Collaborating doesn’t always work for me…

The other day I was sitting in my dentist’s chair with a sore mouth. I have been back a few times since Christmas. Chasing pain in your mouth seems to be an inexact science. Have you had the cold test? If you have teeth like mine you face it with fear. Perhaps you should see a specialist, I heard. They can test you with dry ice, at -60 degrees! I don’t need any more encouragement to avoid that option.


I have a collaborative dentist. It doesn’t always work for me. 

I have a collaborative dentist. You would think, given my vocation, this would please me. But as I sit in the chair with a sore mouth and hear that there is not a definitive solution, that I will not be told what to do, that I have a choice to demand a root canal, ignore it, see a specialist (or, presumably, yank it?) I just think YOU tell ME! YOU are the EXPERT.

So I get it when I look at my client and their eyes glaze over when I say – this is a collaborative process. You are part of the solution. I am here to help you define a solution that will work for YOU. It sounds pat, and frankly, a little too mystical.

I just need you to fix it. Damn it.

Collaboration is an inexact science. Research proves again and again that organizations which collaborate effectively are more profitable, have more engaged employees, are more efficient. But we have all experienced the frustration that ensues from apparently endless committee work and questions which never seem to lead to concrete solutions.
I think we get frustrated because we confuse cooperation with collaboration. We use the terms interchangeably, but I can be cooperative without being truly collaborative. If I cooperate with my dentist, I will not challenge him. I will work with him. I will make my decisions. I will listen to his advice, but I don’t bring any more knowledge or expertise to the table to help inform our interactions beyond my own pain experience. True collaboration requires a much bigger investment. I need to challenge his process, advocate for my own health, research tooth decay and consult with other dentists, returning at my next appointment with my own expertise.

Do we all need to be experts to collaborate? Perhaps not. But true collaboration is a resource intensive activity that requires serious questioning and exhaustive challenge and openness. To truly be collaborative with my dentist, I need to be confident in the belief of my own expertise around my oral health, and be prepared to challenge and advocate in his process as well as his method.

The impacts of workplace bullying run deep and wide

We had a great conversation last week at our Workplace Fairness Lunch facilitated by Wendy Giuffre and Marilynn Balfour of Wendy Ellen Inc. We had many different participant perspectives on the subject or workplace bullying coming from the organizational viewpoint, the HR viewpoint, and an Ombuds veiwpoint.   Experience as the witness and the target also provided valuable insight.


Workplace bullying impacts the entire organization.

In Canada, harassment is very well defined as a violation of human rights, protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Workplace bullying is less clearly defined, and is addressed under occupational health and safety. In 2009, the Ontario government introduced Bill 168, an amendment to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which places clear obligations on employers to keep workplaces free of bullying.  The Government of Alberta provides resources and services to address workplace bullying though has stopped short of enshrining employer obligations in legislation.

Bullying is psychological harassment affecting an individual’s dignity, psychological or physical well-being.  The test for workplace bullying usually include 2 measures: if the acts are repeated over a period of time, and if the acts are targeted. Acts of bullying can include spreading rumours, intimidation, social isolation, offensive jokes, belittling or inappropriately changing of work rules or tasks.  Some of the acts are obvious, and some are more covert. 1 in 6 people have reported being bullied at work and many of the perpetrators, up to 80%, are bosses with good connections in the halls of power. Targets themselves are shown in research to be confident and intelligent individuals with a strong ethic, but who also are vulnerable.

There are certainly psychological as well as physical impacts to those being bullied. Pat Ferris, a Calgary psychologist who has worked extensively with workplace bullying targets, observes that targets use language similar to those who have experienced domestic abuse to describe the impact. Impact can include shock, anger, panic and anxiety, sleeplessness as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and loss of appetite. One participant at our recent lunch asked a great question about this – What are the psychological and physiological impacts for the bully? We have many assumptions about the intents, actions and motivations of a bully. It is difficult to be sympathetic.

Many questions surfaced from our luncheon participants: How can parties build self-awareness and help bullies understand the impact on others and themselves? How do you help a leader understand the negative impact of their behaviour and motivate them to change their behaviour? Coaching has been used to build awareness. One recommended strategy is to ask questions of the leader around their impacted sphere of influence. Research demonstrates that a great stressor for bullies is a perceived lack of control and lack of self-confidence.

