

“Bullying” is simply prolonged harassment.

What No One tells you about Workplace Investigations

There are some things about workplace investigations that no one seems to mention.

I talk about them in the video from a presentation I gave a few weeks ago.


Here is a quick  summary:

  1. When “workplace harassment” comes to mind our first thoughts might be of prominent men named in “me too” allegations. The reality is that few workplace harassers resemble Harvey Weinstein or R. Kelly. Granted, such characters are out there. But you’re more likely to come across the sales guy who throws temper tantrums, or the female manager who feels it is appropriate to comment on what other women are wearing.
  2. There is more bad management than workplace harassment. Yet this is cold comfort, as both will make good employees leave.
  3. Perhaps the biggest thing no one tell you: after an investigation, the folks involved will likely have to work together again. Employers need to have a plan in place to support them.

This presentation was a lot of fun, and I’ll be sharing more excerpts soon.

Want to learn more about workplace investigations? Check out another video about when to outsource an investigation. Read about my approach to investigations and how to repair relationships in the aftermath. You might also be interested in common pitfalls of investigations. Want to avoid harassment and investigations in the first place? Unfortunately,  training may not be the answer.

Signs of Workplace Conflict

Catching conflict early is a key part of resolving it effectively. All too often I get calls saying, “this came out of nowhere.” But when I dig a little deeper, I find that there were ample warning signs and indicators that managers and supervisors failed to notice. Don’t let that happen to your organization.

Here are a few warning signs of growing conflict.

• A high rate of absenteeism, stress leaves, sick leaves

• More people than usual asking to work from home. This might indicate people avoiding the workplace for emotional reasons.

• Negative gossip. There will be some workplace chatter in any organization. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But if it gets to be overwhelming you should be alerted that something is wrong.

• People working through backchannels. Perhaps they need information from a co-worker or another department. But instead of asking directly, they go through an intermediary. If people consistently avoid dealing with a particular individual or department, you should definitely investigate.

• Using outside suppliers where there are internal resources. Again, any actions that shows employees going through some kind of subterfuge in order to avoid others is a warning sign.

• Meetings where no one talks. Surface harmony may mask deeper conflicts or indicate that people are afraid to speak up. Whatever the reason, too much silence should sound as a big warning bell.

If you notice one or two of these, it probably isn’t a big deal. If you notice three or more, however, it is worth investigating.

About the images: 1) By Christina Morillo; 2) By Mary Whitney. Both courtesy Pexels.

What Conflict Is and How it Escalates

Managing conflict is a crucial skill set for leaders today. To do this effectively, you need some understand of what conflict is and how it escalates.

I understand conflict as disagreement or competition plus mutual hostility. When friends disagree – even about important matters – it doesn’t usually turn into conflict because they have a foundation of mutual affection. People who play on opposing sports teams may compete very fiercely, but it doesn’t become a conflict unless they dislike each other for some other reasons.

Where does “mutual hostility” come from? From what I have seen in workplaces, it often arises from a perception of disrespect or a sense of unfairness. For example, someone sees their colleague get promoted while they don’t, or it becomes apparent to everyone that one person is receiving special treatment from the boss. Whatever the source, a perception of unfairness is a huge driver of workplace conflict.

Any organization is going to include some people who get along with each other better than others, and every workplace is going to have ups and downs. Usually these day-to-day disagreements don’t amount to much. Then one day there is a more serious incident. It doesn’t really matter what it is, and I have seen a very wide range of small incidents that end up blown out of all proportion because of the way they are managed.

Typically after the incident someone – most often a supervisor – will step in to smooth things over. If this person has the right skills and is respected by everyone involved, then things will go back to where they were before – small ups and downs without genuine conflict.

Yet all too often the intervention fails.

Maybe the attempted mediator lacks the proper skills or is seen as biased. For whatever reason people involved in the conflict don’t feel heard or understood. The failed intervention leads to a dramatic increase in stress. If this continues, or if other “small” incidents are mismanaged, then communication breaks down, work no longer gets done, and the organization is weaker.

