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Medicine stories: session summaries shared with permission, highlighting the systemic origins of issues, and how family constellations can bring insight or resolution. All names have been changed.

Resolving conflict in the workplace

Keith is one of a team of 3 delivering online tuition within a Further Education college. Recently a team member with whom he had a great creative rapport left and was replaced. The new person – Robert – is missing deadlines for tasks and not attending meetings. Keith is aware that student satisfaction is falling and wonders how to enact leadership within a team of equals.

He has also 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 some insight through the constellation to help with strategy for this meeting.

I ask what his ideal outcome for the meeting is and he spontaneously says – “I want Robert gone!”

The Constellation

We are on the telephone. I intuitively lay the organisation out using pieces of paper for each person. Then I stand as a rep in each in persons place – literally “standing in their shoes” – to elicit further information about how things are. We have just 1 hour before the meeting.

I discover that Keith is very central in the online part of the college – i.e. he stands strongly holding the central leadership position. He confirms that he has been called “the lynch pin” – 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.

Keith has above him a layer of 3 managers – Martin, Andrew and Terry – who are all also joint founders of the college. They are facing out and away from this – the online department – and their energy is very much directed elsewhere. Keith has a prior relationship with the founders through previously 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 these troubles, and to the substantial physical part of the College (where students come to study in person).

Paradoxically though, the online course is also very 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. I begin looking for the systemic causes of the issues that Keith and Robert face.

Just like families, problems between “the parents” (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” before you can untangle whats going on further down.

Some systemic issues are immediately apparent. One of the founders – Martin, 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 face off in a similar direction.

Additionally someone else – Keith’s immediate line manager Mary – is giving Keith a lot of attention but it does not feel positive – in fact it feels like Mary is negatively fixated on Keith. She says “I feel small, and you seem big” which 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, which we also see in the constellation placements. Mary is clearly insecure about her place in things because Andrew appears closer to Keith than Mary – this is actually not helpful to Keith. So we bring in some sentences to establish Mary’s familial relationship to Andrew:

“He is my husband, I am his wife”. We let this settle then we have her say “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, he is very excited about what he is leaving to do and barely gives a glance back. We have a short amount of time so I leave him, though in retrospect a few sentences could be said about his place and letting it go, which could be:
  • Peter to Robert “I worked here well, and I leave here well. And I hand my role completely and totally to you, it is yours now”.
  • Robert to Peter “I receive this role from you, it is mine to take now fully and completely, if I so choose”

With the clock ticking we focus on insights and strategy for the imminent meeting. The main issue seems to be that Robert feels no sense of belonging at all – though I find that he *clearly really wants to belong*.

I turn my focus to the founder Martin – who also seems to have no place. I have him face the other founders and say “we made this college together”. With this sentence said, he then finds a place standing close to Keith, facing the two other founders.

At this point Keith (on the phone) begins to vocally express some frustration to me. He says – “I just want Robert out, I have had enough, he is risking my creation, I want him gone. He has no place here!!!” …

I move over and stand in the shoes of Robert to hear this – paradoxically it makes him turn around and come closer in. With each expression of frustration coming from Keith over the phone – he steps closer and closer towards the centre.

This is a surprise to Keith – he makes note of this outcome that he did not expect.

The constellation ends with Robert returned – and in fact all three founders have all moved close to Keith (one even putting his arm round him) as he expresses this frustration. Roberts return is a crucial piece of information and I hear about the meeting later that day:

Robert started to confide in me the reasons he’s been struggling with his role and we were able to come up with solutions. 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. Mary too, just took the problems I was facing out of my hands, and I used a few phrases about how valuable I find her input and how I appreciate her.

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. Allowing Mary’s proper place also – of being senior to and bigger than Keith – enabled her to step in and take charge as is her role and responsibility.

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 with the three founders listening closely to and very supportive of his leadership in the team. Mary also was giving support and Robert now seemed fully to belong.

Keith said they were 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 love affairs, that span over some 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 – that was within the power of Keith to enact.

However I was left feeling that the real issue lies with the founders and the complex dynamics between them – I would love Keith to give them my phone number!
Leadership - resolving conflict

Leadership – resolving conflict