There is a high financial cost for an organization – in turnover, productivity and absenteeism. (You can explore this further with the cost-of-conflict tool on our website.) Even faced with the numbers from the calculator, organizations may be skeptical about the high financial impact. At the organizational level there is often a gap in the culture as perceived by management and by employees. With best intentions, an organization may set out to establish values of collaboration and transparency. However, if that same organization has a structure strongly rooted in hierarchies it may create a disconnect between what employees are experiencing and what the organization is hoping to create. This can become a stressor for employees. The contradictions and uncertainty of such an environment create a perfect petri dish for inappropriate workplace behaviour, including bullying.

Wendy and Marilynn had some good suggestions for addressing bullying in the workplace.

What the corporations can do:

  • Create policies and respectful practices
  • Increase awareness through education
  • Educate leaders to identify signs
  • Provide resources for targets, including counseling
  • Investigate complaints in a timely and impartial manner
  • Improve leadership capability and competence

What individuals can do:

  • Be courageous – intervene if a witness
  • Understand what bullying is
  • Understand why people are targets and the impact
  • Listen to the targets
  • Petition for an anti-bullying policy in your workplace

If you are a target:

  • Keep a diary, recording specifics of date, time and events
  • Continue to do your job to the best of your ability
  • Seek support from your Employee Assistance Provider, your manager, or your union.

Though we ran out of time, Wendy and Marilynn provided some links to news articles about bullying cases in Canada and the US. They illustrate the very real impact, and the risks employers take if they do not treat bullying seriously.

Score your workplace health

You can see through the mask to your workplace health by using our Workplace Health Score Card.

A workplace is like an organism. As humans, our health is often affected by the choices we make regarding diet, exercise, stress and generally the way we choose to live our lives. Poor diet, excessive stress, lack of sleep, lack of exercise and destructive behaviours such as alcohol and drug abuse can often lead to poor health. The same can be said of a workplace’s health. Often workplaces exhibit behaviours which are indicative of poor conflict management, leading to unfair decisions, a high turnover rate, and unproductive workplaces.


You can see through the mask to your workplace health by using our Workplace Health Score Card.

At the top end, the Holistic Constructive organization is proactive in the management of workplace conflict. Structural measures, such as an ombuds office, are in place to provide a breadth of options for employees seeking to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Also, all staff are empowered through training and support to help address concerns.

At the bottom end, Active Destructive, behaviours actively discourage constructive and proactive conflict management. Even structures within an organization can prevent employees from seeking support when it is most needed.

Take a moment to complete the scorecard, and let us know what you think!

To learn more about Workplace Health, you may wish to read this article published by the HRIA on the Six Levels of Workplace Health.

A Conflict Experiment

A Conflict Experiment – October 15, 2015
in the +15 between Gulf Canada Square and Bankers Hall
7:30 -10:30 am

Got Workplace Conflict?  You are not the only one.  To mark Conflict Resolution day on October 15th, The Workplace Fairness Institute will host an event in the +15. Stop by our table in Gulf Canada Square on your way to work and take part in our experiment to explore the causes of and solutions to workplace conflict through our highly interactive display.

“I often work between meetings in common areas of the downtown core.  I hear many employee conversations focused on conflict in the workplace and wonder how much time is spent on these issues and the resulting inefficiencies in organizational performance” comments Don Frehlich, an employee in Calgary.

Conflict Resolution Day was started in 2005 by the Association for Conflict Resolution in the United States to raise public awareness of creative and peaceful means of resolving conflict and now groups around the world hold events to mark Conflict Resolution Day.  Conflict Resolution Day is held on the third Thursday in October every year.

Conflict Resolution Day was started in 2005 by the Association for Conflict Resolution in the United States.

Conflict Resolution Day was started in 2005 by the Association for Conflict Resolution in the United States.

The Workplace Fairness Institute (WFI) is a Canadian company focused on affecting organizational culture through collaboration, communication and proactivity in managing conflict. Workplace Fairness recognizes that equity of concern and respect for each employee when managing conflict influences employee engagement, diversity and inclusion, change management, productive working relationships, efficiency and innovation, health and wellness and the organization’s reputation.