When conflict escalates and is allowed to go on without a resolution it can become distracting and costly to an organization. The longer conflict goes on, the graver the consequences. Most people don’t like drama at work. An organization may lose its best people, as good workers usually have other options.

Next time: Warning signs of workplace conflict

About the images: 1)Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash 2) Courtesy of







Why Training Might not be the Answer

Dolphin Corporate Sales Trainings

Every so often I get an inquiry about training that goes something like this:

Me: Can you tell me why you’re interested in conflict resolution training?
Potential Client: We have two divisions that need to work together, but whenever they have a meeting, it ends up in a screaming match. So we’d like to get some training to improve their communication.

If you have two groups in open, hostile conflict, putting them together in a room for a day of training will not help. In fact, it might even make things worse. What this client really needs is to understand what is driving the conflict between the groups. Until the client knows this, any “solution” just amounts to throwing money at the problem.

Or the conversation might go like this:

Me: I got your message that you’re interested in anti-harassment training. Can you tell me what’s going on in your workplace?
Potential Client: We’ve had a few complaints about one of our managers. So we want to have a training session so everyone knows what is appropriate.

First, if you’ve had complaints about someone’s behaviour, you need to do some kind of investigation. Depending on the circumstances, it may not be necessary to do a full, formal investigation, but you need to get a better idea of what is going on.

Second, if the problem really is centered on one person, individual coaching for him or her is a better use of resources than group training.

My main point in all of this is: Solve the right problem. If you have ongoing workplace conflict, address that. If you have one manager whose behaviour is inappropriate, devise a plan for him or her. Don’t send a whole group out for training.

And if you’re unfortunate enough to have a whole culture of disrespect among the people in your organization, then you need a long-term strategy to address that. Training will play a part in that strategy – but don’t mistake the training (a tactic) for the strategy.

About the image: Rahulrdx223 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

I am a Scrum Master

Scrum all blacks midddlesex.jpg

Just a quick note to let everyone know that I am now a Certified Scrum Master.

(For those of you who don’t know … “Scrum” is a process for managing software development. It is part of the Agile methodologies. If you want to learn more, a good place to start is the Agile Manifesto).

A “scrum master” is a facilitator who works with a small software development team (the scrum team) to help with both the team’s internal dynamics, and the interactions between the team and various other stakeholders.

You might be wondering why I took this step, beside my geeky interest in creative group processes. Scrum is now very widely used, and I wanted to understand it better so that I could better serve my clients in the IT sector. With my Scrum Master training I have a good idea of the kinds of conflicts that can arise within a scrum team, the stumbling blocks they can encounter in wider organizations, and strategies for resolving both.

(If you’re interested in becoming certified yourself, or in transitioning an organization to Agile methodology, I can heartily recommend the folks at Berteig.)

About the image: A rugby scrum by Unknown – The Complete Rugby Footballer by D.Gallaher & W.J.Stead – 1906, Public Domain, Link

How to Survive a Business Partnership with your Spouse

Strix nebulosa couple.jpgI know Steven Petroff of IQ Partners as one of the city’s top recruiters. I recently found out that Steve and his wife Sara were the team behind the Petroff Gallery until they sold it in 2012. How did they manage to sustain both a happy marriage and a profitable business partnership for over 19 years, all the while raising two sons?

I had to find out more so I asked Steven to tell me how he and his wife did it. Here is what I learned:

Steven and Sara were able to be an effective team because they had different skills and each played to their strengths. Steven looked after finance, operations, and HR, giving Sara the freedom to develop her creative vision. She handled everything related to art – developing relationships with artists, selecting pieces and designing displays.

Steven and Sara trusted each other and supported each other’s decisions. On paper they were 50/50 partners. In practice, Steve deferred to Sara’s judgment on questions of art and Sara let Steven take care of business operations. Sure – there were times when each disagreed with something the other had done. No two business partners, however close, are always going to agree about everything. And we all make decisions that we later think the better of. But Steve and Sara respected each other, and they didn’t let small disagreements undermine their working relationship.

