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Resolving conflict in the Workplace

A workplace constellation

Medicine stories

Session summaries shared with permission (all names have been changed) illustrating the origins of problems in the workplace and how a constellation can bring resolution.

Presenting issue: resolving a conflict in the workplace

Keith is one of a team of 3 delivering online tuition within a Further Education college and a conflict is brewing in the team. Recently a team member (Peter) with whom he had a great creative rapport handed in his notice. His replacement (Robert) is missing deadlines for tasks and not attending meetings. Keith is aware that student satisfaction is falling and wonders how to enact good leadership within a team of equals.

He has taken the issue further up the command chain and a meeting between Keith, Robert and a line manager is due later that day. He hopes to find find insights through the constellation, that will help develop a strategy for the meeting. I ask what his ideal outcome for the meeting is, quickly and spontaneously he says “I want Robert gone!”

The Constellation: mapping conflict in the workplace

We are on the telephone. I intuitively lay out a map of the organisation, using pieces of paper for each person taking time to feel where they belong as I talk with Keith. I then stand in each persons place – standing in their shoes – to elicit further information about how things are for them in the organisation. The information arises through my body as feelings, movements, spontaneous hunches and insights. We have just 1 hour before the meeting so there is some pressure for a result!

I discover that Keith is central to proceedings in the online part of the college, in his shoes I feel strong and stand strong and in the middle. He confirms that he has been called “the lynch pin” and in other parts of the college he is often mistaken for a manager rather than “just a teacher”. Robert on the other hand is far from the centre and facing towards the door as if to leave, just as Keith had hoped!

Keith has above him a layer of 3 managers – Martin, Andrew and Terry – who are all also joint founders of the college. They are all facing out and away from the online department and their energy is very much directed elsewhere. Keith has a prior close relationship with the founders through being a student of theirs.

Keith tells me that the organisation is in financial trouble and the attention of the managers is very much directed away to this and the physical part of the College, where students come to study in person. The online course is important as it is a substantial revenue opportunity, but the managers are not looking there. Keith sees and is very committed to this potential, with the strong leadership skills needed to make it work.

The systemic causes of conflict in the workplace

I begin looking for the systemic causes of the issues that Keith and Robert face. Just like families, problems between the parents (i.e. managers) or grandparents (founders) will show up and play out as conflict between the siblings (the staff who produce or deliver a service). So you need to go and look what is happening with the parents in a workplace system, before you can untangle what is going on further down.

Some systemic issues are immediately apparent. One of the founders Martin, who is now semi retired, seems to have no place where he belongs. I can find no place to put his paper so leave it to one side over near Robert. This is contrary to a systemic principle that includes and gives rightful place, to everything that belongs in the system. This is echoed in words that Robert says too when I stand in his shoes – “I have no place and feel like I don’t belong anywhere, I am here but not here”. Martin and Robert actually both face off out of the constellation, in a similar direction.

Additionally, Keith’s immediate line manager Mary is giving Keith a lot of attention but it does not feel positive! it feels like Mary is negatively fixated on Keith and he confirms that she is ‘trouble’ for him [and I note he is quite dismissive of her]. In her shoes I find myself saying “I feel small, and you seem big” and this seems contrary to her senior position.

Mary is married to one of the founders Andrew; Keith was taught by Andrew prior to becoming a teacher himself and has a very good rapport with him. This is reflected in the constellation placements: Andrew stands closer to Keith than to Mary, standing in her shoes I find she is clearly insecure about her place.

Systemic sentences for resolving conflict in the workplace

This position Mary is in is not helpful to Keith, she is his line manager yet she feels weak and insecure. I speak out some sentences while standing in her shoes, to establish her familial relationship to Andrew:

He is my husband, I am his wife, I am your line manager and you are just a teacher.

Saying “just” is not to diminish Keith’s role, but simply to establish space for Mary to be an effective and supportive line manager to him. Peter was the member of staff who left. I stand in his shoes for a while too and find he is very excited about what he is leaving to do and barely gives a glance back. Again I say aloud some sentences:

I worked here well, and I leave here well. And I hand my role completely and totally to you, it is yours now.

[from Peter to Robert, and then from Robert to Peter]

I receive this role from you, it is mine to take now fully and completely, if I so choose

Keith is on the phone and he reports feeling “strangely calmed” by the sentences I am speaking. This is not unusual: finding just the right systemic sentence states underlying truths and brings order to the system of a workplace, through putting things in their right place in relation to one another. The system spoken of here are underlying dynamics that emerge through a constellation, though it is seen in the way that people behave.

With the clock ticking I turn my focus to insights that might directly support a strategy for the imminent meeting. The main issue seems to be that Robert feels no sense of belonging at all, though I do feel when I stand in his shoes, that he really does wants to belong! This turns out to be a cuicial bit of information for Keith, who had assumed that Roberts poor work ethic reflected ambivalence towards the post.

I turn my focus to the founder Martin, who also seems to have no place. Standing in each founders shoes in turn I have them all say to one another:

We made this college together

With these sentences said Martin then finds a place standing close to and facing the two other founders. At this point Keith (the real Keith on the phone!) begins to vocally express some frustration and exclaims:

I just want Robert out, I have had enough, he is risking my creation, I want him gone. He has no place here!!!

I wonder how much the dynamic between Keith and Robert may in fact reflect a conflict that he does not know about, between the founders of the college. His opening description of the organisation was a story of friends and fellow band members who became founders of this substantial organisation. In one hour we barely have time to unpack the complex history therein.

I move over and stand in the place of Robert, to hear what Keith is saying from his shoes. I find Keith’s words make Robert turn away from the door and come closer in. With each expression of frustration coming from Keith over the phone, Robert steps closer and closer towards the centre. I relay this information to Keith – it is a surprise and an outcome he did not expect!

The constellation ends here as our hour us up. The crucial final constellation placement informs Keith’s strategy in the meeting, which I hear about in an email later that day:

I expressed my frustration and Robert started to confide in me the reasons he’s been struggling with his role. I kept using phrases such as “I want us to be a tighter knit team” and he seemed to energise with a sense of belonging and we were able to come up with solutions together. Things felt different with Mary too: I used a few phrases about how valuable I find her input and how I appreciate her [a first for Keith in this relationship!] and she responded by taking the problems I was facing out of my hands.

So the key piece of information was that Robert actually wants to belong in the organisation. The constellation was able to inform a strategy of inclusion in the meeting and dissolved Keith’s desire for him to be gone. Additional to the presenting problem: allowing Mary’s proper place – that of being senior to Keith – enabled her to step in and take charge as is her responsibility as the manager of HR.

A few weeks later Keith contacted me again to say the constellation had played out in a shockingly accurate way, in a rare meeting between everyone named above. Keith stood at the centre (just as I had placed him in the constellation!) with the three founders listening closely and very supportive of his leadership. Mary was warm towards Keith while Robert now seemed fully engaged and to really belong. Keith said they were all even able to smile and laugh together which was a HUGE shift!

The dynamics of the wider team are complex interweaving friendships, creative partnerships and affairs that span decades. The organisation generally also has unclear lines of leadership. In one hour we were able to formulate a strategy that paved the way for the positive change – one that was within the power of Keith to enact.

However I was left feeling the real issue lies with the founders and the complex dynamics between them, I would love Keith to give them my phone number!

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