Rather than adopting traditional approaches to solving workplace complaints, such as taking disciplinary action or hoping the issue will simply go away, the WFI offers employers and employees a way forward. Their goal is to prevent existing workplace fairness issues from triggering a costly fall out that affects productivity, employee engagement and company culture.  It’s a sentiment echoed by Blaine Donais, President and Founder of WFI: “Businesses can’t afford to let workplace fairness issues create long-standing problems within their organization: the WFI is here to get employers and employees on the same page when it comes to mutual respect, trust and productivity.”

Michelle Phaneuf and Marjorie Munroe of the Workplace Fairiness Institute. Photo Credit Monique de St. Croix.

Michelle Phaneuf and Marjorie Munroe of the Workplace Fairiness Institute. Photo Credit Monique de St. Croix.

Employees without choices will stay silent

The one-size-fits all template for harassment investigations no longer aligns with the growing respect of and desire for self-determination.  Employees would rather stay silent than come forward to be part of an investigation process and the fallout, as we have seen recently at the CBC and in the Houses of Parliament, can be acute.

In both of these highly publicized cases, complainants had few choices. Like many employees, they lack a safe environment and have few choices when it comes to reporting harassment. Is this typical? What resources are employers providing to their staff to help them work through their options when they are feeling victimized? How do current conflict management systems support respondents? Do they have the before, during and after support they need to go back to work if the investigation is unfounded?

10 Best Practices in the Workplace Restoration Process

A workplace harassment investigation can be a traumatic event which affects not only those directly involved, but often causes extensive collateral damage.  A healing process which helps staff feel heard and acknowledged is a very important step for re-establishing or rebuilding workplace norms.

Restoring norms following a harassment investigation is an important step.

Restoring norms following an harassment investigation is an important step.

Following a discussion about the role the of the investigation and the purpose and goals of the Workplace Restoration, participants at a recent Workplace Fairness lunch identified 10 best practices.  Whether an investigation is founded or unfounded these are important steps:

  1. Facilitate, when appropriate, a confidential written agreement between the complainant and the respondent that is separate from performance measures.
  2. Provide regular and ongoing feedback to all staff.
  3. Ensure leadership is visible and committed to “say” and “do” accountability.
  4. Support leadership to share and acknowledge ownership of contributing factors.
  5. Follow up with the team and others affected to develop a plan and strategy with common goals and processes for the group.
  6. Facilitate a safe dialogue to re-establish the norms of respect and dignity by asking questions, creating a common language, and ensure the experience is normalized for all affected.
  7. Provide skill-building support for supervisors and those involved through training and 1-on-1 coaching, focusing on listening skills and “I language”.
  8. Maintain a forward-looking aspect to the restoration process.
  9. Appoint a new neutral facilitator who was not involved in the investigation and ensure impartiality in all follow-up dialogue.
  10. Ensure a restorative and healing process which allows all to be acknowledged for their experiences.

We would love your comments! Do you have anything to add? join the discussion below.

The Amygdala Hijack is bad for business

We are all susceptible to the amygdala hijack. It happened to me the other day when my husband accused me of being overly sensitive.   I have heard that before.  As a child I was overly sensitive, and then I became sensitive about being sensitive.  It wasn’t helpful behaviour for building self-confidence.

I learned the other day from Dr. Donald Mihaloew, a speaker at the ADR conference in Red Deer, that memory (in my case, all those childhood insecurities) is stored in your hippocampus.  Your amygdale (there are 2 of them, one for each side of the brain) decide what to do with the signals that arrive, after some short consultation with the hippocampus. It might look like this:

In conflict it helps to learn to divert your thinking to more positive and future focused ideas.

Your emotions can run away with you.


If there is poor information in your hippocampus, you might receive some poor feedback, and do something impulsive you regret.

But you can do something about it.

        • Suspend your judgment.
        • Normalize the amygdale hijiack – yes, this happens to everyone.
        • Focus on the future and the positive.  Interrupt your train of thought, and change the direction.

I am working on it.