Because of their mutual respect, Steve and Sara were able to  learn from one another. Steven gained a greater appreciation of art and design. Sara became a more savvy business person.

Steve thoroughly enjoyed the years he and Sara spent running the gallery. But there are disadvantages to being in a business partnership with your spouse. For one thing, it means that the entire household income is coming from a single source. That can be stressful if the business suffers a downturn.

It is also much harder to “leave stuff at the office.” Any tensions in the business – due to suppliers, customers, staff – would invade their time away from the business. Many business owners report that it is hard to get away from work. It is that much harder when you’re working with someone with whom you share a home and a family. Steven told me that it could be “overwhelming” at times. He also told me that he knows of some couples in business together who protect their private time by setting rules about when it is OK to talk about business. While he and Sara never did this, Steven said that he could see why it might be a good idea for some.

Finally, I asked Steven if he had any advice for other couples in business partnerships. He said: Think it through carefully. He and Sara had a great experience, but the intensity of a business partnership combined with a marriage and co-parenting isn’t for everyone.

(You can find more resources for business partnerships at Check out my previous posts: Can This Partnership be Saved? (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) and Breaking up a Business Partnership Doesn’t Have to be a Trial.)

About the image: Two Great Grey Owls. No machine-readable author provided. Magalhães assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, Link

Workplace Conflict: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

- fighting red kangaroos 2

Although I work in conflict resolution and prevention, I know that not all conflict is bad. In fact healthy, productive conflict is a sign of a flourishing workplace. Conflict can be an engine of creativity and an open, respectful exchange of opinion can bring people together, even if they ultimately disagree with one another.

But how do you know if your workplace is involved in a healthy conflict or a dysfunctional one? Here are some things to consider:

1. First, don’t be fooled by outward appearances: A healthy conflict isn’t necessarily one with calm tones and hushed voices and dysfunctional conflict doesn’t have to mean shouting. What matters more is the level of engagement. If everyone is engaged more-or-less equally, that is a sign that the issues are important to everyone and that people are confident that their opinion matters. If there is an imbalance – if some are passionate about the issues while others seem reluctant to share their views or to “tiptoe” around the problem – then you may have a problem. It could be that people don’t care that much. Even worse, it could be a sign that they don’t feel that their opinion, if they share it, will be valued.

2. The subject matter of a conflict reveals a lot. In a healthy conflict, people have differences of opinion over problems and issues, whether this means small day-to-day matters or an organization’s overarching vision. Dysfunctional conflict, on the other hand, is more likely to be focused on people, their personalities, and on (real or alleged) personal shortcomings.

3. A sense of proportion is often the first casualty of dysfunctional conflict. Comments and small incidents take on an outsize significance. In healthy conflict, people are better able to keep things in perspective.

4. I’m not sure whether this is a cause or an effect, but I’ve noticed that dysfunctional conflicts are more likely to be marked by information asymmetries. That is, parties have different access to information (or believe that they do). When there is an information void, gossip, rumours and confusion are likely to fill it, leaving everyone worse off. In a healthy conflict, there is sharing of information, even if full transparency isn’t possible.

5. In dysfunctional conflicts, phrases like “You always…” or “They never …” are commonly heard. Healthy conflicts focus on specific incidents.

6. A “post-mortem” conversation – in which people examine a failure or worse-than-expected results to see what went wrong – can quickly become a conflict. People tend to see their own possible errors and shortcomings differently than others see them. This is only natural. After all, we know our own intentions, how hard we worked and the difficulties we faced, and we don’t necessarily know the challenges that others have faced. In a healthy post-mortem conflict, the focus is on understanding: Where did things go wrong and what can I do differently in the future?

7. In fact, it is a general feature of healthy conflict that people take responsibility for their actions, past and present. In contrast, scapegoating is a prominent feature of dysfunctional conflict: People work hard to deflect responsibility from themselves and onto other individuals or groups.

It isn’t possible (or desirable) for life and relationships to be conflict-free. However we can always strive to make sure that we’re having healthy and productive conflicts.

About the image: By Dellex (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons